When the Portland Trail Blazers acquired Robin Lopez from the New Orleans Pelicans during the offseason, they anticipated a tradeoff in contribution. Where J.J. Hickson (now in Denver via free agency) was a rebounding machine without a defensive bone in his body, Robin Lopez is a reasonable defender without the knack for boards. That is why the Trail Blazers placed such an emphasis on rebounding in the preseason. If he can learn to clean the glass, the tradeoff becomes a trade up.
In preseason, the Trail Blazers silenced the moaning masses (myself included) by outrebounding their opponents by an average of 10.6 rebounds a game. These efforts were often spear-headed by Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum, but Thursday’s season opener against the Phoenix Suns was a concerning step back from what we’d hoped would be the norm. While Batum came away with 13 rebounds, the 7’0” Lopez tallied only 2 in 34 minutes of play.
This is where we have to remember that Robin Lopez is not yet the mop-topped juggernaut that will earn extra Portland possessions. As a starter in New Orleans, he pulled in the same amount of rebounds on a nightly basis as Nicolas Batum did in Portland (5.6). This number holds different meanings for the twosome, as a wing player that snatches more than 5 a night is far more valuable than a towering center that can barely match; even if their minutes were staggered.
Defensive intangibles trump rebound numbers every time, but there are certain expectations when you’re the size of a maple tree and spend 90% of your time within 6 feet of the hoop. At the center position, Lopez is a considerable upgrade from Hickson, but he has to contribute how a center should in order for Portland to win games. In the season opener, first time starter Miles Plumlee pulled in 15 rebounds for Phoenix as Robin Lopez… watched? That 13 board deficit between the two centers was greater than the deficit between the two teams (8 in the Suns’ favor). Phoenix won the game 104-91.
The Denver Nuggets are up next, and I want to see Lopez make a drastic shift in order to challenge the 7’6.5” wingspan of JaVale McGee. No doubt Terry Stotts gave him an earful after his underwhelming debut (along with some choice words for other players for other reasons— I’m looking at you, Mo Williams), so I’ll be watching for him to be a difference maker. As much as I appreciate Nicolas Batum’s unorthodox contribution at his position, the Blazers will have a hard time winning games if Lopez can’t surpass his production. Portland needs Robin Lopez to improve upon his shortcomings and fulfill his duties as a center.