It’s impossible to talk about Dillon Brooks without talking about The Line, the common thread between competitive and crazy he must ride to succeed as an NBA player.
All players have to, to some degree, but in Brooks’ case, it’s a non-negotiable condition of his survival in the NBA.
Every major player in the league has come here because they have at least one weird talent, some superpower. This even goes for actors you don’t often think about. Brooks’ superpower is ‘crazy competitiveness’, and without it he’s probably playing in Grand Rapids or Gran Canaria right now. It got him in trouble at times as a young player, in particular. If someone scored on him, he had to resist the urge to immediately score on that guy on the other end, no matter what kind of Kobe shot he had to take.
And it got him in trouble more recently, of course, when he played a wrestling heel a little too well early in the Grizzlies’ first-round series against the Lakers and couldn’t back up his point. .
Nonetheless, that fire is how he became an elite defensive player despite having physical tools that would seemingly make such a feat unlikely – including one of the few wingspans in recent league annals that measures shorter than his height, and a chubby teenage body that he transformed into his current chiseled state. For it to work, however, it must play right on the edge, where it periodically overflows on technologies, flagrants and forced shots. It’s a delicate balance.
This isn’t exactly new information, of course. I was with the Grizzlies front office when we selected Brooks with the 45th pick in 2017, as most readers already know, and the information then was similar. At some point during his three years at Oregon, he ticked off every opposing Pac-12 team with his incessant talk. He was also the best player on a Ducks team that went to the Final Four. Behind that wasn’t all bluster either: there was a rare drive, work ethic and intelligence in the way he played the game himself and the mind games against his opponent.
Dillon Brooks, “basketball monk”, was never afraid to be the bad guy
That’s not to excuse everything he’s done over the past two weeks, when he clearly got out of hand and on The Line in a way that likely secured his exit from Memphis. This is simply to emphasize its existence and the difficulty of balancing oneself in it rather than tipping to one side or the other.
It’s an amusement park ride that seems strewn with pitfalls at every turn. On the other hand, the ride stayed on track for years until the past two weeks as Brooks thrived as a starter on one of the league’s top teams. That brings us to the second part of the discussion: if you think Dillon Brooks can’t help your team, hopefully you have some exceptional alternatives.
Brooks may no longer be right for the exact role he had in Memphis, where the team evolved to need him to do three things he couldn’t: space out a floor that already had two others non-shooters on it most of the time, not really looking for his offense any other way, and tone down the yelps on a team that already feels a little too much.
But until contributing to the success of a good team? I think we’re way past the point where he’s proven he can do it. Brooks started for a playoff team for three straight years, averaged 26 points per game on 60% True Shooting in the first round of 2021, and had favorable numbers in each of the past three seasons — hugely in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
Lately, his offensive imperfections have stood out. He’s always wired to score, and that can be a negative depending on the attacking talent around. More problematic is that the “3” part of his 3-and-D game is missing. Brooks’ diminishing 3-point accuracy was a problem in the current playoffs in particular, as the Lakers were getting increasingly rude to ignore him on the perimeter. However, it is also the most variable part of a player’s performance history. If he just returns to shooting in the mid-30s from 3, like he did in his first four NBA seasons, he’s a plus 3 and D weapon.
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Beyond that, look at the free agent market. Pump up your chest and say, “We don’t want that guy on our team,” but if it’s for mid-level breakout money and you need a small forward, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do better. (That is indeed the challenge Memphis will face this offseason. Both sides are at a point where it’s best to move on, but there’s a reason the Grizzlies have gone this far.)
Again, the key thing that everyone forgets about free agency is the “free” part. Among the small attackers who are Really Getable in this year’s market and not Fantasyland targets re-signing with their own teams, Brooks and Denver’s Bruce Brown might be the only ones capable of starting on a playoff team. Yes, the playoffs showed the limitations of having Brooks in the roster in that role against elite teams, but you also have to make the playoffs First of all. For teams with a hole in the position and no cap space, getting it with the mid-level non-taxpayer (MLE) exception seems very tempting.
In fact, listing potential suitors really isn’t difficult. Virtually every team needs full-backs, so virtually every team projected below the tax line qualifies. (Except, ironically, the Toronto Raptors, Brooks’ hometown, who are already overweight at wing defensemen with questionable shooting.)
In particular, one can see how tempting Brooks could be for Chicago, which found its footing late last season despite a dearth of trustworthy forwards.
… or Charlotte, who lacks wing defenders but otherwise looks set for a resurgence next year.
…or Dallas, who needs a bulldog defender and could allow Brooks to spread his wings a bit offensively in the minutes without Luka Dončić.
…or Sacramento, which might be sensitive to the offensive rope it has in its system, but yearns for at least one more defensive wing.
…or Portland, which is over-indexed on small guards and only has the limited Matisse Thybulle as a defensive ace.
…or the hometown Hawks, who crave a real wing stopper and will have room under the tax line as soon as they trade John Collins. Which will surely happen any day now, right?
I mentioned MLE, but Brooks could end up doing a lot better. If you look at cap-room teams that might consider it a solid plan B if they run out of big fish, Detroit, Houston, Indiana and Utah all have ample room and clear motivation to add a defensive stopper. Yes, it’s younger teams that are rebuilding, but at 27, Brooks is no fossil. Detroit and Houston, in particular, are eager to turn the corner next year: The Pistons love dump dogs, while the Rockets wouldn’t hesitate to add a little attitude and toughness to usher in the Ime era. Udoka.
All of this, ironically, could work against Memphis’ interests. Having teams that can sign him outright with cap space hurts the Grizzlies’ ability to wrap him in a sign-and-trade that improves the roster or preserves a big trade exception for later.
On the other hand, what started out as a negative could end up as a positive. Right now, Brooks is the best wing that all teams know for sure she can sign this summer without competition from her former team. This information alone could help create a market, even with the bad press that followed. As a minority Grizzlies owner once said, what happens goes around, goes around and comes back all the time.
Rightly, we can also end this story at the beginning. The answer to the conundrum of where Brooks fits best is that he belongs where it’s easiest for him to ride The Line – where he can be an aggressive bulldog defender without needlessly poking. bears (or goats), where he can be an offensive secondary weapon without being too thirsty and where his edge and work ethic help inspire an overperforming team like they did at Memphis in 2020-21 and 2021-22 .
It’s a tough race at times, straddling that line, but it can be hugely profitable for the right team if it works. Depending on the night, Brooks will take bad shots, accumulate technical fouls and annoy the opposing benches. He’s also an elite wing defender at the peak of his career, with the work ethic to deal with his recent attacking slump and a respectable past shooting history.
Finding the right situation for him to handle The Line will be important, but turn your nose up at him at your peril. In a market that isn’t exactly teeming with winger talent, he could become one of the top free agents this year.
(Picture: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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