When Lionel Hollins announced Monday afternoon that Kevin Garnett will likely start alongside a healthy Brook Lopez this season, I had mixed reactions. It was hard for me to imagine Garnett not being in the starting lineup, but after watching him battle age and poor health last season --along with the rise of young players on the roster-- it seemed time for KG to come off the bench. Not to mention that I didn't see the two seven footers working well together for extended minutes.
Despite my theory about the two struggling together, the stats don't lie, Lopez and Garnett played well together on defense last season. With the two bigs on the floor, the Nets allowed nearly 101 points per 100 possessions, not a incredible number, but more than four points better than the Nets' defensive rating as a whole. This is a sign of productivity from lineups that have KG and Lopez on the defensive end at the same time, but I still don't know if the two can play that well together this season ... with another year of mileage on Garnett's legs.
I sifted through film of the 17 games Lopez played and found the games that the two played together ... and saw some positive signs. First off, it is clear that the two play well together and similarly.
If a team sets up in HORNS like the Cavaliers do here, both Lopez and Garnett have to defend on the high post. Lopez may not be the greatest high post defender due to his bulky stature and slow feet, but the Nets have a safety net in Garnett back in the paint. Watch. While Lopez is defending the ball at the elbow, Garnett protects the rim and jams cutters, and when Garnett has to take on Tristan Thompson, Lopez sinks down to a familiar position in the middle of the paint. The only problem here is that Lopez is slow to get back out to Anderson Varejao, who gets an easy jump shot here, but the Nets can live with those. Varejao was efficient when he shot those mid-range jumpers last season, 48% on foul line to 16 footers, but took only 86 last season.
Both men are high IQ basketball players and know their role in a team's defense. Garnett is a legendary defender and is much more mobile than Lopez even at his age. He has always been most efficient as a rim protector when flashing to the rim. Lopez on the other hand is a pure rim protector who needs to be in the paint as much as possible to reach his optimal efficiency. The two could make life hell for opposing teams trying to score in the paint.
Lopez was as good as anyone at defending the rim last season, per SportVU data on NBA.com. Opponents shot 37.9% at the rim against him in the 17 games he played last season. Of course the stat is a bit skewed considering Lopez only played those 17 games, but it is clear that the big man can defend. Garnett too was stellar at defending the rim. "The Big Ticket" only allowed opponents to shoot 47.1% around the rim last year, the 20th best mark of players who played at least 15 minutes a night and in 50 games.
The two have great instincts when defending in the half-court and in transition, always ready to block shots.
It is clear that if the two are going to play a full season together, Garnett will still be the catalyst of the defense. Garnett's defense is still superior to the emerging defensive ace Lopez, and Lopez can learn some things from KG. However, Garnett is still quick..
Garnett's ability to alter an entire sideline out of bounds play without even looking at where the opposition sets up is amazing. Miles Plumlee is staring down Gerald Green and Garnett knows a man will be in that area soon enough. So he contests. This also makes life easier for Lopez, who, as we alluded to earlier, isn't that great at defending outside of the paint. Garnett's ability to take up half the floor forces Miles Plumlee to take it to the rim because, similarly to his brother Mason, he can't shoot mid-range jump shots.
The two clearly work well off each other, and these are some great signs, but yet, I'm still unsure if this partnership can work out for the Nets in the long term, which means this season. I think it's smart for Hollins to go with the reliable Garnett over the still raw Plumlee, but I don't think Garnett has the energy and stamina to give hard minutes night in and night out.
Sure, the likely scenario is that KG plays the first six minutes of every game more or less and then will defer to Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic. Yet, the first minutes of the game are essential for a Nets team that is used to getting out to hot starts, then struggling to hold onto leads over the past several years.
I think that a Garnett-Lopez frontcourt can pay dividends for the Nets against matchups that have two seven footers who aren't very mobile. But for teams that play a stretch four, the Nets may very well struggle to defend the perimeter, which can be just as dangerous for a defense, if not more than the paint.
Hollins built his reputation a defensive mastermind and made Zach Randolph a key cog in a near-championship team that had the best defense in the league. I will take his word on making an aging Garnett and bulky Lopez work together, but it could be risky.
We will look next week to see if KG and Lopez can play well together on the offensive end of the floor.