If you look at which players have the best odds to win Defensive Player of the Year, you have to scroll quite a bit to find Brook Lopez's name.
Following the All-Star break, DraftKings had Anthony Davis as the leading candidate for the award. Following him: Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons. In total, nine players had better odds to be named Defensive Player of the Year than Milwaukee's starting centre.
So why is this even a discussion? Because Lopez isn't getting the attention he deserves.
It's crazy to think Lopez is even in the conversation to begin given what his reputation was earlier in his career. He's always been a massive presence on the court, but the New Jersey Nets, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers weren't able to build schemes around him that got the most out of his strengths and covered up his weaknesses, his strengths being that he's a 7-footer with a towering standing reach, his weaknesses being that he's not the fleetest of foot.
The Bucks, on the other hand, have.
Since taking over as head coach of the Bucks, Mike Budenholzer has built a historically dominant defence around a rather simple focus - keep opponents out of the paint. The way they do it? Drop Lopez to the basket, basically living with teams either shooting deep 2s or pull-up 3s. That leaves them susceptible to the occasional hot shooting night - their Christmas Day loss to the Philadelphia 76ers being a perfect example of what it takes for teams to beat them - but the Bucks are banking on teams not being able to do it four times in a seven game series.
Aside from their loss to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, in which Fred VanVleet went from shooting like Andre Roberson to Stephen Curry halfway through the series, it's hard to argue with that train of thought. The Bucks had the No. 1 ranked defence in the league last season and they've been even stingier this season, giving up only 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
In addition to it once again ranking them at the top of the league, it's the best defensive rating the league has seen since the San Antonio Spurs in 2015-16. When you account for today's era of more efficient scoring across the board, the Bucks have one of the best defensive units of all-time, as spelled out by FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring.
Lopez has played a huge role in Milwaukee's success on that end of the court. According to NBA.com, he has contested the fifth-most shots around the basket in the league this season, trailing only Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Nikola Jokic and Andre Drummond. He's holding opponents to 44.1 percent shooting from that distance, which is better than all but two players in the league who have contested at least 50 shots around the rim, a group made up of 358 players.
Those two players: Antetokounmpo and Lopez's brother, Robin Lopez, who also plays for the Bucks.
The difference with Brook Lopez is he's contested almost as many shots around the basket (456) than Antetokounmpo and Robin Lopez combined (459). Antetokounmpo spends far more of his time defending the perimeter - something that aids his Defensive Player of the Year case - while Robin Lopez plays almost half the amount of minutes per game than his brother.
When you take that into account, plus the 2.4 blocks he's currently averaging, Lopez has been the most effective rim protector in the league this season.
|Player||Blocks Per Game||Defended Field Goal Attempts||Defended FG%|
What's most impressive about Lopez is his ability to contest and alter the amount of shots he does without fouling. On the season, Lopez is averaging only 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes. It might sound trivial, but it's a big part of what makes this Bucks team so difficult to score against because teams have as hard of a time getting to the foul line as they do getting to the basket - the Bucks are giving up only 20.6 free throw attempts per game on the season, which is the fifth-lowest rate in the league.
Lopez talked about how that's been a point of emphasis for the Bucks this season following Milwaukee's recent win over Charlotte, a game in which they held the Hornets to 85 points on 35.4 percent shooting from the field and limited them to 10 free throw attempts.
"I think we all just try to do a good job contesting, getting vertical and not necessarily making contact, like you said block the shot, but just try to change or alter it any way we can," Lopez said.
"Coach always preaches being careful about fouling and being careful about fouling. I don't know if it's something you want to think about in the moment - you obviously want to get the best contest - but at the same time I think guys like Robin and Giannis and our bigs are very skilled at getting that great contest without fouling."
The second contest on P.J. Washington is the one to focus on. As soon as Washington goes airborne, notice how Lopez jumps straight up in the air with his arms raised as high as possible. (That towering standing reach I mentioned before? 9-foot-5, per Draft Express). It allows him to absorb the contact from Washington before bringing his right arm down to block his shot out of bounds, all without fouling.
Lopez does that a lot. He's mastered the art of how to contest shots without fouling, which is an important skill for any centre in today's NBA, particularly ones who don't have the foot speed to guard multiple positions like Davis or Bam Adebayo, both of whom are power forward/centres who made our Defensive Player of the Year ballot due to their versatility.
That has a tremendous impact on how the rest of the players on the Bucks play defence. Knowing Lopez is in position to protect the basket gives the Milwaukee's guards the freedom to fight like hell over screens and aggressively close out, sometimes resulting in them blocking jump shots.
"It's very rare, but it's something that we emphasize," George Hill told Jordan Greer of Sporting News. "We know right now we should have the Defensive Player of the Year in Brook back there blocking shots. We have another (NBA All-Defensive) First Team big man in Giannis on the defensive end, so our job is just to do the best we can without getting screened, contest shots.
"Normally guards are scared to go in and go draw layups versus our bigs because Brook does so well protecting the rim and things like that. We know that they normally shoot a lot of pull-ups, and it's just trying to get late contests."
Strengthening Lopez's case is the advanced stats point to him being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, not just some of the traditional ones. ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which estimates a player's on-court impact on team defensive performance, has him behind only six players, those players being Gobert, Patrick Beverley, Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Adebayo and Ivica Zubac.
Lopez also ranks fourth in Defensive Win Shares on the season, trailing only Antetokounmpo, Davis and Gobert, as well as fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus behind Antetokounmpo, Kris Dunn and Donte DiVincenzo.
So that's the case. But can he actually win it?
It's going to be hard considering he's teammates with Antetokounmpo, who might just be the best all-around defender in the league right now. More often than not, "best defender on the best defensive team in the league" is a strong enough case to win the award, whereas "second-best player on the best defensive team in the league" isn't.
Even so, I do think Lopez deserves to be recognized for how dominant he's been defensively this season, to the point where I don't think there's much of a debate that he should be a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year alongside Antetokounmpo and whoever finishes second or third in voting, whether it's Davis, Gobert, Simmons or someone else.
Ultimately, Antetokounmpo being the defender he is shouldn't take away from how important Lopez has been to the Bucks building one of the best defences the league has ever seen.
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