Brook Lopez's defense may not be stellar, but it looks night and day from two years ago.
Do you see the difference between this picture...
Other than the jersey colors, the first picture (courtesy of Grantland's Zach Lowe) is an indicator of how Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez played pick-and-roll coverages these past two years. When a guard zoomed around a screen, Lopez stayed back on his heels, waiting for the ballhandler to figure out how he would beat Lopez this time. The rest -- which, as you can probably tell, come from the Nets-Toronto Raptors opening night -- are Lopez's new positionings in those same sets.
Opening night at the Barclays Center was an opportunity for lots of new things, but perhaps nothing was more new than Brook Lopez's defensive efforts. From early on, it seems that Coach Avery Johnson has built this defense by shrouding Lopez's weaknesses, with heavy rotation & recoveries away from the ball when Lopez's lack of speed puts him in a bind. Here's how the system worked on Saturday night.
Brook Lopez relied often in game one on his big men compatriots to direct him. That's good -- an open line of communication is necessary for a successful defense -- but its success rate varied throughout the game.
In this first video, you'll see the good: After a screen switches Lopez onto Andrea Bargnani, Humphries successfully communicates to Lopez that he's regained control of the defensive switch and sends him to cover the lane. Lopez then cuts off Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who thought he had an open lane to the basket, and forces him into an ill-advised three-pointer. Though Lopez was not exactly in the finest of defensive stances, he was able to read the switch quickly and shut away two easy points. See below:
This communication didn't always work, however. On this play, the Nets are faced with a similar issue: Humphries ran alongside Lopez's right side, giving him a clearer path to guard Raptors center Amir Johnson. Humphries gestures to Lopez to rotate over to Bargnani, but Lopez doesn't respond accordingly, and thus the Nets gift Bargnani a wide-open three-pointer. See below:
Pick-and-rolls: the bad
First and foremost, it must be noted that Brook Lopez's effort has improved by leaps and bounds already. However, with newfound effort comes newfound problems. When Lopez hedges out this far on pick-and-rolls, he throws his weight too quickly out towards the ballhandler, so much so that he loses balance sliding forward or pauses, leaving a split-second where he needs to recover. If the rotations around him are not anticipating the pause, those seconds can turn into points:
In each of the four clips, you see a recurring theme: Brook Lopez darts out to stop the ballhandler, loses control of his body for just a split second, and that extra time gives the opponents opportunities. It may be hardest to see in the second clip, but Lopez briefly stutter-steps before opening up his body, losing time to recover as Watson fought around the screen. (It was also a perfectly executed play by the Raptors.) The first two clips and the final end in points. Though the same issues were present in the third clip (starting around :20), the Raptors mercifully used a few delightful minutes of Aaron Gray, he of a career 3.7 points per game average, and thus the open man at the rim was of little concern.
There is also the worry that Lopez, who has assuredly heard defensive concepts beaten through his head by Coach Johnson continuously, may feel as though he can run through the motions without thinking. In the clip below, Lopez, who's defending Gray (the man with the ball), casually steps out as Jose Calderon runs around him, without making any further concerted effort to stop the shot. Calderon actually pulls up for the open jumper with Lopez's back to him:
The defense isn't perfect, and none of us should expect that. It's going to break down sometimes. For the Nets to succeed defensively, Lopez will need to control some of those breakdowns: notably switching directions on a dime more consistently, and mindfully putting himself into the play.
This isn't to say that Brook Lopez was a defensive dud opening night. It's clear that he and the crew understand the system to some degree, even with some executional issues. A defensive string is in place unlike one we'd seen in the past two seasons, and that was evident on Saturday.
Watch Lopez closely in these first two clips. What you see is pretty standard pick-and-roll hedge defense: cut off the ballhandler, prevent him from driving into the lane, and recover. This may seem bread-and-butter, but it hasn't been for Lopez.
The most encouraging play came late in the fourth quarter. When you'd expect Lopez to be feeling fatigue, he hedged strongly on a pick-and-roll, kept a low, wide defensive stance to cut off Kyle Lowry, led him into a double-team, and forced a key turnover. See below:
Brook Lopez has a lot of defensive weaknesses. The athletic ones likely aren't fixable. But the system is in place, and though it's not functioning at 100%, it's undoubtedly developing rather than regressing. With more work to be done and communication to hammer out, I'm hopeful that improvement continues as the year progresses.