The biggest reason why Brook Lopez is called a bad defender is probably largely due to his pick and roll defense. Scouring around the internets, let's look at what minds far greater than mine have to say about it, parallel situations elsewhere, and what the Nets could do about it.
I knew the Nets weren’t very good defensively, especially against teams that executed the pick & roll well. But one thing continued to pop up, play after play, until I could no longer ignore it: How ineffective Brook Lopez was at defending it.
It’s not that he’s a poor defender against the roll man. He’s not. He’s average for a center, but average is still better than 50% of his peers. Rather, it’s that when the ballhandler forces him to make a decision, he consistently freezes.
A few examples are highlighted on video below, and there are a couple of things to watch for. Firstly, instead of sliding up to cover the ballhandler on the screen or rotating over to help, Brook stays back on his heels, inviting the opponent to take an open jumpshot or drive him to the lane. Even if the guard went under the screen, Lopez would still hesitate. This resulted in a lot of open jumpers and floaters. Secondly, when the defense did drive into the lane, Lopez either continued to backpedal or froze – half-heartedly contesting at best and losing the defender completely at worst.
I don’t mean to say that I think Brook is making the wrong decision – in fact, I think he’s making the right one. If he tried to even semi-hedge, he’d immediately be frozen by quicker players. He has to backpedal to the basket, since he’s not quick enough to cut off slashing guards. He’s playing the odds. Since everyone is quicker than him, staying back is the right move. He has to hesitate.
It’s just that the problem isn’t what he’s doing. It’s the fact that he has to do it.
He’s just too slow. And there’s a good chance he won’t get faster. This type of lateral quickness and speed is less important on the block, which is where he’ll spend a majority of his time on defense, but against a lot of other looks: pick & roll ballhandlers, spot-up shooters, isolations, slashers, et al – he’s going to have a lot of trouble. Judging by his play style, he knows it.
Brook isn't the only example of this of course, another slow footed big man was the subject of a post by Sebastian Pruiti on NBA Playbook:
When watching through the Grizzlies’ pick and roll offense, it becomes obvious who the Grizzlies were attacking, and that is Kendrick Perkins.
The reason why the Grizzlies were attacking Perkins is because he isn’t the quickest big man around, and Memphis was hoping getting Perkins moving around would result in open shots, and they were right
This play early in the first quarter shows you exactly why the Grizzlies were looking to involve Kendrick Perkins in pick and roll defense, and that is because they were looking to exploit his poor foot speed. Here, Perkins is hedging, looking to keep Mike Conley out of the lane, which he does. However, this leaves Marc Gasol open, and Perkins is unable to range over and challenge the shot.
After that first play, Perkins starts becoming concerned with getting back to Gasol. Here, Conley comes off of the screen and Perkins shows. However, it’s only a half show as he wants to get back to Gasol. He leaves before Russell Westbrook can get close to Conley, freeing him up for the jump shot that he makes.
The Grizzlies definitely saw something on tape concerning Ibaka when defending pick and rolls, and they came out and put him in that position time after time. The Boston Celtics’ help defense was good enough to hide these deficiencies (like Perkins’ slow feet), but I don’t know if the Thunder’s defense is. Look for the Thunder to try and adjust, but this could be a problem all series for Perkins and Oklahoma City.
So it's basically the same situation. Brook can either stop the ball handler from shooting or getting inside easily, but that would leave the big man he was originally guarding open; or he can stick with the big man but potentially give up an open shot to the ball handler. And Brook will not be the sole target of pick and rolls since at least two other Nets big men (Hump and Evans) are likewise slow footed big men suited for post up defense. The important thing to make up for this is help defense from the rest of the team. Unfortunately, help defense is exactly one of the things Hump is not exactly known for, but the defensive numbers and ability of Wallace, Johnson, and Williams should be causes for optimism though.
So, what should the Nets do about this?
Two teams are doing something that the Nets could copy, the Heat and Celtics:
Against the Phoenix Suns, the Miami Heat were concerned with the Suns’ pick and roll, and rightfully so, and this is because Steve Nash is one of the most dangerous point guards when coming off of a screen. To defend this, the Heat decided to employ a different defensive strategy when defending the Suns’ pick and roll.
Instead of switching or using a quick show (or hedge), the Heat decided to show hard and basically double team Nash, with a man rotating to the roll man, until he gives up the basketball. Once Nash gives up the basketball, then everybody rotates back to their man
As Nash comes off of a Robin Lopez screen, Big Z shows really hard. Lopez is going to roll to the basket, and because Big Z is showing on the screen, the help man (James Jones) rotates over to the paint to prevent Lopez from getting an easy look.
Because Nash is doubled here, he can’t really get a ton of zip behind the pass, so the pass to Hill is sort of a lob one.
This allows the defender to recover and keep Hill from getting a clean catch and shoot look. As this happens, Big Z rotates back to his man to prevent Lopez from getting an open look in the post.
Hill is forced to take a tough contested jumper that he misses, and then the Heat grab the rebound.
This was a great change of strategy by coach Spoelstra and the Heat. They know that the threat of the quick roll (Amar’e) isn’t there anymore, and that Nash creates on the PNR by penetrating after the screen. By having the big man show and stay until a pass is made, they don’t let Nash penetrate and create havoc.
The other interesting thing is that this wouldn’t really work with a pick and pop (too hard to rotate to shooter/pass on the pick and pop is easier to make for Nash), but with Channing Frye struggling, there is no other real pick and pop threat on the Suns. I expect to see some teams with mobile bigs try to duplicate what the Heat did last night, but you can also expect the Suns to be better prepared for it.
Moving forward, it would be interesting to see if the Heat use this strategy against a team like the Celtics. It might be a bit harder (the Celtics have a lot more scoring options in the half-court than the Suns do), but this is something that might be effective against the Celtics.
As noted, this strategy won't effective against everyone, but for certain teams, this is definitely something the Nets can do. The Heat pulled this off with Big Z and his oft injured feet at the spot where Brook is.
Here is pretty much the same strategy, done by the Celtics against the Nets of old:
The Celtics had one of the best PNR defenses in the entire NBA, and they don’t really switch or hedge. Instead they have their own thing where they attack the ball handler and then leave the roll man, with all the defenders basically playing center field reacting to the basketball. The Celtics are looking to force turnovers whenever their opponent run the pick and roll
Brook Lopez sets a screen for Devin Harris. As Harris comes around the screen, Rajon Rondo goes under it, and this is the part that changes depending on the shooting threat. When defending a good shooter, Rondo tends to go over the screen with someone who is quicker and not really a shooting threat, Rondo goes under. What doesn’t change is that is the way that the screeners’ defender (in this case Rasheed Wallace) plays it. Wallace floats away from his man and gets in front of Harris. This isn’t a hedge, because he doesn’t really worry about getting back to Brook Lopez. His job is to help double the ball handler with Rajon Rondo coming over.
So who covers the roll man? This is the job of the defender covering the man in the opposite corner (in this case Marquis Daniels). He slides over to the middle of the paint, ready to steal any pass to Brook Lopez, who is rolling to the basket.
Daniels finishes his slide, and the defense is now set. You got two guys defending Devin Harris with the roll man covered.
The result is Devin Harris getting himself caught in the air and throwing the pass out of bounds.
This is probably the best way for the Nets to defend the pick and roll, because with Brook and Hump's mobility issues, trapping the ball handler and forcing them to make a bad pass buy them a few extra seconds they otherwise wouldn't have to get back to their man. It all hinges on the ability of the 3 other guys on the floor to effectively know how to defend 4 guys.