In basketball, being a go-to guy isn’t always about who takes the last-second shot. It’s the guy who regularly gets the basketball when things are getting tense in the fourth quarter; the guy expected to calm things down when teammates are getting antsy; the guy called upon to snuff out an opponent’s rally or spark a rally of his own; the guy who’s not just supposed to make shots, but make the right decisions. Bottom line: Who do you want the offense to run through when everything is on the line?
Last year, in the weeks leading up to the NBA season, I ranked the League’s go-to guys. Using the rationale that even the most balanced team has one identifiable if-all-else-fails leader that they look to in crunch time, I picked one player per squad for a final list of 30. Again, ONE PLAYER PER TEAM. Here is the list going into this season:
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BROOK LOPEZ, New Jersey Nets
Brook Lopez has become our foremost case study on the effects consistent losing has on a basketball player; an impressive accomplishment considering the number of players who have come through the Clippers and Knicks organizations in recent years.
Last season, his second in the NBA, Lopez was prominently involved in New Jersey’s 12-win, 70-loss campaign. He was the go-to guy for the Nets while they opened the season with an 18-game losing streak, following by respective losing streaks that stretched over 10, 11, eight, and eight games. Brook even lost in the Rookie Challenge during All-Star Weekend while playing for the Sophomores squad that had won the previous seven matchups, usually by a large margin. He then played on the losing side in the USA Basketball’s pre-World Championship intra-squad scrimmage, days before Lopez pulled out of the program due to illness.
Brook Lopez just can’t win right now. If you put him on the Harlem Globetrotters, they’d lose to the Washington Generals, even though Brook would put up 20 points and 9 boards in the process.
Which begs the question: How much of the losing is Brook’s fault?
It’s certainly not not his fault. While the 7-footer averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks last season, his numbers during crunch-time are pretty poor. According to 82games.com’s “clutch time” analysis, Lopez averaged just 16.2 points per 48 minutes of clutch time (by comparison, League leader LeBron James averaged over 66 points per 48 minutes). In that category Lopez ranked higher than Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut and Andrew Bynum, but then neither of those players are considered their team’s No. 1 option in the clutch. Lopez also made just 32 percent of his field goals in clutch time, which would be tough to accept from a guard, but especially from a big man who presumably gets most of his shots close to the rim. Lopez also shot 63 percent on free throws in the clutch, a big drop from his regular 81 percent free-throw shooting.
Your ideal go-to big man is someone with a few reliable post moves and a decent jumper who will hit his free throws. Lopez has those tools most of the time, but so far in crunch time, the numbers say he’s not producing.
However, Lopez is young and his team is rebuilding. He has time to develop into a true go-to player and one of the best centers in the League. Looking at the Nets’ few wins last season, Lopez showed that potential. He put up 31 points and 14 rebounds in Jersey’s first win, over Charlotte to snap the 18-game losing streak. In their next win — weeks later against New York — Lopez put up 9 points and 9 boards in a crucial third quarter in which the Nets built a lead that they’d carry to the W. He finished that game with 21 points and 14 rebounds.
Initially, there’s a good chance Devin Harris will be New Jersey’s go-to player. He is the only current Net that new coach Avery Johnson has worked with before, and he’s a quick scoring PG who can create his own opportunities. But Lopez is the man identified as the cornerstone of this franchise — after they failed to bring in a superstar in free agency — and ultimately the Nets will want him to anchor the offense and defense. Avery has said he wants the team to run, but when things slow down in crunch time, they’ll need somebody who can get buckets in the half-court setting and/or draw double-teams to open up opportunities.
With a style rooted in solid fundamentals, making good decisions and using his size to his advantage, Lopez has been compared to Tim Duncan. Obviously he has a long way to go before entering that discussion, but looking at how Duncan and Lopez entered the League helps in the case study on the effects of losing. Duncan was on a championship team his second year in the NBA. Lopez was on one of the worst teams in NBA history in his second year. Where does he go from here?
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