While teams across the league went to great lengths to extend their 2008 draft picks, the Phoenix Suns decided to stand pat with Robin Lopez, opting instead to deal with his contract situation during the summer. At that time the Suns can extend a $4 million qualifying offer that would make Lopez a restricted free agency. The ValleyoftheSuns team evaluates Lopez’s contract situation in this edition of 3-on-3.
Michael Schwartz: Yes, because every move before the offseason should be all about preserving financial flexibility. The Suns basically punted the decision until the summer, when they will decide to extend a qualifying offer, sign him long term or let him go. Since the Suns may need that extra salary space, there was no reason to lock themselves into another role player before knowing the direction they will take during the summer.
Mike Schmitz: Absolutely. Marcin Gortat is playing about as well as any center in the Western Conference right now. The Polish Machine leads the NBA in field goal percentage, while ranking third among Western Conference centers in rebounding, second in scoring and fifth in blocked shots. With Gortat and blossoming rookie Markieff Morris, in addition to three years still left on Channing Frye’s contract, it makes no sense to commit to Lopez long term.
Ryan Weisert: Yes. Other than his 21-point explosion in the first game of the year, Lopez hasn’t shown enough to warrant an extension. He’s coming off some pretty serious injuries, and his play thus far would indicate he’s not the player he was. The Suns were right to preserve their cap space for next year instead of extending their backup center.
What would a fair contract for Lopez be?
Michael Schwartz: Lopez could be worth the $4 million qualifying offer for one year, but I would not match anything over the mini mid-level of about three years and $9 million, give or take a few million, on a long-term deal. He would be signed to be the backup center and thus he should be paid backup center money.
Mike Schmitz: Something around $3-4 million a year. The Suns would be crazy to give him Kwame Brown money, but something like $10 million over three years wouldn’t be out of the question. Active 7-footers are rare and any NBA coach will tell you that there’s no such thing as too much frontcourt depth. Even if he were to play 15-20 minutes a game, Lopez could give the Suns an interior presence while Gortat takes a breather. For the aforementioned price tag, that’s not a bad deal.
Ryan Weisert: A salary in the range of his qualifying offer for next season ($4 million) would be fair for Lopez. While he’s not a star, he’s still a 7-footer who can rebound, block shots, and hit his free throws in a limited role. Given his injury history, a contract of more than two years wouldn’t be advisable from the Suns’ perspective.
How should the Suns handle Lopez’s situation in the offseason?
Michael Schwartz: First, wait to see if they can acquire any studs with the salary space, in which case they would make him a free agent. Otherwise, they should try to sign him to the $4 million qualifying offer to preserve cap space for the next offseason and give the team another year to evaluate RoLo. In the meantime, I would see what Lopez could fetch on the open market and trade him if a decent future asset could be had in return.
Mike Schmitz: Let him walk. There’s no question Lopez is a valuable piece on any NBA team. He’s shown flashes of his old self this season and he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. But the fact of the matter is, he’s not a franchise center, and for a team that will mostly be in major rebuilding mode this offseason, there’s no point in paying him to ride the pine. Gortat is the future, so let Lopez walk.
Ryan Weisert: There is always a market for size in the NBA. There are some teams out there who might overspend for Lopez. The Suns should not match any offer for more than $5 million/year or more than three years long. Anything less than that, the Suns should match and hold onto Lopez as a backup to Gortat and potential trade chip.
And one bonus question just for fun:
Can Lopez still improve as a player?
Michael Schwartz: From what he’s shown the last year and a half? Most definitely. To me the question has always been whether he can fully regain his athleticism from his back injury. He’s been much springier this season and if that holds up he can become one of the better backup centers in the league, the kind of player who could start for teams that don’t feature Marcin Gortat.
Mike Schmitz: If he’s healthy, Lopez will certainly improve as an NBA center. Aside from his jump shot, he really hasn’t developed anything in the league that he didn’t have at Stanford, meaning he has major room to grow. In order for him to develop, he needs 25-30 minutes a night, and that’s not going to happen in Phoenix. So if Lopez gets in the right situation and can consistently play like he’s shown he’s capable of for short stretches, he can undoubtedly be a starting center in the NBA.
Ryan Weisert: Yes. When looking at Lopez’s profile, I was shocked to see he’s only 23 years old. He has shown the ability to rebound and score more effectively than his per-game numbers would suggest. He has lacked consistency. You can’t teach ability, but a young guy can learn consistency.