How Will Brooklyn Nets Adjust to Brook Lopez's Return Next Season?

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How Will Brooklyn Nets Adjust to Brook Lopez's Return Next Season?
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets have Brook Lopez back...for now.

The oft-hurt center played in only 17 games last season after yet another foot injury. Now, coming off foot and ankle surgery, Lopez will return for his seventh NBA season, this time under new Nets coach Lionel Hollins

The man who is arguably the most skilled offensive center in the league was in the midst of another tremendous scoring year when his season came to a halt, averaging 23.8 points per 36 minutes with a would-be-career-high 62.9 percent true shooting at the time of the injury.

There's a reason Lopez has been an All-Star. There aren't many bigs out there who can score with the array of moves he possesses in the low post.

Lopez does have his weaknesses, though, and with his return, the Nets will have to make some adjustments from last year's strategies. 

 

Going Big

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After Lopez went down last season, the Nets were forced to go to small ball. That meant plenty of Paul Pierce at the 4 with Kevin Garnett or Mason Plumlee at center. But clearly, that's no longer an option.

Pierce's departure for the Washington Wizards now makes going small tougher, and another year for Garnett won't help his effectiveness or stamina. On top of that, there's a new coach in town, which means a new philosophy will be on the way in with him.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Hollins is used to playing with two conventional big men. In Memphis, he helped turn Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph into the NBA's premier big-man combination. So Hollins is comfortable keeping away from going small.

That said, playing Randolph and Gasol was the only way to succeed in Memphis; there weren't other options on the table. Those lineup decisions don't necessarily mean that Hollins is averse to small ball in general, even if he is a student of an old-school brand of basketball.

Still, where are the personnel to go small if Brooklyn wants to do it?

The Nets never really replaced Pierce, and getting the 24-year-old, second-year Plumlee as many minutes as possible has to be a priority after an initial NBA season that ended with a 19.0 player efficiency rating and an appearance on the All-Rookie First Team.

Would it be all that shocking to see Plumlee play some power forward next to Lopez—even with the detrimental spacing issues such a pairing would cause—if only for the defensive potential?

With Lopez back, it gives the Nets incentive to go big more often, and as long as he stays in the lineup, that's likely what they'll do.

 

Postups

Danny Johnston/Associated Press

Lopez loves his postups. That's how he gets his points.

The former All-Star averaged a 1.16 points per postup play before his injury last season, a figure that would've ranked him No. 1 among NBA centers if carried out over a full season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). His 0.94 points per postup play in 2012-13, when he was healthy for the full season, ranked second among centers, barely behind Gasol, who just so happened to be playing for Hollins at the time. 

Lopez, though, has acknowledged that his game may need to change. He told Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News as much back in May.

"Um, I think so," Lopez said about the prospect of changing his style. "I really haven't gotten to try that much, obviously. But you know, I'm sure there would be some adjustments to be made."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

This, of course, was before the Nets hired Hollins. But still, Lopez extrapolated on last year's Nets offense, which had lots of isolation on the perimeter.

"It was pretty up and down," he explained. "I think I'd have to get back to running the floor. But I think, like I said, there would be adjustments to be made. I don't think I can sit here and say what I'd be doing."

Part of why Lopez couldn't say that was because he didn't know exactly who would be coaching his team. Now, Hollins will enter his first season in Brooklyn, and just like Lopez, the former Grizzlies coach loves himself some postups. 

Even though it seemed like Memphis didn't run its offensive out of the high post as much as it could—maybe should—have considering Gasol's passing ability, the Grizzlies still posted up often with Gasol and Z-Bo, and as seen above, they did so quite effectively. 

The Grizzlies posted up the fourth most of any team in the league during the 2012-13 season, Hollins' final one in Memphis, per Synergy. Though the Nets went to the post plenty last year, lots of that was from guards like Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston backing down smaller guards. The bigs weren't turning their behinds to the basket all that much.

In 2014-15, with Hollins coming in and Lopez walking through the door, that may change.

 

Rebounding

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As skilled as Lopez is offensively, parts of his game have as many holes as a Louis Sachar novel. That all starts with rebounding.

Averaging just 6.9 rebounds per 36 minutes since 2010-11, Lopez has actually become one of the NBA's worst statistical rebounding centers. If you're looking for a source on the fundamentals of Lopez's rebounding flaws, Dylan Murphy summed them up beautifully on HoopChalk last year.

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Lopez is a negative rebounder. That means he boxes guys out and then goes to get the ball, as opposed to a positive rebounder, typically a more athletic prototype who jumps over players to snag the ball on the glass.

As Murphy writes, Lopez does actually have some skills in that sense.

He blocks guys out often. He just doesn't have the explosion. Because of that, he'll occasionally set up his teammates for easy boards by boxing out guys on the inside, coincidentally similar to what makes Brook's brother, Robin, so effective on the boards for the Portland Trail Blazers.

That theory gets backed up when you consider that the Nets have actually rebounded better with Lopez on the floor over the past couple seasons, though the the stats from last year are somewhat skewed considering the Nets went small for much of the year without their center. But the 7-footer still has major flaws on the glass.

He'll often miss opponents crashing the offensive boards from the perimeter, allowing better athletes to fly toward the paint and grab the rock. He'll also struggle to explode upward for rebounds. If he doesn't have the track on a box out, he's probably not getting the ball without some help.

Lopez brings plenty to Brooklyn, especially on the offensive end. But when he's there, you have to wonder if the Nets' rebounding would be better off with almost any other 7-footer. Fortunately, they have quality fundamental rebounders to place next to Lopez in Plumlee and KG.

 

Defense

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Lopez has improved as a defender over the past couple seasons, but that doesn't mean he's become the ideal anchor to embed in the middle of a defense.

In 2012-13, Lopez actually became one of the NBA's better shot blockers. 

His 2.1 blocks per game ranked seventh in the league. His 5.2 percent block rate was also seventh. But that doesn't necessarily mean his defense put him at the top of the line.

Lopez still has trouble as a pick-and-roll defender. For the same reason he struggles to leap over guys on the boards, he doesn't always contain when stretching away from the basket. 

Lopez's skill comes in his coordination and touch, but he doesn't exactly have the foot speed to match it. For instance, he's created a habit of straying too far from the basket on pick-and-rolls, leaving ample space for the screener to dart through as he makes his way to the hoop. And Lopez isn't fast enough to recover when he does that.

Because of those issues, he occasionally overcompensates, sagging too far back this time and giving up open shots. This is especially problematic when the screener is someone capable of popping and draining open, mid-range jumpers with consistency. 

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The Nets defense isn't exactly superb with Lopez on the floor because of that. A defense can't reach elite levels if its anchor is forcing others to help on his mistakes so often.

When the Nets went small last year, it allowed them more foot speed on the inside. That made it easier for them to drive dribblers to where they wanted, namely to the outside of the court.

Lopez, though, struggles with such opposition displacement, including when he downs the pick-and-roll, a strategy Hollins will likely use to push pick-and-roll ball-handlers to the out-of-bounds line. Because of that—and KG's age—we may end up seeing Andrei Kirilenko, still a top-notch help defender, at the 3 and 4 more than we did under Jason Kidd's regime. 

If Hollins wants to stay big, that's where Plumlee playing the 4 could come in handy. Though it wasn't particularly common, Plumlee did see some time as a power forward last year, and slotting him next to Lopez could make up for some of the quickness and energy that lacks when Lopez defends, though—as mentioned before—there could be some serious problems on the interior offensively, considering neither guy strays from the paint.

Mainly, if the Nets are going to go big with Lopez, they need to find some defensive quickness from other areas.

Lopez isn't a point stopper. Even with potential improvements under Hollins' defensive-minded coaching philosophies, he probably won't ever enter that realm. But his offensive game gives him a skill in the low post only a big man like Al Jefferson can match. At least the Nets will be able to rely on that.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of August 11 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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