Brooklyn’s Passing Problem Is Brook Lopez


It was nothing short of surreal. Quiet, reserved, mild-mannered Joe Johnson, who’s so boring that even his name is just Joe Johnson, eviscerated his team with a low rumble Tuesday afternoon, outraged at the team’s “selfishness” through the first six games of the season. (You can read his comments in full here.)

But: is he right? And, who is he talking about?

Johnson went out of his way to simultaneously criticize his team as a whole and not mention any names. It was a general assessment, he wasn’t interested in finger-pointing.

But a team isn’t an amorphous blob of ball movement: it’s made up of 15 guys contractually obligated to play some modicum of basketball, and only nine that get real minutes.

Johnson himself said “I don’t know guys’ mindsets” when asked about why selfishness was a problem, and like him, I’m not going to pretend I know what’s going on in his head. For all I know, he could be talking about Jorge Gutierrez.

But Johnson’s intentions aside, a look at the numbers and the game film paint a strong picture: if there is a player on this team not passing enough, it’s Brook Lopez.

The Nets on the outset don’t seem to have too many passing issues. They’re in the middle of the pack in assists per 48 minutes, and though they’re on the lower end of the NBA in team passes per game, that’s partially deflated by their slow pace.

But Lopez has recorded just one assist (to Mirza Teletovic) and one secondary assist through four games. Worse, according to SportVU data provided exclusively to The Brooklyn Game, Lopez has touched the ball 88 times in the frontcourt, and only passed 29 (29!) times. Only Nikola Pekovic & Andre Drummond have a worse ratio of passes to touches in the frontcourt.

That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing: if a big man’s open at the basket for a dunk and he gets the ball, there’s no reason for him to pass it out. But only 18 of Lopez’s 88 touches have started within 12 feet of the basket, and most of his looks have come at the elbows or in post-up position. This heat map provided to The Brooklyn Game shows how most of Lopez’s initial touches have come away from the basket:

Brook Lopez Touch Chart
Credit NBA

It’s one thing if Lopez’s passless possessions looked like this:

But Lopez just isn’t getting those easy shots right now, and he’s forcing the ones he doesn’t get.

Remember, Johnson said this: “Offensively, I just think guys kind of exhaust their options and then when there’s nothing else for them, then they’ll pass it when they have to.” Even if he’s not talking about Brook Lopez, the profile fits. (Let’s also not forget that Johnson said it wasn’t like this in preseason — when Lopez mostly sat out with a mild right midfoot sprain.)

There is room for optimism. The Nets are 4-2 and run the third-best offense in the league in the early season. There have been possessions where the ball bops from one man to another with great success, and it’s the reason why Deron Williams is far and away the league leader in secondary assists (or “hockey assists”) per game. Lopez is still adjusting to the speed of the NBA game after taking nearly a full calendar year between games, and it’s early enough in the year that he’s a few made hook shots away from shooting 58 percent instead of 48 percent.

But the Nets could — and maybe should — be 6-0, after facing six straight underwhelming teams to open the season. Johnson’s comments about their win against the Orlando Magic were particularly salient: their effort in the win looked similar to their loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves, they just happened to win the second one.

Another cursory look might suggest that Johnson is an odd duck to quack: he’s taken the most shots on the team, and his ignominious “Iso-Joe” nickname suggests a player who doesn’t pass enough.

But shots don’t equal selfishness, and a deeper look into the game film and the numbers suggest that Johnson’s one of the team’s most unselfish players. Despite his reputation, Johnson is an underrated passer: he doesn’t have any issues finding seams in defenses, and his keen sense of timing and space allows him to dish out 4.2 assists per 36 minutes, better than even backup point guard Jarrett Jack.

To illustrate efficient passing, I put together a quick metric called “Productive Passing Percentage,” which tracks what percentage of a player’s frontcourt touches end in either an assist, a secondary (“hockey”) assist, or pass that leads to a teammate drawing a shooting foul. Despite leading the team in scoring and shooting, Johnson trails only Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett by this metric:

You’ll also notice who’s last on this list among the rotation players: Brook Lopez.

Johnson may not be talking about anyone in particular. Maybe he’s mad at everyone on his team, maybe he’s mad at himself, maybe he’s mad at Lopez. But he’s still got the feeling. You can prove some things wrong with hard evidence, but if Joe Johnson feels like his team isn’t passing the ball enough and backs it up with game film, not much will change his mind. Saying the Nets pass 280 times per game is empirical; actually performing a successful offense with the right passes to the right players is more theoretical.

Johnson’s argument basically boils down to: they’ve got the third-best offense in the league, but given their level of competition, shouldn’t they be better?

Their three-game road trip ahead — with games in Phoenix, Golden State, and Portland, the three best teams they’ve faced in this young season — should answer that question.