The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the preseason favorites to win the 2021-22 NBA Championship, which would mark their second title in a row.
It’s Feb. 2, so that goal is still well within Milwaukee’s grasp. But the Bucks have struggled mightily with injuries so far this year, and that has left them further back in the Eastern Conference standings than they anticipated.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday have all missed significant time. But it could be the absence of center Brook Lopez — not that of its Big Three — that could cost Milwaukee its chance at back-to-back titles.
The Milwaukee Bucks have been missing Brook Lopez since the season opener
The Bucks’ starting center played 28.2 minutes in a season-opening win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Lopez was then listed as “out” on the injury report with “back soreness” and missed Milwaukee’s game against the Miami Heat two nights later.
He’s been out with the same designation since.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Lopez had back surgery on Dec. 2. At that point, no timeline was provided for his return, but head coach Mike Budenholzer’s comments that he believed Lopez “will play again this year” were not encouraging.
Jim Owczarski’s Journal Sentinel article read, in part:
“But, Budenholzer was strong in his belief that this surgery was not career-threatening for the 14-year veteran.
“The feedback, the conversations, the follow-up after this morning was very, very positive, including expecting him to be able to play and be productive,” Budenholzer said. “I think the surgery today has been done on multiple basketball players, multiple athletes, multiple sports. Return to play is very, very often successful.”
The fact that the words “career” and “threatening” were placed next to each other didn’t inspire much hope for Lopez’s return in 2021-22.
DeMarcus Cousins, Luke Kornet, Sandro Mamukelashvili, and Georgios Kalaitzakis have all had run at the center spot this season for Milwaukee. Again, something that doesn’t inspire a lot of hope.
Antetokounmpo has played the majority of the Bucks’ minutes at the five, spelled at times by Bobby Portis.
But you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone, and the team is sorely missing Lopez right now.
Milwaukee has not been the same without its starting center
Brook spent his first nine NBA seasons with the Nets organization. He was strictly a back-to-the-basket post-up center.
He ended up with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017-18 but averaged only 13.0 points and 4.0 rebounds as his career was seemingly coming to a close.
But when he signed with Milwaukee and joined Budenholzer the following year, he experienced an immediate career resurgence and really a career transformation.
Lopez shot 36.5% from three that year on 6.3 attempts, both career bests. His surge in three-point volume was shocking, but it turned out to be exactly what the Bucks needed.
The 7-footer also blocked 2.4 shots that season, becoming one of the NBA’s premier rim-protecting stretch fives. He helped Milwaukee to the NBA’s best record and did it again in 2019-20 before becoming a part of the franchise’s first title-winning team in 50 years last season.
The Bucks had a negative point differential the year before Lopez arrived. In his first season with the team, Milwaukee led the NBA with a differential of 8.9. The team was first again in 2019-20 and third in last year’s championship-winning season.
Similarly, the Bucks went from dead last in rebounding pre-Brook to first, first, and second the three ensuing seasons.
Milwaukee was 22nd in three-point shooting percentage before the former Stanford Cardinal came to town. In his first season in the Cream City, the Bucks rose to 15th and were fifth when they won the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Brook unlocked Milwaukee’s potential.
Lopez needs to be at full strength for his team to win back-to-back championships
As of Feb. 2, Milwaukee is fifth in the East at 32-21. The top of the conference is such a jumbled mess the Bucks are only 1.5 games back of the Chicago Bulls — but they’re also only four games away from dropping into a play-in spot.
Antetokounmpo has been able to carry the team to seventh in the NBA in scoring and second in rebounding, but his team is middle-of-the-pack in defense, and ball movement has stagnated (20th in assists).
Injuries served as a legitimate excuse during the first half of the year. Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday all missed significant time.
But those three have been relatively healthy for weeks, and the Bucks have yet to flip their switch. Something is clearly missing from a team that has run roughshod over the league the past three seasons.
That something is Brook Lopez.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.
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