Robin Lopez is a 7-foot step forward for the Trail Blazers at the center position, but it’s not difficult to claim improvement when the man you’re replacing is one of the worst defensive big men in the NBA (with apologies to J.J. Hickson). Don’t get me wrong, watching Lopez affect opponents’ shots around the rim brings a tear to my cynically squinting eyes. The Blazers needed someone who can protect the basket, and the long arm of the Lopez presents a commendable obstacle to would-be scorers.
However, his fatal flaw is not so craftily hidden by his strengths that opposing guards cannot see it and exploit it. Robin Lopez is uncomfortable helping away from the hoop. So when an agile player (let’s say Darren Collison) blows by their man (let’s say Mo Williams), problems arise in the lane. Sure, the idea is to get to the rim for a layup, but there is nothing to stop him from lofting a floater on his way instead. That’s one high percentage shot when nobody pops out to put a hand in his face.
So how do the Blazers stop opponents from attacking? They foul them. Again, let’s take the example of Darren Collison. Collison exploded for 31 points against the Trail Blazers in their October 18th preseason matchup by speeding through the lane and getting to the line. Because Robin Lopez was too hesitant to help, Collison had zero problems feeding off of the Blazers’ defensive lapse for 34 minutes. 15 of Collison’s 31 points came from free throws (on 16 attempts).
That cannot happen if the Blazers wish to be a competitive team. There is a tendency to check the box that says, “Defensive problems addressed” because Portland has added a more traditional center. It’s not that simple. Lopez is far from elite, and is largely considered to be among the league’s lowest tier of starting centers. Just because he is a veteran doesn’t mean he isn’t a project as well. He’s not the most coordinated, he’s not the most athletic, and he’s certainly not the most mobile.
Robin Lopez needs to expand his defensive game beyond the restricted area. That’s not to say that I want him roaming the perimeter by any stretch, picking up unnecessary fouls with poor hedging, but he can’t treat his defensive effort as a solitary act. He must learn when and where to move in order to aid his teammates as the Blazers’ defensive anchor; especially with so many of his new teammates needing defensive work, themselves.