Season in Review: Robin Lopez

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Published: April 22, 2013
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Our series of 2012-13 New Orleans Hornets player evaluations begins with an overview of starting center Robin Lopez.

 

With Emeka Okafor heading to Washington in mid-June 2012 and Chris Kaman agreeing to a deal in early July, the Hornets were left with only two players on the roster who could even conceivably play center – Anthony Davis and Jason Smith. In those two players, they possessed a toothpick of a 19 year old (though overwhelmingly talented) who had not yet even played his first NBA game and a power forward who had played some minutes at center, but not as a starter. Though the acquisition of Ryan Anderson made the need much less dire, New Orleans was still on the lookout for a player who could serve as a starting NBA center for around 20 minutes per night. On July 25th, 2012, the team locked up its answer, as news first broke that the Hornets were acquiring Robin Lopez in a 3-team trade from the Phoenix Suns (completing a deal that took about two days to become official). Nine months later, it is now time to review Robin Lopez’s first season as a member of the New Orleans Hornets.

 

Where He Started

When the Hornets first received Lopez, he was coming to the team as someone who could never quite cut it as a starting center in the NBA. In his first four seasons in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, he was an average center at best, never really playing with the consistency necessary to lock down the starting gig for prolonged periods of time. In a nutshell, Robin struggled on the defensive glass but did a decent job of getting to the line while not committing many turnovers. Even if he had been a more valuable player on the court, though, he struggled to stay on it thanks to a tendency to pick up lots of fouls of his own.

Lopez’s rebounding deficiencies deflated his value enough that the Hornets were able to work out a deal with Phoenix to acquire him and sign him to a very fair contract. As a part of the trade, he agreed to a 3-year contract worth around $15 million which the Hornets are allowed to terminate by July 5th this summer for a mere $500,000 buyout.

 

2012-13 Advanced Stats

First, a simple chart that shows how Lopez fared in a few relevant stat categories compared to the 2012-13 NBA average for centers (courtesy of Hoopdata.com updated through March 27th, if available) as well as his team rank in each.

lopez table

 

2012-13 Season Strengths

Foul Rate

Lopez wasted no time before starting to prove to Hornets fans that picking him up was a good move, averaging about 14 points per game (55.6% shooting), 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks over his first three games. Of equal importance was his ability to stay on the court – in his 95 minutes of playing time over that span, he committed just six fouls. Over his first four seasons, Lopez picked up a foul every 7 minutes of playing time, a simply horrendous average. He finished this season with a much more respectable average, registering a foul every 12.8 minutes, nearly double his career average.

Shot Locations

In Lopez’s prior two seasons before joining the Hornets, he attempted 50.6% of his total field goal attempts from within the restricted area. The result was a shooting percentage of 48.4%, slightly below average for typical NBA centers. With the Hornets, however, Robin was able to raise that percentage of shots taken right near the rim all the way up to 57.3%. As expected, his field goal percentage also jumped, soaring all the way up to 53.4%, well above the league average. Lopez’s scoring efficiency is heavily correlated to where he takes his shots, so this increase in attempts at the rim is essential to his effectiveness on the offensive end. His ability to score after setting screens off of the pick and roll helps him here as well, as he has been among the league’s top 40 most efficient scorers doing so in each of the past four seasons according to MySynergy Sports.

Offensive Rebounding

Robin was by no means dominant in this area, but he finished the season with an offensive rebound rate of 12.4%, which is higher than the 10-11% average for NBA centers over the past few seasons. His success in this area inherently aids him in the previously discussed area, as offensive rebounding frequently results in easy second chance points right at the rim. He was especially good at doing this, as his 1.28 points per play on offensive rebounds ranked 14th in the NBA this season (per MySynergy Sports).

Free Throw Shooting

While Lopez didn’t get to the line as often as desired, he knocked them down when he got there, shooting a career high 77.8% from the charity stripe. NBA centers only make about two thirds of their free throws on average, so Robin shooting a full 10% higher than that is a great asset to this team. In close games, certain teams sometimes have to remove their most talented big men down the stretch if they cannot make their free throws, so Lopez’s ability to make them is one that cannot be overlooked.

Interior Defense

Lopez was a solid contributor as a paint protector this season both as a help defender and in the post. When opponents posted him up, he held them to .73 points per play (per MySynergy Sports), which is not elite, but certainly above average. In addition, he posted a career high block rate, swatting 5% of opponents’ field goal attempts while he was on the floor. Many of these blocks were a result of strong post D, but he picked up a decent number of them through help defense as well. The Hornets’ team stats back up Lopez’s defensive ability as well, as opponents scored 2.2 points per 100 possessions less with him on the court.

Durability

In the 2012-13 season, only 15 NBA players started in all 82 games, one of whom being Robin Lopez. This season was the first of his career in which that was the case, despite his former team’s publicly lauded training staff. At a time when New Orleans’ medical team was at times questioned as a result of Gordon’s lingering knee injury, it is essential not to focus on just the problems ignore the success stories like Lopez.

 

2012-13 Season Weaknesses

Defensive Rebounding

Lopez came into the season as a poor defensive rebounder, and did nothing to alter people’s opinions throughout it. His defensive rebound rate of 13.4% was his worst since his rookie season and well below the recent average for NBA centers of around 20%. That being said, there is a case to be made that Robin doesn’t hurt his team in this area quite as much as his personal rebounding numbers may suggest. As a team, the Hornets posted a DRR of 75.7% with Lopez on the court, but only 72.8% with him on the bench. After seeing this stat, I looked to see whether or not Lopez was largely just benefiting from Aminu’s rebounding prowess this season, but that is not the case. With both Lopez and Aminu on the court, the Hornets’ DRR was 75.6%, but with Lopez on and Aminu off, that number actually rose slightly to 76% (via NBAWowy). Based on this data, one could make the claim that Lopez was a plus on the defensive glass, but made his mark in the form of making his top priority boxing out his man as opposed to chasing down boards. Regardless, it’s something that Lopez has to improve upon if he wants to be taken seriously as a legitimate starting NBA center.

Free Throw Rate

Through the first four seasons of Lopez’s career, he maintained a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of .41, right around the recent league average for centers. In 2012-13, however, that average plummeted to .288, well below average for his position. Based on the first five years of his career, it can be argued that his free throw rate fluctuates based on the caliber of player that he is up against.

FTR Table

The conclusion that can be drawn from that chart is that the more minutes that Lopez plays with the starting unit (and therefore against the opponent’s best players), the more difficult it is for him to draw fouls. During his last season in Phoenix, he played the bulk of his minutes spelling Gortat against opposing second units, and took advantage en route to the strongest free throw rate of his career. This past season in New Orleans, however, his minutes came with the starters, and it was clearly more difficult for him to draw fouls against more savvy defenders. This area could be one in which Lopez can improve with some offseason work on his post game.

Defense away from the rim

Lopez struggled mightily on defense outside of the paint, repeatedly getting abused in the pick and roll when forced to switch onto the ball-handler. The fourth quarter of the giant Lakers comeback is likely what will stick out the most, but has been a problem throughout his career. Centers frequently suffer when switched onto a guard as a result of a screen, but Robin struggled more than most due to his lack of anything remotely resembling foot speed. That being said, he was one of the best players in the NBA at stopping the screener from putting himself in a position to score, allowing just .57 points per play in those situations, 7th best in the NBA (per MySynergy Sports). Unfortunately, he got absolutely wrecked on spot-ups; he allowed 1.08 points per play, which doesn’t even crack the top 300. Apart from post-ups, this type of play was where the highest percentage of his defense was played, so it’s clearly something he needs to work on.

 

The Future

Though he started all 82 games, it is not unreasonable to consider Lopez to be the team’s third big, as he averaged fewer minutes per game than both Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson. As Davis progresses, his minutes will only increase, which could further reduce Lopez’s role, despite his strong play last season. Between his play with heavy minutes and the potential for a decreased role in the future, Lopez’s perceived value may never be higher than it is right now. There are two conflicting schools of thought as a result of the above rationale, and the approach that the Pelicans’ front office decides to take will likely have huge implications on the future of the franchise.

The first option would be, quite simply, to change nothing. Robin Lopez has two years left on a very cap-friendly contract in relation to his on-court contributions. He is an ideal third big man to go along with Davis and Anderson, and the three plus Jason Smith gives the Pelicans one of the best front courts in the NBA. If the Pelicans believe that they can sufficiently upgrade their back court/wings through free agency, then the team may keep that front court in tact going forward.

The second option is to pursue the idea of trading Lopez. In 2012-13, Davis averaged about 29 minutes per game, with Anderson averaging about 31. Assuming Davis sees his playing time increase to about 35 minutes per game now that his rookie season is behind him, that will leave about 30 available minutes for the remaining front court spots. With both Smith and Lopez as the leading candidates for those minutes, the Pelicans arguably have too much talent for that little playing time. The team could be better served by flipping one of those players for help in a position of greater need and bringing back Amundson or another cheap contract to fill about 10 of those remaining minutes. Of course, it would be silly to assume that a sufficient offer will appear out of thin air, but it would not be surprising if the Pelicans entertained the idea of moving Robin.

 

Summary

Overall, Lopez’s contributions to the New Orleans Hornets were greater than nearly everyone expected. Most followers of the team (including Dell Demps) expected Lopez to be a guy whose main role would be to bang bodies with the Howards and Bynums of the league, with limited usage otherwise in favor of AD and Ryno. While he has struggled at times, Robin has far exceeded those expectations, proving to be a very useful player on the offensive end as well thanks to his ability to know his limitations and therefore score efficiently. If Lopez can expand his post game to draw more fouls, improve his lateral mobility to become less of a liability while defending the pick and roll, and upgrade his ability on the defensive glass, he could still transform himself from a fringe starter to someone who cannot be left out of the lineup. Assuming Robin is back with the Pelicans next season, it will be interesting to see how much his first full offseason spent working with a new coaching staff can help his overall game.

Check out the entire Season in Review series here at Hornets247.com.

5 comments
Arabi
Arabi

Great article, Mason. At this point I think the biggest question about Lopez is whether or not Davis is done growing. Other than that I think your solid analysis tends towards keeping him.

Will
Will

I think, with the assistance of the coaching staff, Lopez could be a solid starter at center. To me, Davis should start at power forward next year and beyond; playing Lopez 15-20 minutes a night with Davis playing some minutes at center would be my personal plan. Still, if Davis gets around 35 minutes a night and Anderson gets around 25-30, there wouldn't be much time left for both Smith and Lopez. A trade might make sense. While Robin isn't a bastion of rebounding excellence, Anderson and Smith don't appear to be either; when AD is on the bench, we could get killed on the offensive glass. If the right deal comes along, I would be fine with moving Lopez. However, his contract and unique skill set in relation to our other bigs makes me feel that we should not be so quick to ship him off.

cnoel23
cnoel23

I don't see the Pelicans trading Lopez for Bledsoe especially after the season he just had. Unless we move into the Top 3(which could definitely happen), I could see us package our first round pick for Bledsoe though. Lets just say we get the #5 or #6 pick and our top couple choices are off the board. Would you trade the 5/6 pick and Rivers to the Clippers for Bledsoe and pick #26. I would. Some would say "How could you trade away last years 10th pick and this years 5th/6th pick?" Here's why: 1.) You get arguably the best player in the deal in Bledsoe who would fit in great with the Pelicans future plans. You also land Bledsoe without giving up any of your frontcourt talent. 2.) This is a WEAK DRAFT. I would NOT give up the fifth pick in next years draft, but this year is a VERY WEAK DRAFT. 3.) While Austin Rivers has potential, he is not our future PG. I think we learned that much this year. Rivers played more minutes per game than Bledsoe, but was beaten in almost every statistical category as Bledsoe averaged more points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals per game. Bledsoe also shot better from the field, 3-point line, and free throw line. He also had a PER of 17.6 compared to 5.95 for Austin Rivers. Granted, I know Rivers is 20 and Bledsoe is 23. In a couple years, maybe Rivers has developed and proves me wrong, but maybe not. In comparison to Bledsoe's rookie season where they played similar minutes, Bledsoe still had more points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game a couple years ago. 4.) Doing this trade still gives the Hornets a first round pick. Granted its at #26 instead of #5 or #6, but it still gives us the opportunity to add someone young with upside in the draft. The reality is that #26 might not give you much worse in this draft than the #6 pick.

Nate
Nate

I don't see them trading Rivers. He will be retained if/when Gordon is shipped out and become our closer within a couple years.

504ever
504ever

Love this article and it's even handedness. I ultimately think Lopez will be back next year because there are so few trades where the Pelicans will receive value for him. There is an old NBA adage that you don't trade big for small for a reason. (A trade for Bledsoe could be an exception and possibly bring value for Lopez.) I believe management values Lopez. They spent a lot of time last year talking about adding length, and the playoff loss to the Lakers drove the point (need for length) home. I expect to see Lopez improve if he remains a Pelican. We have a hands on teaching staff that will only help Lopez improve as a player.

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