2012-13 NBA Most Improved Player Award – a case for Robin Lopez

Published: January 3, 2013

After trading for last season’s Most Improved Player award winner in Ryan Anderson, could the Hornets have also prematurely acquired this year’s winner of that same title?

With the 2012-13 NBA season now over a third of the way completed, the chatter about postseason awards has already begun. Various names have been thrown around for each of them, but for one of those honors, it’s a name that is not getting mentioned which caught my attention. Robin Lopez has come out of nowhere this season to not only fill the Hornets’ hole at the center position, but become one of their most consistent offensive threats. Despite originally being drafted 15th overall in the first round by the Phoenix Suns, Lopez was never able to solidify his status as a starting-caliber NBA center. Here in New Orleans, he has fulfilled that role and more than the team and its followers ever expected. Is it enough to make him a leading candidate for the Most Improved Player award? I say yes.


Lopez’s 2011-12 season

By the 2011-12 NBA season, Lopez had already fallen out of favor in Phoenix in favor of Gortat, who had simply outplayed him ever since he was acquired in January of the prior season. The result of his demotion was just 14 minutes per game for Lopez and pretty pedestrian numbers. Despite a PER of just over 15, his true shooting percentage, defensive rebound rate, total rebound rate, foul rate and assist rate were all below the league average for his position that season. His saving graces were his slightly above average offensive rebound rate, his low turnover rate, and his impressively high free throw rate.

Overall, his time with the Suns made him appear to be a below-average to average NBA center, and nothing more. With four years of data available to suggest as much, there wasn’t a huge market for his services, allowing the Hornets to land him for an average of about $5 million/season over three years and also build in a $500K buyout for the last two years of the deal after year 1 if they so chose. Suffice it to say that not much was expected of Lopez; in fact, Dell Demps admitted in his chalk talk with season ticket holders this past weekend that they did not envision him having nearly this big of a role with the team when he was first acquired. According to Demps, Lopez was originally brought on to use against the Howards and Bynums of the NBA and not much else. The expansion of his role in comparison to expectations from management should make Lopez a most improved player candidate on its own.


Lopez’s 2012-13 season to date

After a lackluster first four years in Phoenix, Robin has found a new level of comfort here in New Orleans. In fact, he compiled as many 20+ games in a recent four-game stretch as he did in his entire tenure with the Suns (3), and did so with magnificent efficiency (85 total points on just 49 field goal attempts over those four games). This season, Lopez’s offense is in very elite company. Of all qualifying players (I used > 15 games played & > 20 minutes per game) with a usage rate of over 20%,  Robin Lopez is one of ten players with a true shooting percentage over 59%. To put things in perspective, seven of the other nine players on that list are Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe Bryant. Lopez has clearly figured something out, and it has resulted in a transformation of his scoring efficiency from average to nearly elite.

A big reason for this boost in offensive efficiency comes from his improvement in scoring off of offensive rebounds. While Lopez’s one weakness is his rebounding, he has figured out how to make the boards he does get on the offensive end count. In 2011-12, he attempted a higher percentage of his shots through offensive rebounds (19.8%) than any other option apart from routine post-ups, scoring 1.12 points per possession when doing so (63rd in the NBA). This season, however, he has vastly improved in this area; while still attempting close to the same percentage of his field goal attempts off of offensive rebounds (17.2%), he is now scoring 1.46 points per possession when doing so, good for 2nd in the entire league. He has also become a much better cutter to the rim, raising his points per possession on this type of play from 1.27 last season in 13% of his total offensive plays (59th in the NBA) to 1.44 this season in 17.7% of his total offensive plays (7th in the NBA). (All data courtesy of MySynergySports.)

As good as he has been on offense, Lopez has also taken strides on the defensive end as well. Robin is currently one of four qualifying players to hold a block rate of over 6% this season, despite never surpassing 5% in any of his first four seasons. Additionally, he has cut down on his foul rate to a remarkable degree. In three of his first four seasons, Lopez averaged at least 5 fouls per 36 minutes, easily enough to prevent him from playing big minutes even if he was talented enough to do so. This year, he has dropped that average all the way down to 2.7, an essential adjustment to his game in order to be able to stay on the court for enough time to get into a rhythm offensively.


The Other MIP Candidates

Although Lopez has credentials which are very worthy of winning this award, we can’t ignore others who have put themselves in a similar position. A few of the other top candidates:

  • J.J. Hickson. After showing modest improvement throughout each of his first three seasons in Cleveland, he started out miserably with Sacramento last season, sporting a PER of 10.1 thanks to a TS% of 41.9% and a turnover rate of 16.4% in 35 games. After a mid-season move to Portland, however, he turned his career back around, improving that TS% by 16% and reducing his turnover rate by over 5% which led to a PER of 20.3 over his final 19 games. Looking at the difference between Hickson’s 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons on the surface, he would appear to be one of the front runners for this award, but the fact of the matter is that his improvement got a head start last season after his move to the Trail Blazers.
  • Kemba Walker. Players don’t typically win this award in their second NBA season, but it isn’t unprecedented; just ask Monta Ellis, the 2006-07 season MIP award winner. He has the resume so far as well, jumping from a league average guard to a well above-average one mainly thanks to a reduction in turnover rate (12.2% to 8.8%) and an improvement in scoring efficiency (TS% up to 51.5% from 46.1% last year). Combine the difference in his play with added playing time (27 MPG in 2011-12, 35 MPG in 2012-13), and he has a pretty good shot. However, an NBA player’s biggest leap in production occurs between his rookie and sophomore seasons, so he may not be considered for the honor by some simply because the improvement was expected to an extent.
  • Carmelo Anthony. In Anthony’s first six NBA seasons, his PER never exceeded 22.3. This season, however, it’s all the way up to 26.7. He has done this by learning to take smarter shots; he is taking less long 2s (16-23 feet) per game than in any prior season, and instead moving those attempts back behind the 3-point line, where he is shooting a career best 43.5%. Between that and a slight reduction in turnovers, he has become even more of a scoring machine than he used to be, a huge reason for the Knicks’ hot start. That being said, Carmelo has always been considered an elite scorer, so some may not feel comfortable with calling him “most improved” given how good he already was.
  • Larry Sanders. After averaging under 15 minutes per game in each of his first two NBA seasons, Sanders has come out of nowhere this year, dominating the defensive glass (his 27.6% DRR is top-10 in the NBA) and improving his TS% by nearly 10% to 55.7% in almost 25 minutes per game (though he still can’t really be considered a true scoring threat). Many fans are clamoring about his elite 9.0% block rate, but he was blocking shots at basically the same rate last season, just in fewer minutes. Out of all candidates listed in this section, my vote would probably go to Sanders right now.

There are plenty of other viable candidates at this point in the season; Zach Lowe mentioned many of them in part 2 of his mid-season awards column today. Lowe pushes for Blatche, a very solid choice, but I think his aberration of a season in 2011-12 (PER under 11 after finishing at 16.9 and 17.6 in the two seasons prior) overvalues just how much he has improved (kind of like Turkoglu’s MIP award season in 2007-08). After reviewing all possibilities, it can still be argued that Lopez has just as good of a case, if not better, as any of them.


Why Lopez?

Out of all realistic candidates, no one has experienced a higher jump in PER between last season and this season than Lopez (apart from Blatche). In 2011-12, he played in 64 games, averaging just 14 minutes and starting in zero of them with a PER of 15.2. This season, he has played just 45 minutes less throughout his first 32 games (840) as he did all last season (895), starting in all of them and averaging 26.3 minutes with a PER of 21.3. Additionally, none of the players above have made such full-scale changes to their game as Lopez. Check this out:

  • Effective Field Goal Percentage– 2011-12: 46.1%   2012-13: 55.7%
    Difference: +9.6%
  • Free Throw Percentage – 2011-12: 71.4%   2012-13: 79.5%
    Difference: +8.1%
  • PPP on Offensive Rebounds – 2011-12: 1.12   2012-13: 1.46
    Difference: +.34 PPP
  • Block Rate – 2011-12: 4.8%   2012-13: 6.2%
    Difference: +1.4%
  • Foul Rate – 2011-12: 5.1 per 36 min   2012-13: 2.7 per 36 min
    Difference: 2.4 less fouls committed per 36 min

While the huge change in scoring efficiency may be what earns Lopez the most attention, the fact that he has made such an improvement on the defensive side of the ball as well is what should help to put him ahead of so much close competition.

Realistically speaking, do I expect Robin Lopez to get enough votes to win? No, not really. There are too many other options to choose from on better-performing teams with more national exposure. Nonetheless, Lopez deserves to be recognized for everything he has done to make a name for himself here in New Orleans; this writer has taken notice, and hopefully now other NBA followers will too.


  1. WisconsinHornet

    January 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Since I was ridiculously banned from your NARCish HornetsReport forum for merely supporting us losing as many games as possible in order to maximize our long term potential, I suppose I’ll try to comment on here.

    Lopez has been better than any of us could hope for. He’s clearly to be a long-term piece of the puzzle for us, as he “fills the hole” (along with Jason Smiht) in regards to checking “Center” off the the list of needs. It allows us to set our sights on a SF and/or PG this offseason – knowing that with the successful acquisition of a legitimate NBA SF we’ll be a clear playoff team next season. I don’t want to put all of our Center eggs in the Robin Lopez basket, which is why I think it’s vital to retain a talented and above average backup Center (like Smiht) on the roster as well.

    Anything you can do to have me reinstated at HornetsReport.com would be greatly appreciated. I am sorely disappointed to have been banned by an overzealous moderator for no other reason than I have a different long-term outlook about the future of this franchise than most.

    • Jason Calmes

      January 3, 2013 at 3:38 pm

      It’s not ‘ours’. You are on your own.

      Since this is turning into censorship talk… I know the issue was you popping off to a.mod rudely when they, perhaps wrongly, perhaps not, wrote you regarding your actions there and not staying on topic (ahem). I know this because you forwarded me the message. Write them, apologize, behave.

    • Gary

      January 4, 2013 at 2:26 am

      No one wants to hear that crap. Tanking doesn’t help a team. And buddy we aren’t doing it. We are just bad. 3 good players and others average, slightly above average or just horrible. We will likely win 25 games this year and will have a top 5 pick. Losing 40 games on purpose doesn’t help us grow as a team and Monty isn’t doing it.

  2. Cajun T

    January 3, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Censorship? Say it isn’t so.

    Great article Mason. Really enjoyed reading it. If Lopez can improve his defense and defensive rebounding %age, he may have a legitimate shot.

  3. Biasvasospasm

    January 3, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Lopez’s offensive game is hilarious in that nearly everything he’s done this year doesn’t look like it should work, but it does. He’s developed a legit post game with a shockingly effective hook shot, a couple spin and up and under moves, he’s getting putbacks and hitting that almost-set shot to seventeen feet, he’s a pretty decent passer. I love how he’s reinvented himself as an offensive player and I’m totally fine with keeping him around as a piece for our future unless he can net us n equally attractive asset, which I find unlikely. Young capable 7 footers (and he’s been better than capable this year) are rarely on contracts like this.

  4. Josh

    January 3, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Great article. I think Lopez is definitely deserving of being considered for the MIP; however, I think Vasquez will be receiving more attention based on his stats. Although I think Lopez is more deserving of MIP, I think Vasquez has a great chance at winning. He has already received attention from the league by being named Western Conference Player of the Week.

    • Mason Ginsberg

      January 3, 2013 at 4:34 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it. Regarding Vasquez – you very well may be right, and that is pretty disappointing to me if true. Vasquez is playing at a similar level to where he was last season, but he is getting many more minutes to accumulate better per-game numbers, which may lead some to false assumptions about how much he has truly “improved.” I do think he is playing at a higher level than he did last year, but nowhere near “MIP Award-deserving” better.

      • mateor

        January 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm

        I anticipate Greivus getting more attention for this award too. Never underestimate the power of counting stats on an NBA beat writer.

      • Jack

        January 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

        If Vasquez can increase his PER by espn from 15.83 now to 17 or 18 by the end of the season, I think he will get a big chance.

  5. MZURK

    January 3, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Lopez is very skilled offensively. But he’s a 7 foot center who is a complete non-factor on the defensive glass. He’s also nowhere near the defender that his 2+ blocks per game would seem to suggest.

    Hornets are weak defending the paint and Lopez is one of the culprits.

    It’s good that he can make his shots at least, but he’s basically a good backup being forced to start.

  6. 504ever

    January 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    Fantastic article, Mason.

    And I completely agree with this part of WisconsinHornets post:

    “Lopez has been better than any of us could hope for. He’s clearly to be a long-term piece of the puzzle for us, as he “fills the hole” (along with Jason Smith) in regards to checking “Center” off the the list of needs. It allows us to set our sights on a SF and/or PG this offseason – knowing that with the successful acquisition of a legitimate NBA SF we’ll be a clear playoff team next season.” And I agree about retaining Jason Smith, who has one more year left at $2.5M/year.

  7. NOEngineer

    January 3, 2013 at 11:48 pm

    Also important to note that Lopez has improved over the short course of this season, and so may be expected to continue to improve. He seems more fluid, more confident, and more aggressive in the past 10 or 15 games than he did earlier.

    Unfortunately, we have numerous candidates for LIP at the bottom of our roster…..

  8. xman20002000

    January 4, 2013 at 2:05 am

    I think he attacked the basket a few times in a few games… I really wish he were more dominant… Seems like we don’t get enough offensive or defensive rebounds… You can’t be impressed with our toughness in the paint…

  9. Gary

    January 4, 2013 at 2:30 am

    Is anyone else shocked at the amount of people jumping ship. From tiger droppings to hornets report, people are acting like we were expected to do more than this. Davis has lived up to expectations, and he’s developed a better offensive game than we thought he would have. Anderson and Gordon are great. But Gordon hasn’t played half of the season. We are young. We have a bright, bright future. I truly hope some learn to understand this

    • Jason Calmes

      January 4, 2013 at 2:37 am

      There are some sad facts out there.

      One is that most basketball fans, however interested in their team or basketball generally, are bigger fans of winning and dreaming about how to change their team . . . which kind of makes them not fans of their team, from a certain point of view.

      This is reflected in a number of ways, including the fact that in most markets, current and prior season’s record are good predictor of ticket sales.

      Another is the people are just poor analysts. They do not pay attention to the right data.

      At Hornets247, we try to keep our eyes on the most important issues and have a little fun in the process. It does not always work, but that’s the idea.

      And agreed on the bright future bits there.

      • Gary

        January 4, 2013 at 3:11 am

        Nothing wrong with stating opinions. We all wish we are GMs sometimes. I just can’t see how people are so disappointed. I for one can’t wait to watch us grow for the next few months then enjoy a great offseason seeing our bench improve, and seeing what moves we make in the draft.

      • Jason Calmes

        January 4, 2013 at 3:16 am

        Agreed. They are actually outperforming my expectations.

        Very excited about this team.

    • xman20002000

      January 4, 2013 at 2:52 am


      You are right on the money… In reality what can you expect from the Hornets… Most probably learned each others first names.. But we should be scoring more points… I wonder what Miller will look like when he comes back from the D League.. and perhaps Rivers needs to come on down… But Coach is still experimenting with personnel groupings… Aminu and EG…

      • Gary

        January 4, 2013 at 3:14 am

        Who knows? But giving him time definitely can’t hurt him. Rivers should be there too. He has to fix that shot. He’s athletic, can get to the basket. But he seems like he has no clue what to do once he gets there. he just can’t seem to make shots for us unless its a floater or a wide open 3. I believe in him. I just think the d-league might take a little pressure off of him and allow him to gain confidence

  10. shantadiva

    January 4, 2013 at 5:32 pm

    I don’t know about Vasquez as MIP for the league, but he should be the MIP for the Hornets. He appears to me to have improved almost every part of his game, except turnovers. His shooting, assists, court vision, rebounding and defense have certainly improved. His higher turnover rate I think is due mostly to taking more chances. Last year he was way to timid. Kaman was open many times on the pick and role and he’d never risk it. I like Monty playing some at small forward. I’d like to see a lineup of Davis, Anderson, Gordon, Vasquez and Roberts on the floor sometime during each game.

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