With the three-way trade that involved the New Orleans Hornets and the Sacramento Kings, the Portland Trail Blazers were able to finally acquire the starting center they had been seeking. They sent out second round pick Jeff Withey, cash and future second round draft picks, and were able to add center Robin Lopez from the Hornets.
Robin Lopez joins the Blazers and seems all but guaranteed to start at center for his new team next year. He started all 82 games at center for the Hornets last season, and averaged 11.3 points on 53.4% shooting, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 26.0 minutes per game. He had a Player Efficiency Rating of 18.9, finishing 42nd in the NBA. All things considered, a very nice return on a bundle of second round picks and cash.
That said, however, how is Lopez’ fit with Portland? He came relatively cheap and offered great value, but how will he produce alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt and with the other Trail Blazers?
First of all, it should be known that Lopez is a defensive center. Unlike his twin brother in Brooklyn, the aptly-named Brook Lopez, Robin doesn’t have a wide array of offensive moves nor a soft scoring touch from as far out as 20 feet. Instead, he does his work on the opposite end of the floor, contesting shots in the post, playing help defense, and especially, blocking shots.
In fact, Lopez was quietly one of the NBA’s better shot-blockers last season. He averaged 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes, ranking him 14th in the NBA among qualified players, and blocked 5.0% of all shots taken by the opposing team while he was on the floor. For comparison, Dwight Howard blocked 4.9% and Joakin Noah blocked 4.4%. They were fifth and sixth respectively in blocked shots per game in the NBA this season.
A defensive center like Lopez fills a need for the Blazers. At this point, it’s become a bit overstated, but LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson were absolutely awful in defending the paint last season. Hickson, playing out of position at center, was unable to challenge bigger centers down low. Aldridge, even at 6’11″, wasn’t able to offer him much support from the power forward spot.
What Lopez brings to the table defensively will help the Blazers immensely as they were in dire need of that last season. Lopez isn’t someone to be mentioned in the same breath as Serge Ibaka and Larry Sanders, but he’s a strong defender at the rim nonetheless and he will serve as a reliable defensive anchor for the Blazers.
Offensively, Lopez can chip in a decent bit. While scoring might be the last thing he’s known for, he quietly averaged a respectable 15.7 points per 36 minutes last season on 53.4% shooting, and has averaged 14.9 points on 52.4% shooting for his career. It’s not quite his brother’s offensive game, but Robin does have a decent touch that he can use to score very efficiently from 6 feet.
Lopez can fill a role very similar to that of J.J. Hickson’s last season. While he won’t be a go-to weapon for offense, Lopez slides in very nicely opposite LaMarcus Aldridge as the guy who will finish at a high rate when the defense leaves him to double team Aldridge. Hickson found himself with many open dunks last season alongside Aldridge, and similarly, Lopez should be able to find himself many opportunities to pick up an easy basket.
Where the most concern should come from might be Lopez’ impact on the boards. Rebounding has always been his Lopez’ fatal flaw as a center in the NBA. Even as a 7’0″ footer, Lopez averaged just 5.6 rebounds last season, and 7.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. For his career, he’s averaged 8.0 boards per 36 minutes. Those are middling numbers at best from a defensive center.
The problem with Lopez being an underwhelming rebounder is that LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t a dominating presence on the glass either. Aldridge averaged 9.1 rebounds last season in 37.7 minutes, which comes out to 8.6 per 36 minutes. That’s fully acceptable from your power forward, sure. But, when you pair the average-at-best rebounding efforts of LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez (and even Meyers Leonard on the bench, who averaged 7.6 boards per 36 minutes), you’re left with a pretty weak rebounding frontcourt.
In today’s NBA, practically every team has at least one dominating rebounding presence in their frontcourt, particularly in the Western Conference. The Memphis Grizzlies have Zach Randolph. The Golden State Warriors have David Lee. Portland, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez, have a frontcourt made up of two bigs that both rank outside of the top-40 in per-minute rebounding. Even when Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews rebound well for perimeter players, the Blazers are leaving themselves prone to giving up easy second chance opportunities.
Thomas Robinson is a factor to keep in mind. The Blazers picked up the power forward from the Houston Rockets in a salary dump very recently, and while Robinson was a bit of a flop in his first season in the pros after being drafted fifth overall, rebounding is the one thing he can hang his hat on. That said, however, it’d be unwise to rely on Robinson as the team’s best rebounder at this early stage.
Make no mistake, rebounding will be a concern next season. Even if Thomas Robinson proves he can be a major part of the rotation (a big if, at the moment), the starting frontcourt of Aldridge and Lopez will struggle against many other starting frontcourts in the NBA.
With that said, beggars can’t be choosers. After horrible interior defense last season, that’s exactly what the Blazers were. They will take on their two middling rebounders and gamble on Robinson if it means a defensive core that resembles a defensive core. Lopez and Aldridge is a better rebounding group than Aldridge and Hickson were a defensive unit. The trade-off here might not be easy to take, but it’s not one to turn down.
I do question whether or not the Blazers might have been able to find a better center, and certainly, they did have the cap space to go after a better player. However, with a largely unimpressive free agent selection of defensive centers (led by Samuel Dalembert) and a shaky trade market (Marcin Gortat doesn’t seem to be available, and Omer Asik might be now that Dwight Howard is in Houston), I understand if the Blazers didn’t want to pass on Robin Lopez when they were offered the opportunity to add him.
We’ll have to wait to see how bad the rebounding situation will be next season. Hopefully, it won’t be as bad as the interior defense last season. That interior defense, however, will be much improved with Robin Lopez in the fold. If there’s one thing to say about Lopez’s fit in Portland, it’s that he will give us quality interior defense. For the Blazers, that’s plenty.