It’s hard, if not flat out foolish to pass any snap judgments at this point in the season. The Sixers are near the top of the East, the Heat have floundered, and the Lakers ran the Clippers out of the building. Additionally, with only three or four games under the belt for most teams, sample sizes are minuscule, so stats don’t even mean much right now.
With that being said, Robin Lopez is worth a cautious look at this point. Signed in the offseason as the alleged answer to the Blazers’ rim protection woes, I think he was rather miscast by the hype train as a defensive stopper. He never really was, but the sheer upgrade in height from the 6’9” J.J. Hickson to the 7’0” Lopez has been noticeable.
That’s the thing – height still really does matter in the NBA. It’s something that can’t be taught, which is why it is so coveted (as an example, just look at how much bigs get paid). Even if he’s not the most skilled defensively, just having Lopez’s massive frame in the way can make a difference (not that it always does).
Before getting to defense, though, I must commend Lopez’s sheer effort. He has been giving it his all on the court. In a perfect world, you would like to think that every NBA player who is paid to play the game does this, but in reality, the looming threat of injuries and the grind of an 82 game season slow players down. Thus far, this hasn’t stopped Lopez. He has been chasing down loose balls and making scrappy plays continually.
However, this is the NBA, so talent almost always trumps effort. Is Lopez the perfect center? Not by any stretch, but he isn’t expected to be one. His defensive rating is the fourth best out of any of the Blazers who have played meaningful minutes, and he already has six blocks on the fledgling season. I still firmly believe that the way to an elite defense is through an entire team-wide system instead of one player, though, and on that front the Blazers are far shakier.
The Blazers are currently 19th worst in opponent field goal percentage allowed, 22nd worst in points allowed per game, and most damaging, 27th worst in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). Again, there have only been three games, so there is no need yet to panic, but these are troubling signs. This is compounded by the fact that over the offseason so much lip service was given to improvement on the defensive side of the ball, from players and coach alike.
If that defensive efficiency doesn’t get cleaned up, just making the playoffs will be a tall order, if not impossible, for the Blazers. It’s that simple – the defense has to be there. I’m seeing too many mistakes. NBA players are so talented and so good at shooting that all it takes is a single misstep for the opposing team to get a good shot off. Really – a single false step can be the undoing of an entire possession. No team can or will ever be perfect, but the goal is all about keeping mistakes that you can control to the bare minimum.
To that end, bringing it back to Lopez, I have to agree with Julian’s article from yesterday. It doesn’t seem as if Lopez has quite found a happy medium while defending the pick and roll. If he steps too far out, and the smaller faster guards can blow by him, but if he hangs back, they can have an undisturbed jumper, which isn’t ideal either. The thing with a pick and roll, though, is that there is no easy or perfect answer. The aforementioned quandary has plagued centers for years. That’s why the pick and roll is a staple of any NBA offense. It comes down to the coach’s strategy, which Terry Stotts will hopefully tailor to suit the talents of the players he has at his disposal.
As of now, Lopez has done as well as I expected. He is no Roy Hibbert, nor will he ever be, but he is able to do plenty purely with his height. His raw hustle, combined with a hopefully soon to be cleaned up pick and roll defense, could be enough to get the Blazers back on track defensively. They’ll need this in tonight’s game against the Rockets, an explosive, offensively talented team, which will provide a great barometer for where the Blazers stand defensively.