Is Brook Lopez the best center in the NBA?

Brook Lopez; Paul Millsap

Brook Lopez is the antithesis to what we believe a superstar should be. He doesn’t look at the game of basketball as life and death. His waking moments don’t revolve around watching Synergy or NBA League Pass. He readily admits that he doesn’t watch a lot of basketball when he’s not working or scouting opponents. You wouldn’t accuse him of having a “killer instinct.” He’s a walking paradox: an awkward, technically sound, brilliant offensive talent, who sometimes seems like he has a passing interest in basketball to fund his comic book collection. He’s a better writer than a leaper, and smarter than he lets on with his goofy public persona.

Lopez earned his first trip to the All-Star Game this season as a replacement after an injury kept Rajon Rondo out, and now with the season winding down, there’s another award in his sights: a first-team All-NBA selection. The award is voted on by sportswriters and broadcasters (though for some reason they haven’t given a vote to stupid Brooklyn Nets fans who started blogging because they couldn’t sleep and felt like watching John Wall highlights when I was in college), and Lopez has a shot for a few reasons. Writers may feel anathema voting for Dwight Howard given his off-court issues and team struggles. They may feel that Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan aren’t “true” centers, an admittedly silly distinction.

But he’s also got a shot for the most important reason: because he deserves it.

Everything that Brook Lopez could have reasonably improved on this season, he’s done. He leads NBA centers in scoring while doing so at the most efficient rate of his career. His rebound rate of 13.5% is the highest it’s been since his second year in the league, and that’s while playing most of his minutes with Reggie Evans, a player rebounding the ball at a historic rate. (For the record: Lopez’s rebound rate with Evans out of the game is 14.6%, according to His defense, while far from perfect and dipping in effectiveness as the season wears on, has still improved to “good enough” status. He’s blocking shots at the best clip of his career while turning the ball over less. According to Synergy Sports Technology, only four players in the NBA have scored more points per possession while using more plays than Lopez: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Tony Parker. (Side note: that looks like a pretty solid All-NBA team, no?)

Lopez’s biggest improvement has arguably come in the area of the game he was already great at — finding little spaces in the defense to get quick, easy baskets. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Lopez has scored 348 points on plays classified as “cuts” — far and away the best in the NBA despite missing seven games. No other player has more than 274 points off cuts. Despite their lack of pick-and-roll success together, this points to the off-ball chemistry Lopez and Williams have developed — 183 of Lopez’s baskets this season have been assisted on by Williams, by far the most of any teammate, and a high percentage of those assists have come on those quick cuts to the basket.

Lopez leads all centers in the league in PER (unless you consider Tim Duncan a center, which is fair, and the difference between the two is miniscule) and estimated wins added. He’s the only player in the league other than Carmelo Anthony to have a usage rate over 28% and a turnover rate under 10% — meaning that when he’s on the floor, he’s responsible for over 28% of his team’s offense, and his possessions end in turnovers fewer than 10% of the time. He’s shooting a career-best in the restricted area as well as from 10-15 feet, according to HoopData. Most importantly, he’s got the most amazing face in the NBA (sorry, Robin).

Whatever you credit — whether it be Popeye Jones’s tutelage, the 15 added pounds of muscle, a newfound commitment to improving his offensive game, or his aloofness towards basketball — the numbers don’t lie: Brook Lopez is in the midst of the best season of his career. Even with the Nets’ commitment to the “Brooklyn Backcourt,” Lopez has been the team’s steadiest player, carrying the offensive load when Williams & Joe Johnson struggled.

When the Nets took Lopez 10th in the 2008 NBA draft, this was the player Rod Thorn imagined: an automatic scorer that can feast on lesser players that wasn’t a complete liability on defense. As the Brooklyn Nets cruise to their first postseason appearance in five years, their first winning record in six, and possibly their first winning record on the road ever, their success starts with the enormous man in the middle.

Now let’s watch him dunk on his twin brother again.