Robin Lopez a priority for the Suns, but what will they spend to keep him?


PHOENIX — Robin Lopez followed up his disaster 2010-11 season in which he averaged 6.4 points and 3.2 boards with a 2011-12 campaign in which he produced 5.4 and 3.3.

He played only 14 minutes a game, didn’t start a single contest, shot a career-low 46.1 percent the field and corralled 13.2 percent of the available rebounds (47th among qualifying centers).

Yet with the Suns’ center headed for restricted free agency, PBO Lon Babby made it clear Lopez is firmly in Phoenix’s plans.

“He’s going to be a restricted free agent, and the message I would send out is it is quite likely if not certain that we’re going to match because he’s an important asset for us,” Babby said. “He gave us a lot down the stretch this year, and what we need is rim protection and he gives us that and we don’t have that really from anybody else.

“I thought he had a good second half of the year in particular. He’s got to get more consistent. I thought he made a lot of progress this year and I think vindicated our decision to stick with him.”

As I have written before, that sure sounds like Babby making a plea to other teams not to extend an offer sheet that the Suns would not be wise to match because in an ideal world he would like to keep Lopez.

But with Marcin Gortat deserving of heavy minutes as the starting center and the team unwilling to play the two big men together, it leaves scant few minutes for Lopez to consume.

As nice as it is to have a quality backup center, how much money can the Suns afford to pay a guy who has not played over 15 minutes a game the last two years and never has played 20 a game in a season when they already have a bonafide starter at the position?

That’s the question the Suns will have to ask themselves as it pertains to Lopez’s free agency. What price is too much for a backup center who would be lucky to play 17 minutes a game?

If the Suns don’t make a big splash, I would be in favor of bringing Lopez back on any reasonable one-year deal, but he figures to want some years on this contract. I would not pay him much more than $4 million a year on a long-term deal.

For what it’s worth, Lopez said, “I’d love to be here, I love Phoenix. … I’m just kind of weighing my options, but I like it in Phoenix.”

With Lopez having spent four years in the Valley — more than any player aside from Nash or Hill — the Suns have a fair sense of what he brings and more importantly of whether he has another level to reach.

My biggest complaint about Lopez is that he’s 7 feet tall and doesn’t rebound. He peaked with a rebound rate of 14.2 in his “breakout” 2009-10 season (still not very good for a center) but followed that up with a 12.6 in 2010-11 and this year’s 13.2 after rebounding 11.2 percent of the misses while he was on the floor as a rookie.

As Babby pointed out, he is a rim protector, but he doesn’t block a ton of shots at just 0.8 a game for his career. It is noteworthy that he ranked 81st in post defense, according to mySynergySports, holding opponents to 0.76 points per play and 43.5 percent shooting. Isolation players scored 0.72 ppp and shot 33.3 percent about FroLo.

Meanwhile, it’s disconcerting that his shooting percentage has dipped from 58.8 percent in 2009-10 to 50.1 percent last year and all the way down to 46.1 percent this season.

Babby raved about his second half as Lopez upped his numbers from 4.1 ppg and 2.8 rpg on 42 percent shooting in 11.6 minutes to 6.8 and 3.7 on 49 percent shooting while being a key component of the bench’s superb April run.

“The first half of the season was a little weird for everybody,” Lopez said. “Sometimes play quite a bit, sometimes get six minutes. I think we did a good job of kind of finding our rhythm. Hopefully I can carry that over into next season.”

The other question I have about Lopez concerns how much bounce his back injury robbed him of, how much he has gotten back and whether he will ever regain the athleticism he possessed as a rookie.

He apparently lost eight inches on his vertical upon his return in 2010-11 and may yet have more improvement to make before he’s back to full strength.

“I think it’s still a little bit of a process,” Lopez said. “It’s slowly retuning I think. I even felt better [in the season finale] than I did the previous game.”

Added Babby, “I think in retrospect it was clear it took him a long time to recover from his medical issues he had, physical issues he had last year, and second half of this year particularly after the All-Star break he was excellent.”

Although he seems older based on how long he has been a Sun, Lopez turned only 24 in April and thus has yet to reach his career’s peak.

You never want to give up on a young big man with some athleticism who can protect the paint and provide energy, but past a certain price it doesn’t make much sense to bring back a player who has averaged 5.8 points and 3.3 rebounds for his career.

The Suns will keep their fingers crossed that nobody throws a stupid offer sheet at Lopez, as surely they would like to keep him in purple and orange so long as the price is right.

And 1

  • Lopez ranked second in adjusted plus/minus behind only Nash at 11.74, according to Basketball Value. However, his unadjusted net rating was just -3.29.
  • Robin scored 0.93 points per play to rank 145th in the league. He was best on cuts (1.29, 53rd) and as the pick and roll roll man (1.15, 20th), a play he has always thrived in after ranking ninth at 1.3 ppp in 2009-10 and 33rd at 1.11 in 2010-11. Furthermore, this season 20 percent of his offensive attempts came off offensive rebounds, and he hit just 31.6 percent of his spot-up attempts.
  • Lopez accrued a below average 0.034 WP48, according to Nerd Numbers. However, he improved to 0.094 after the All-Star break and 0.137 in April (above average) following a horrid -0.051 mark before the break.
  • Lopez “broke out” in assists by posting an assist ratio of 5.1 and averaging a career-high 0.3 after accruing an average of 0.1 in each of his first three seasons. RoLo ranked dead last in the entire NBA with a 1.8 assist ratio in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, making his 15th to last ranking this year seem like a gigantic jump. Still, I don’t think anybody is going to confuse him with Steve Nash anytime soon for reasons other than his hair.
  • Ronnie Price lauded Lopez’s improvement as one of the key’s to the Suns’ second-half turnaround. “I think the second half of the season he really turned it up a notch,” Price said.