NBA

Deep Impact: The NBA’s Best Team and the Big Man Who Loves Shooting Long Threes

Among the NBA players this season who have dared to launch the most long 3-pointers are Stephen Curry, James Harden and someone with the proper reaction to the sound of his name in the same breath as Curry and Harden’s.

“That’s hilarious,” says Brook Lopez.

There are many reasons that no less an authority on Brook Lopez than Brook Lopez himself believes the number of deep 3-pointers he’s attempted is odd. His height: 7 feet. His position: Milwaukee Bucks center. His total number of threes in his first six NBA seasons combined: zero.

But he began to reinvent himself two years ago, and what happened next would alter the course of his basketball career. Lopez suddenly increased his 3-point attempts by 5100% in one season alone. So much has changed since then that Lopez is not just shooting 3-pointers.

Now he’s shooting long 3-pointers.

Lopez treats the line 23 feet and 8 inches away from the basket like a suggestion. Instead he’s taken a staggering number of shots from 27 to 30 feet—nearly an entire Brook Lopez behind the arc.

Lopez shoots more deep threes by himself than 21 entire teams, and his shooting percentage several feet behind the line is still a highly efficient 37.9%, according to the team’s data. He’s reached an unlikely stage of his basketball transformation where long threes account for 28% of his shots. That proportion is higher than Curry and Harden’s. It’s also the highest in the NBA.

This is not how basketball metamorphosis is supposed to work. Lopez is like a caterpillar who turned into a butterfly. And then became a hippopotamus.

“I’m just trying to do my job,” Lopez said, “and make that floor as big as possible.”

Lopez is the personification of basketball’s great migration. His job in today’s NBA is not what it used to be, and he’s made himself a useful player in basketball’s modern era by turning himself into a human yoga mat. He exists to stretch the offense.

By positioning himself far behind the 3-point line, he drags a defender with him and creates room for Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. LeBron James needs shooters. Antetokounmpo needs spacers. And so the Bucks maximize Antetokounmpo’s singular talents with complementary players who fit perfectly around him.

There is no doubt that it’s working. With the NBA All-Star Game break this weekend, it’s time to acknowledge the Bucks for what they are: the best team in the league this season. They have the best record, by far the best scoring margin and one of the best players. But they also have crucial role players, and it’s Lopez who explains their success as much as anybody else.

He represents the market inefficiency the Bucks are built to exploit: the ability to shoot deep 3-pointers.

Brook Lopez informs the world how many points a 3-pointer is worth.

Brook Lopez informs the world how many points a 3-pointer is worth.


Photo:

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

The NBA is smack in the middle of a 3-point revolution that has turned just about everybody on earth into a shooter. But even now there aren’t many players audacious enough to treat the line as if it were an electric fence. These deep shooters are increasingly valuable. In some cases, they’re also surprisingly affordable.

The Bucks have a name for players who don’t think twice about launching 3-pointers from 30 feet. They call them 4-point shooters.

It’s not a coincidence there is a cluster of 4-point shooters in Milwaukee. The Bucks studied long 3-point shooting from above the break in the arc, and they came to believe it could be a competitive advantage in tandem with the one they already had in Antetokounmpo.

They targeted Lopez in free agency after looking at his 32.5% hit rate on deep threes and seeing a player who probably should be shooting more of them. They were right. Lopez has proven to be a tremendous bargain for someone making less money than most players in the league.

Brook Lopez spaces and shoots for Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Brook Lopez spaces and shoots for Giannis Antetokounmpo.


Photo:

isaiah j. downing/Reuters

They were so pleased with their 4-point shooter they traded for a second one last week. As the arms race atop the Eastern Conference escalated, the Bucks loaded up by making a deal for Nikola Mirotic, another big man fond of breaking the mold of big men.

Lopez and Mirotic are essential pieces of the system that coach Mike Budenholzer installed around the peculiar skills of their MVP candidate. The importance of creating as much space as possible for Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe is so embedded in Milwaukee’s identity that it’s now part of their court. There are actual painted boxes around the 3-point line in their practice facility nudging Lopez and the Bucks toward the corners and the hash marks far, far behind the line. “It’s a destination,” said Bucks general manager Jon Horst. “When he runs the floor, he gets to one of those spots, and he’s ready to shoot.”

NBA offense has always been played in a semicircle. But the Bucks have warped geometry. They have turned the semicircle into a rectangle.

Brook Lopez’s name has become synonymous with long 3-pointers.

Brook Lopez’s name has become synonymous with long 3-pointers.


Photo:

Courtesy of NBA

Lopez knew he could shoot threes long before any team let him. What he didn’t know was that he could shoot this much from such an unexplored part of the court.

But he also never had to. Lopez was good enough to be an All-Star without making any threes from any distance. The only problem was that he loved shooting from the mid-range, and that was a bit like trying to lose weight by running every day and then eating a mountain of fries: right idea, wrong execution. The Brooklyn Nets encouraged him to lay off the fries and shoot threes instead of long twos. The Bucks are healthier for it.

The strange visual of an extremely large man stopping a few steps past halfcourt and hitting 3-pointers has become a common sight for Bucks fans this season. Even his warmup routine consists mostly of contested deep threes. It’s paying off. By taking more threes and more long threes, Lopez now has the highest effective field-goal percentage of his career.

The lingering question of their charmed season is whether Milwaukee can win a championship playing this way. But there’s at least one reason to believe in them: There are some unmistakeable Golden State Warriors vibes about this Bucks team.

All the way back in 2015, a bygone era when people thought the Warriors were beatable, their new coach installed an offense to unleash the team’s ascendant star. They shot a ton of 3-pointers. They shunned the conventional wisdom about positions. They experimented with strange lineups. And they dominated the regular season. But they were still hounded by skepticism: Could they really survive the NBA playoffs with such a funky style?

Brook Lopez and the Bucks might have to beat that very team to answer for themselves.

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com



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