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

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.

Tags: Robin Lopez

  • Bill

    Why don’t you just ask him what is the problem? This is all repeat. The person who really knows the “why” is him. Why do we never hear his explanation?

  • Tony

    Based on the fact he lost his athleticism, only two things makes sense; one, that he’s still injured or two, that he has a mental bloc for fear of reinjuring himself and doesn’t quite trust his health. I know the Suns training staff and Gentry have repeatedly asked Lopez about his health and he’s said he was fine, but have they ordered Lopez in for another MRI just to make sure?
    During the season, Lopez was always the slowest guy on the court and he just couldn’t keep up with the flow of the game. He showed in the previous year, when the Suns made it to the WCFs, that he was athletic and quick enough to be effective in a high-tempo offense, so it’s not like he hasn’t done it before.

  • KLS

    So what should the Suns do with him? Keep? Trade?

  • Michael Schwartz

    @Bill I will be sure to ask him come training camp. Unfortunately we don’t get much access to the players during the summer. And it’s possible this isn’t something that Lopez can even pinpoint.

    I think Tony makes some good points. My gut says he’s at least partially still injured. The mental block explanation might play into it as well, but it’s a fact his vert decreased a decent chunk. The question I wonder is with rest, rehab and working out this summer can he regain it or is it just gone. That’s the million dollar question so far as Lopez is concerned.

    Because of that I would say keep him. If nothing else hope he rebuilds some value so you can get more for him at next year’s trade deadline or keep him as Gortat’s backup of the future.

  • shazam

    i think the suns know the “why”…they just are hiding from the rest of the league as much as they can about their mentally and physically challenged big man…i dont hear about him slamming doors and scowling anymore…he realized that after giving it all he had he couldnt sustain the effort for a full season…he is a broken man on a downward spiral..he is trent reznor circa 1994 with a basketball slipping through his fingers…soon you wont be able to recognize him… even in appearance.Instead of a fro he will grease his hair back.His hair will look like it has been combed with a pork chop.

  • audreyandchuck

    I get moved to comment about that guy, even if it is the off-season for me.
    shazam gets it right on. It’s insightful to say he will change his look next time seen. That is, he is “bigger than the game,” if you know what I mean?
    I will be surprised to see him in Phoenix next season. Gone, he would act as scape-goat so we could start anew.
    I thought he willfully sabotaged us, as only mediocrity can, from getting into the playoffs, for no other reason than that HE COULD.
    In hindsight, becoming a regular starter was more than this “follower” could handle. On the other hand, anyone could see benching him or ignoring him would bring on a kind of womanly wrath.
    He’s one of those creepy guys, who may grow out of it later in his life, but you don’t want to deal with it at work every day.
    He won’t be back for next season, even if he’s put on injured reserve.

  • Bill

    Thank you, Michael. That will be one tough question to formulate and ask.
    @Tony: I agree you have the two logical answers for anyone who has played. Working here in Japan, I did not see much of the Suns last year ; I have no comparison. Its too soon to give up and trade him.

  • shazam

    mark my words…i know his type…first he will start chain smoking like hes going to the electric chair and then he will get a job at the post office…”He’s one of those creepy guys, who may grow out of it later in his life, but you don’t want to deal with it at work every day.” <—– best quote ever about out our robin egg…when the red red robin cant convert nashs lobbin its time to trade that goblin.

  • Steve

    Guys without physical tools can still have a lot of success in the league. Even if he lost athleticism from last season, he still could have had a chance to adapt, and he never did. His problem is that he’s dumb. Just because you lose athleticism, does that mean you NEED to foul every 2 minutes? Does he need to sky above everyone else for every board? Most of the things I saw wrong with him this year weren’t physical. They were just that he doesn’t know how to play the game of basketball. That can be fixed if he wants.

  • king fahd

    I think that was an unfair title and responsibility to put on Fro’pez. He’s still raw, and he didn’t ever seem like the player who wanted to be the 2nd or even 3rd option on the team. Certain players excel behind other players, and just go with the current. Few seldom players tend to demand their own current and be that go-to player, as Amare was for us.

    I still believe we should look to grab a Tyson Chandler or someone of that magnitude. Plus, we also need a perimeter who we can go to in game’s end situation.

  • PHS Suns Fan In LA

    are we getting klay thompson or jimmer fredette? both of them can hit a 3 consistently…..michael please update me on gani lawal too. thanks!

  • PHS Suns Fan In LA

    smh…after watchong that video i really dont want lopez back…i mean i never liked him that much..i think we got the wrong lopez brother guys!!!

  • Michael Schwartz

    I’d prefer Klay and wouldn’t mind Jordan Hamilton either if you’re going for a wing. I haven’t heard from Gani since the season ended, but at that time he said he should be back on the court by June or July. Especially with the lockout coming up, I would expect him to be ready to go full speed whenever next season starts.

  • Evan

    If he would just hit the gym put on 20-30 lbs of muscle this off season, and learn to go up strong with 2 hands, he might have a future.

  • Keith

    “The Suns would be better off keeping him at $2.86 million next season then giving him away for a second-round pick”

    So you are saying we should wait until after the season and then trade him for a second round pick? Or did you mean “than”?

    • Michael Schwartz

      I meant “than” and just fixed it. Good catch.

  • Keith

    Okay. Then, I agree with you.

  • Lloyd I. Cadle

    The Suns need to do another MRI. If his disc is still bothering him, forget rehab and do the surgery ASAP. In that case, the Suns may be forced to keep him.

    Could his trade value get even lower than it is right now? Yes. Another bad year and it will be even lower.

    If his back checks out okay, rather than deal him for a number two, include him in a package of players in a deal. At 23 years old, and if his back is okay, with his size, he may still be attractive for some team as part of a trade package.

  • Shawn

    I don’t believe Robin is passionate about basketball. If you’re not passionate about something and, frankly, aren’t even that great at it to begin with….. what’s the motivation? There is none. Robin Lopez is a great guy, I’m sure. But facts are facts: He’d rather be drawing comic books and enjoying Disneyland rather than playing basketball. I can almost guarantee you he will be out of the league once his current contract expires. I believe he’s simply collecting his NBA money while he can before doing something else. Anyone else believe this?

  • Pingback: Bismack Biyombo: A gamble that could pay off