The number of the day is 7. 7 represents how many points the Brooklyn Nets lost by in game 1, a 99-92 defeat in Atlanta. 7 also represents how many shots Brook Lopez took in game 1, converting on 6 of them. That figure ties Lopez’s fewest number of shots since January 1, with the exception of a January 22 drubbing at the hands of the Clippers (a 39 point loss where minutes were limited).
Naturally, with two days off between games 1 and 2, Lopez’s shot total has spurred much criticism and discussion. Isiah Thomas and Rick Fox have been critical of the Nets’ guards for failing to deliver Lopez the ball. Stefan Bondy has discussed the issue in the Daily News as well.
The theme has been clear: get Lopez more involved.
The problem? While Lopez does need to shoot more, simply forcing the ball into him as a means to that end is a mistake, and if the Nets do that, it will be their undoing on Wednesday.
Imagine NBA offense as a game of Chess: suppose the offense is going first, with the opponent defending and going second. At the beginning of the game, the pieces are in place. There is no route to the King, Queen, Rooks, or even the Bishops and Knights. So you make a move, and then your opponent gets to go. Then, you try to accomplish your goal: open up the King to attack. You begin taking your opponent’s pieces. The more you take, the less they have to defend the King and their better pieces with. Suddenly, the board becomes more open. Time passes, and now, you are able to make moves that cause your opponent to pick his poison. If he moves his Knight, you take his Rook; if he does not, you take his other Rook. Eventually, your opponent is scrambling aimlessly, until you place him in Check Mate.
Such is the goal of an NBA offense. An NBA defense is set, ready to counter the offense of the opposing team. It is the offense’s goal to, like chess pieces, maneuver those pieces, make them move, stretch them out, and create creases that were not there at the start of the possession. Then, the offensive players can score by taking advantage of those creases.
The best offenses are the ones that are best at developing those creases, and the easiest way to develop them is the dribble drive. That is where, again, Deron Williams comes into play. Certainly, he does not do this all the time, which is a combination of a problem, concern, and a source of confusion and annoyance. But Deron is the Nets best piece at creating creases in defenses. In the games where he creates them, Brooklyn has been at his best: they need to be at their best against a 60-22 win team.
Brook is at his best when attempting to score in the pick and roll, or when attempting to score off a cut to the basket. The reason: when Deron gets to the basket, or occasionally when Joe does, teams must commit a second defender, or potentially a third defender. Rotations fall into disarray, and Lopez, an extremely skilled big man with adept touch, is excellent at cutting into the creases dribble penetration creates, and finishing the shots created by those creases, over still recovering and rotating defenders.
Brook, instead, isolating and attempting to create his own look through a post up or isolation? The defender is now in a much better position to stop Brook, and Brook is in a worse position relative to his ability to score.
Looking at the data (taken from NBA.com/stats), the Nets scored 1.08 points pers possession this season when Brook was the roll man in pick and rolls, and 1.32 points per possession with Brook as a cutter to the basket. Those numbers dip to .95 points per possession when Brook posts up, and .84 points per possession when he isolates.
Perspective? According to Nylon Calculus, the Clippers led the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring 1.138 points per possession, and the Sixers finished last with .965 points per possession. The Grizzlies sat 15th (in the middle) at 1.064 points per possession.
Translation? When Brook is a cutter to the basket, the Nets’ offense is extremely effective (albeit this metric is skewed by cuts to the hoop that bred uncontested baskets). When Brook is used in the pick and roll, the Nets offense is 11th in the league. Post ups and isolations? The Nets play like a doormat on those possessions: that is not a surprise because post ups are efficient league wide.
So, yes, Lopez needs more possessions for the Nets to grab a win in game 2. He is the team’s best player, and his involvement offensively must be a priority.
However, the Nets should be cautious of responding to his lack of touches by saying, “hey Brook, here’s the ball, take Horford (or Antic, or whoever) off the dribble use your body and get us buckets.” Over the long haul, that is inefficient. What Brooklyn should do is get Brook reinvolved as a roll man in the pick and roll, with the occasional pop as it is called for. That is when Brook is at his best, and also when the Nets are at theirs.
After all, look at the chessboard. When Brook posts up over a good defender, the defense has not moved. Help is on the ready, taking away a sound drive. The look is contested. Teammates are watching rather than working off the ball. When Brook is found as a cutter and screener on the move, due to a probing Deron Williams? The defense is chasing Deron. The big man is made to choose: do I stick tight to Brook or help on Deron? Perimeter defenders have to choose: do I help down low and leave shooters open (Deron, Joe, Alan Anderson, Thaddeus Young, Joe Johnson, and Bojan Bodjanovic all shoot 36-42% on catch and shoot threes) or stay home and hope a center, having just caught and swooping to the hoop, is going to fail to convert inside. Mike Prada of SB Nation did an excellent feature on this.
So when the Nets play the Hawks on Wednesday, yes, Brook Lopez needs to be involved much more offensively. However, the numbers show that forcing that involvement through isolations and force fed post ups is a mistake. Such forcing, into ready defenders and stretched arms, also leads to needless turnovers.
The real key? The Nets need Deron to be more aggressive, and create creases off the dribble.
Once he does that (as he did to close the season: which surprise, surprise, coincided with Brook’s best stretch of play), the Nets can unleash Lopez upon the Hawks as they hoped to do in game 1.