Is Brook Lopez the best center in basketball?

 When Shaquille O’Neal was asked who the best big man in the NBA was by his fellow TNT analysts, he did not hesitate.  “Dwight Howard, some people say he’s the best center in the league, but me being an old school center, I’m going with Robin Lopez and Andrew Bynum because they play with their back to the basket.”  Shaq was quickly corrected by his colleagues- he meant Brook and not his twin brother, Robin.  The mistake notwithstanding, Shaq’s comments were eviscerated by the public and the media.  He was immediately impeached.  “Shaq is disrespecting Dwight Howard”.  “Shaq was really reaching for an insult by rating Brook Lopez above Dwight.”

But perhaps Mr. O’Neal knows the game a bit better than we give him credit for.  While the witness may be biased, that doesn’t make him a liar.  Ladies and gentlemen, behold the best true center in basketball: Brook Lopez.

Lopez’s numbers have been stout by any definition.  Since Andrew Bynum has yet to suit up this season, let’s stack Lopez up against Dwight Howard:

  • Brook Lopez: 19 ppg, 52.3% FG, 73.7% FT, 7.3 rpg, 2.2 blkpg, and 25.47 PER.
  • Dwight Howard: 16.5 ppg, 50.9% FG, 49.6% FT, 11.9 rpg, 2.4 blkpg, and 19.73 PER.

Clearly, Lopez has been stronger offensively than Howard. He scores more points and shoots a better percentage from the field.  Naturally, Lopez shoots a far better percentage from the charity stripe (which is anything but charity for Dwight).  On the defensive end of the floor, Lopez has been about as good a shot blocker.  Some might argue he has been better because he has far less block shots that end up in the stands- plays which merely end up giving the opposition another possession.  While he has been a worse rebounder, his overall efficiency has been significantly better.  In fact, only three other players have a higher PER than Lopez.  Those three players are: Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul.  That puts Lopez in some rarified air.  Dwight is looking up.

For some the evolution of Brook Lopez has been a surprise.  It shouldn’t be.  Hailing from Los Angeles it seemed as if being a professional basketball player was in the stars for Lopez.  His grandfather played for the University of Colorado.  His older brother, Alex, played at the University of Washington.  Brook and his twin brother, Robin, were both high school All-Americans and they competed against the likes of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden in the 2006 McDonald’s All-American game. Lopez went on to be 1st team All Pac-10 as sophomore at Stanford.

So he had the pedigree.  Yet, during his first two years in the league Lopez seemed to fade into the background.  A soft big man who can shoot. Not a franchise player. The Orlando Magic passed on an offer that would have landed them Lopez in exchange for Howard.  But, this year Lopez has arrived.

The Brooklyn Nets are 29-20.  However, they are an astonishing 15-6 since P.J. Carlesimo took over.  The Nets are currently a half of a game back of Chicago for the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. And by Carlesimo’s own admission, Lopez is the biggest reason for the turnaround.  “We’ve got 7 footer with presence around the basket,” P.J. Carlesimo told Newsday, “It’s night and day. His attention to defense is so much better than it was before and it’s helped our team defense significantly.”

The numbers bear out Carlesimo’s point.  The Nets are currently 5th in points allowed and Lopez is 7th in blocked shots.  So, let me get this straight: Lopez is the top scorer for a top 5 team in the Eastern Conference.  The top scorer for a Brooklyn Nets team who can claim ownership over several impressive victories which are not limited to but include: the Clippers, Knicks, Thunder, Pacers, and Bulls.  His coach says the reason their team is so good defensively is his presence down low.  While, the supposed best center in the league misses free throws, his team is 23rd in points allowed, and his team is currently 10th in the Western Conference.  That makes sense right?

Not to speak of the fact that Kobe Bryant questions Howard’s toughness. “(Howard) has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is,” Bryant told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “It’s win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That’s just how (the Lakers) do it. And that’s foreign to him.”

That’s not exactly high praise coming from a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the 10 greatest players of all-time.

There will be those who make cases for other centers like Tyson Chandler or Joakim Noah.  There will always be the loyal Dwight Howard supporters.  But no true center shoulders a bigger load and has a bigger impact on both sides of the floor than Brook Lopez.

Perhaps at the season’s culmination, Shaq’s comments will be resurrected and praised.  And who knows, by year’s end maybe Shaq will have trouble remembering Dwight Howard’s name.

Because he certainly will not be able to forget Brook Lopez.