PHOENIX – If you ask Steve Nash how the Suns most need to improve this offseason, he’ll give the same answer as any other observer of this team.
“I think we probably need to add a few defenders to our mix, a couple guys who their forte is defense,” Nash said. “It would help to have a couple active big guys that can take up a lot of space with their athleticism and energy. Easier said than done to get those guys, though.”
One part to that solution might be right under the Suns’ collective nose.
Remember your first-round pick, Steve? The guy who looks like Sideshow Bob?
Robin Lopez spent his rookie season languishing on the bench, and he was wholly unimpressive when he did get some floor time before the final four games after the Suns were eliminated.
But the pick-and-roll problem the Suns so desperately hope to solve is exactly the reason Lopez was drafted 15th overall in the first place.
“The exciting thing with Robin is we’ve talked about addressing defense, well that’s what Robin does,” said GM Steve Kerr. “He blocks shots, he’s got the quickness and the speed with his footwork to get out on pick-and-rolls and protect the rim at the same time, so he’s important for us.”
Lopez admitted he struggles with lingering too long with the guards in defending the pick-and-roll, but without sounding cocky, he feels like he can make a big impact for the Suns in defending that particular crucial play, a play that head coach Alvin Gentry feels is the toughest in the league to check.
That difficulty was exacerbated when the Suns teamed a poor defensive point guard in Nash with a slow center in Shaq and a low basketball IQ forward in Amare.
That combination will always struggle against the pick-and-roll, and so long as the Suns seem to be committed to Nash at the one, the improvements must come from the bigs.
“We just need to get to the point where we’re pretty good at it, where it’s not to the point where they’re going right down the lane and laying the ball in the lane all the time,” Gentry said. “We need to get to the point where we’re making them shoot jump shots, and if we do that than that in itself will improve our defense.”
After watching Lopez dominate the Pac-10 from a defensive standpoint, I thought he would come right in and be a difference maker for the Suns defensively from Day One.
I thought the Suns’ pick-and-roll defense would improve just by throwing this rookie out on the floor, yet the Tony Parkers of the world still turned the corner on Lopez and tore up the Suns.
The thing is, unlike with a guy like Shaq and maybe even Amare after all these years, you can see the potential Lopez has to become a great defender in this league, particularly against the pick-and-roll.
He’s already a fantastic shot blocker, the kind of intimidating force who is always getting his hands on balls when he’s not getting some body contact as well (a huge problem for him at this stage of his career). As he improves his timing and cuts down on the fouls, he will become an elite shot blocker.
Rebounding, on the other hand, was an issue. Although Lopez boarded a solid 8.9 percent of the available offensive rebounds while he was on the floor, he grabbed just 11.1 percent of the available defensive rebounds, a rate that puts him just below such rebounding stalwarts as Peja Stojakovic and Michael Finley.
We saw boards literally slip right out of Lopez’s hands although rebounding should be a phase of the game that he dominates a la Joakim Noah. And maybe one day he will, that just didn’t happen this season.
Lopez said he learned many things during his inaugural campaign, such as how to think faster, make better decisions and know when to be more aggressive out on the floor. He plans on getting stronger over the offseason while continuing to work on his shot.
His offensive game, like Noah, is limited mainly to putbacks and close-in shots, which is strange considering the polished offensive game of his Rookie of the Year candidate twin Brook.
Call it a blessing or a curse, but Lopez has gotten the opportunity to play behind a future Hall of Famer in Shaq, which meant diminished minutes when the Daddy got through 75 games but also the kind of mentor that young bigs can only dream of.
They butted heads at times, literally, such as on that late-season evening in Portland when Shaq and Lopez got into a little verbal altercation that the rookie later termed as a simple exchange of ideas.
Shaq challenged Lopez to play tougher, and he became a different player after that spat.
“It’s obviously a fantastic learning experience,” Lopez said. “He’s always in your ear, he wants to help you out 24/7.”
As the Suns started to ride Lopez in the final games, Shaq was always on the sidelines waiting for a 7-footers’ chest bump when Lopez returned to the bench after a spirited effort.
Gentry called Lopez a victim of not being able to get minutes with Shaq down low and then Lou getting time at the five, but really Lopez would have gotten minutes after Amare went down if the coaching staff trusted him.
They didn’t at that point, but after a full season of Shaq’s tutelage in practice, he finally looked like the defensive center the Suns crave during the meaningless games down the stretch.
“I think you can see with Robin that given the opportunity where he’s got extensive minutes, he’s been able to play pretty good,” Gentry said. “I thought he did a good job of protecting the basket, and he did a good job of finishing plays, finishing strong to the basket. He’s going to get better, like Goran’s going to get better. I just think you’ve got to give those guys an opportunity to get better.”
Added Lopez, “Well obviously with time comes comfort. I’m just finding my groove out there.”
If Lopez finds that comfort level next season, the Suns’ search for the antidote to their porous pick-and-roll defense won’t be as far off as they seem to think.