Robin Lopez’s regression leads to all-around disappointing season

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PHOENIX — Before the season tipped off, Suns head coach Alvin Gentry proclaimed Robin Lopez would be the second most important player for the 2010-11 Phoenix Suns.

As it turned out, he was barely the second most important center on the roster.

It’s startling to think how far Lopez’s star has fallen from last year at this time when he proved to be the difference in a Western Conference Finals victory to now when it’s questionable whether the Suns see a future for him in Phoenix.

“I can’t put my finger on why he regressed this year, but you can look at it two ways,” Gentry said. “He is 23 years old and he has a lot of years left. I talked to him about let’s just call it a bad [third] year regardless of what it is, and let’s see if we can regroup and come back and get yourself headed back in the right direction.

“I thought last year the way he played for us in the playoffs and what we anticipated as far as him being the second most important guy on our team we felt like if he made that step and made those improvements we could have been real solid and possibly a playoff team, but he understands that and I think no one’s more disappointed than he is. I think you have an opportunity to rectify that by going out and working hard and coming back and improving next year.”

Since it’s rare to see such regression from a player who spent most of the year playing as a 22-year-old, the obvious question mark is his back.

Lopez missed the final 10 games of the 2009-10 regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs due to a bulging disk in his back.

Back injuries for seven-footers are tricky propositions. The Suns took every precaution not to rush him back and vowed not to play him until he was 100 percent ready even if it meant starting Jarron Collins in the playoffs.

Yet even after all that time off and a full summer to rehab, Lopez lacked the explosiveness and athleticism that made him such an attractive draft pick for Phoenix three years ago. Lopez has lost a handful of inches from his vertical and often struggled to finish shots on the interior, getting swatted time and time again.

According to HoopData, Lopez was blocked 11.8 percent of the time last season (double the league average of 5.9) after being rejected on just 6.2 percent of his shots in 2009-10 and 9.5 percent as a rookie.

He only declined from 68.2 percent shooting to 66.4 percent at the rim but went down significantly from 51.5 percent to 36.2 percent from 3-9 feet. On the positive side his improved shooting stroke led him to shoot 46.3 percent from 10-15 feet after being at 29.0 the year before and 25.0 as a rookie.

“If you guys can remember one of the things that we liked about him the most is that he was very athletic, and he lost quite a bit of vertical jumping ability with the injury that he has not recovered from, and he’s slowly recovering from that, so that could have played a part in it, definitely,” Gentry said. “When you’re an athletic big guy and then all of a sudden you lose some of that and you have to rely on other areas it is a little bit of an adjustment as far as your game.”

Synergy Sports Technology tells us Lopez was an anemic post player, hitting just 36.5 percent of his shots and scoring 0.67 points per play in post-up situations, but he was solid as a roll man (1.11 ppp, 55.8 percent shooting) and when spotting up (1.04 ppp, 53.2 percent).

Then there’s rebounding, perhaps Lopez’s biggest weakness that is not exclusive to his down season.

Due to his size and athletic gifts, I always assumed he would blossom into a solid rebounder despite the fact that when it comes to rebounding players often either have a nose for the ball or they don’t.

Lopez ranked 101st in rebound rate this season among players averaging more than six minutes a game by corralling 12.6 percent of the available boards during his court time. He also ranked 132nd in defensive rebound rate at 15.6.

Last year he recorded a 14.2 rebound rate (72nd) and a 15.6 DRR (121st) and as a rookie he put up an 11.2 rebound rate (118th) and a 12.1 DRR (190th).

Even in college when few teams boasted a pair of quality bigs and he had help from his twin Brook his rebound rates didn’t impress. According to StatSheet, Lopez collected a 14.2 DRR as a freshman and a 13.9 DRR as a sophomore. He ranked 21st in the Pacific 10 Conference both years and 735th and 693rd nationally.

By comparison the offensive-minded Brook put up 18.9 and 19.2 DRRs, respectively, against the same competition (and he’s no stellar rebounder himself), and during Lopez’s sophomore campaign a UCLA freshman by the name of Kevin Love more than doubled his defensive rebound rate (28.5).

If a spry Lopez was a middling rebounder in the Pac-10, it’s hard to think he will ever be an above-average pro board man.

Even though Lopez was a very average rebounder in college, he was at least known as a stellar defender, something that was most definitely not the case this season.

Synergy ranks him 460th in the NBA in points per play defense after he yielded a team-worst 1.08 ppp to go with 52.8 percent shooting.

Lopez was particularly bad in post-up situations, as opponents shot 59.3 percent against him, scored 55.6 percent of the time and averaged 1.07 ppp. He also struggled to defend isolation plays (1.09, 51.4 percent shooting, 339th) and spot-up shooters (1.1 ppp, 47.8 percent, 315th) presumably because he moved too slow closing out on the jumpers.

All this added up to Lopez recording a team-worst minus 8.09 adjusted plus/minus, according to Basketball Value, in a season that was shockingly bad in all aspects aside from his improved mid-range jumper (which is not exactly why they drafted him).

“There’s certain expectations that you have for players, and you’ve got to be able to meet those expectations,” Gentry said. “We want him to be a better player offensively, defensively, and that’s what our expectations are.

“It’s just kind of one of those things that he did not have a good year, and I think he’d be the first to tell you that.”

That is an understatement and it brings us to the question of what to do with Lopez at this point.

The easy answer would be to trade him, but the rest of the league knows what the Suns know. As the preceding analysis shows, it’s no secret why Lopez averaged less than 15 minutes a game and became a starter in name only once Marcin Gortat got acclimated to the team.

If the Suns can find a solid offer then you make the deal with Gortat in tow, but it’s hard to believe that will happen. The Suns would be better off keeping him at $2.86 million next season than giving him away for a second-round pick. There’s no reason to give him away when his value is at its lowest point.

The next question has to do with whether he will regain some of that athleticism. Sure, he was never a good rebounder, but if he gets some of that burst back he figures to improve around the basket both offensively and defensively.

With Gortat entrenched as the Suns’ starting center they don’t need Lopez to be a featured player anymore, but they can’t afford to give him minutes if he plays as poorly as he did last season, a year in which he went from looking like a potential future All-Star to a potential feature D-Leaguer.

“I think a year ago he was very much on the right path of being the type of player that we anticipated,” Gentry said. “It’s just the idea of maybe it was just one of those years and now you can regroup and get yourself back on the path that everybody thought about or anticipated he’d become.”

It’s impossible to tell at this point if 2010-11 was an outlier that will soon be forgotten or the beginning of the end of Lopez’s NBA career, but one thing we know with certainty is that Robin Lopez won’t be viewed as the second most important piece on the 2011-12 Suns.

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