Breaking Down How Kevin Garnett Can Make Brook Lopez an Elite NBA Center

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Breaking Down How Kevin Garnett Can Make Brook Lopez an Elite NBA Center
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Brook Lopez is going to love playing next to Kevin Garnett.

To be fair, who wouldn't?

Notorious for getting under his opponents' skin, Garnett is known as the ultimate teammate. Sure, he'll defend his on-court brethren using his words, but he's also pretty skilled at the game of basketball, in case you haven't noticed.

Unlike most big men, Garnett isn't a post-clogging annoyance when it comes to running with two towers. Think of him as a Pau Gasol with less hair and a loose cannon of a mouth.

To this point, Lopez hasn't had the fortune of starting alongside a floor-spacing behemoth with point guard-like court vision. Past and present front-line partners include Yi Jianlian, Derrick Favors, Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans, among others.

With the exception of Jianlian, Lopez has never spent extensive time next to a versatile giant, prohibiting him from making the jump to an elite center. Injuries and almost a half-decade's worth of collective patch work haven't helped, but the not-so-complementary skill sets the Brooklyn (and New Jersey) Nets put around him have done most of the constricting.

Finally paired up with a protean inside-out partner like Garnett, Lopez is in a position to make the leap the Nets have long been waiting for.

 

The Numbers Problem

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Numerical analysis is only going to tell a small fraction of the story here, but that doesn't make it any less important.

Over the last five years, Lopez has struggled to find success when on the floor with fellow big men. For any number of reasons, he and the power forwards he's played with haven't yielded the kind of results the Nets envisioned.

Below you can see how the team has fared over the years when Lopez has been on the floor with some of the power forwards he has been partnered up with:

Season Player Minutes Played Together Nets Avg Plus/Minus per 100 Poss.
2008-09 Yi Jianlian 989:32 -4.9
2009-10 Yi Jianlian 1,300:47 -8.4
2010-11 Derrick Favors 656:01 -6.5
2010-11 Kris Humphries 1,570:43 -4.7
2011-12* Kris Humphries 71:11 -39.3
2012-13 Kris Humphries 522:36 +1.2
2012-13 Reggie Evans 181:05 +1.8

(*Lopez appeared in just five games during the 2011-12 season.)

Even in a year when they won 49 games, the Nets lacked another Goliath that could effectively increase their point differential while on the court with Lopez. That plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions is the best mark Lopez and Humphries have posted together, which isn't saying much.

Garnett has spent the past couple seasons manning the center spot—he spent 96 percent of his minutes at the 5 slot last season—but some of his best years came at power forward with the Minnesota Timberwolves

Through his first three seasons with the Boston Celtics, he was predominantly used as a power forward, posting a PER of 29.4 at the 4 spot during the 2007-08 season, 23.5 in 2008-09 and 22.2 in 2009-10.

During that three-year span, Garnett routinely logged successful minutes with Kendrick Perkins. Here's a brief look at how he fared next to his skyscraping comrade:

Year Player Minutes Played Together Celtics Avg Plus/Minus per 100 Poss.
2007-08 Kendrick Perkins 1,539:00 +19.2
2008-09 Kendrick Perkins 1,216:14 +13.5
2009-10 Kendrick Perkins 1,593:01 +11.2

No doubt those numbers seem like a distant memory now, but they're a useful barometer for gauging Garnett's potential next to Lopez, who is not as offensively limited as Perkins.

Also, playing as a stretch-5 is basically no different from playing as a stretch-4. The only difference is the matchups on the defensive end. Everything on offense is virtually same. 

The logic is the same. The potential is the same. And, as the Nets hope they'll come to find, the results can be the same too.

 

The Spacing Quandary

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Unlike most of the league's 7-foot Godzillas, Lopez isn't a restricted-area-or-bust-type scorer.

Per HoopData, Brolo connected on a combined 44.5 percent of his shots between 10 and 23 feet. He was even more efficient when shooting within the 10-15 foot range, posting a 51 percent clip there.

As with almost everyone, however, Lopez was most effective when scoring around the basket. Last season, he hit on 56.9 percent of his shot attempts within nine feet of the rim.

Although 66.9 percent of all his shots came with nine feet of the basket, he'll see even more open looks down low with Garnett in the lineup.

Neither Evans nor Humphries is known for range. The latter isn't as offensively inept as the former, but scoring isn't a strength of his, either.

Furthermore, Lopez also won't be tasked with creating off the dribble as much. Standing closer to the basket, he'll either be posting up with his back toward the rim or playing off a well-placed pass from Deron Williams or Garnett himself.

Take the following offensive set that culminates in a made basket:

Lopez catches the ball just inside the arc. Notice where Humphries is standing, closer to the basket than Brolo.

Facing his defender, Lopez begins to take Festus Ezeli off the dribble:

By this point, Humphries has cut over to the weak side, thereby leaving enough room for Lopez to get around Ezeli:

Lopez finishes off the play rather easily, a successful possession by all accounts.

In real time.

Again, the fact that Lopez has the handle necessary to attack the basket from greater distances gives the Nets a huge advantage. What you don't want is him relying on ball control to score too many of his points.

Ideally, the Nets don't want Lopez exerting himself on the offensive end too often. His versatility should be a circumstantial advantage, not habitual.

Exhibit A:

Lopez receives the ball much closer to the hoop, an opportunity he is presented with thanks to Andray Blatche playing out past the free-throw line.

Yet again Lopez takes his man off the dribble and beats him:

The plays ends in an easy two, just like the previous one, but it's also quite different.

In real time.

Well inside the arc this time, Lopez isn't forced to cover as much ground en route to the rim, diminishing the likelihood that he commits a turnover or the ball is poked away. And it's simple spacing that allows him to begin his sets even closer.

On occasion, spacing isn't a predicament. Evans has no range, but Humphries and Blatche have some.

Garnett has more. So much more.

Note how far away Garnett is from the basket in this offensive set against the Indiana Pacers:

A step or two further back, and Garnett will find himself behind the the three-point line. That's huge for any offensive dynamic, because Garnett can actually knock down shots from afar:

He buried 47.9 percent of the shots he attempted between 10 and 23 feet last year, according to HoopData. Evans and Blatche (Humphries is in Boston now) can stand out there all day long, but teams will also give them that shot all day long. 

In real time.

Instead of sending a man out to guard against their mid- to long-range two, they'll double up on Lopez, forcing the two aforementioned players to drill shots they're not accustomed to hitting.

Spatial logjams are all too common on teams that prefer to run with two bigs. Obligated to cater to the needs of two of essentially the same player, offenses are forced to slow down and therefore are not as potent (see the Memphis Grizzlies).

Garnett's 2012-13 shot chart (via NBA.com).

Garnett is one of the few exceptions. Not even Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph have the outside touch he has. Merely by being a threat to score from the free-throw line extended, he allows Lopez to set up closer to the basket (or create more room for him to slash off pick-and-rolls) and take higher-percentage shots.

Star big men tend to feast off those point-blank opportunities, enabling what becomes a perennial All-Star reputation.

Just ask Dwight Howard.

 

An Extra Set of Eyes

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Scoring, rebounding and playing defense aren't all Garnett does; he distributes too.

Lopez has never played with a power forward who can both space the floor and act as an offensive catalyst with the ball. Really, that's no surprise, as players of that kind are a rare breed.

On teams that decide to start two belfries, a pass-savvy forward should be a prerequisite. But it's not (demand greater than supply), leaving Lopez and the Nets ahead of the pack.

And it all starts with double-teams.

Nearly two decades into his career, defenses are still inclined to swarm Garnett when he has the ball. Given his range and keen sense of court vision, they have no choice.

Evans and Blatche (and Humphries) never draw double-teams. They're not the offensive threats Garnett is. Opposing defenses are left to zero in on Brolo, who has the option of passing out of those doubles, but then must defer to an open big who isn't known for knocking down jump shots or moving off the ball.

Garnett not only moves without the ball well, but he leads teammates when he's on it.

I give you Leandro Barbosa:

Upon catching the ball, Garnett is mobbed by two Utah Jazz defenders.

Doubling him means someone else on the Celtics must be open. That "someone" is Barbosa, to whom KG whips a behind-the-back bullet:

By the time Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter recover, Barbosa is already attempting a layup:

The shot goes in, because, well, those easy looks tend to do just that.

In real time.

In Brooklyn, it can be Lopez who learns to hone his off-ball movements. It will be him capitalizing off these threading-the-needle passes.

Boston rarely fielded two bigs, so it would be the smaller guys who would know to hover around the basket when Garnett had possession. Now it will be up to Lopez finish those gimmes, the same ones that help bolster resumes and redefine careers.

I'd tell you to look at Superman again, but you get the point by now.

 

He's Kevin Garnett...Duh

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Most times, I hate to play the mentor card. This isn't one of those times.

Garnett is already sold on Lopez as an elite center. He left nothing to chance when speaking with Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

He’s very strong, has a lot of skill has range. A lot of bigs who are methodical, back-to-the-basket bigs that have the strength or not, don’t have the range that he has,” Garnett said. “Up to 17 feet he can shoot the ball, has a nice touch around the rim. Playing against him, he’s always been competitive and skillful.

Garnett is going to embrace playing alongside Lopez. And as Garnett guides him toward being a better defender (maybe even rebounder) and fuels the improvement of his already strong offensive game, Lopez will wear the appreciation on his chest like an article of clothing.

Will Lopez be better or worse for having played next to Garnett?

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Next to him, Lopez stands to become an even more efficient scorer, better passer (spacing) and cognisant defender. He'll become a better everything.

Stats won't be able to measure how profound an impact Garnett ultimately has on Lopez. But it will show. In the way Lopez carries himself and Brooklyn's final record, it will show. In the future All-Star selections and garnered praise, it will show. Now, alongside Garnett, and later, long after Garnett has moved on, it will just show.

 


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