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.


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