In “The Spotlight Series,” I’ll be looking at a player or two (depending on the team) from each team in the league that, in my opinion, doesn’t get attention at all from casual fans, or doesn’t get enough praise for what he brings to the table.
The Chicago Bulls are coming off of a disappointing 2015-16 campaign (42-40), one filled with injuries, locker room issues, and, ultimately, a failed playoff berth. They over went a bit of an overhaul, trading their native son Derrick Rose, and losing future Hall-of-Famer Pau Gasol to the Spurs and emotional staple Joakim Noah in free agency.
Instead of replacing them with youth, the Bulls added another aging-but-talented future Hall-of-Famer in Dwyane Wade and passing maestro Rajon Rondo. The Rondo-Wade-Jimmy Butler-Fred Hoiberg dynamic will be interesting to watch unfold for a multitude of reasons.
What will be less intriguing, but almost as important, will be how well Robin Lopez, brother of All-Star Brook Lopez and destroyer of mascots, can replace Noah and solidify Chicago’s frontcourt.
The Lopez Brothers entered the league in 2008. While Brook was praised early and often for his offensive skill-set –and still is — for the Nets, Robin earned a reputation as an energy big early in his career. In his first four seasons, all with the Phoenix Suns, Robin only started 94 of the 242 (38.8 percent) games he played, averaging 5.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in 14.4 minutes.
In his fifth season, starting fresh in New Orleans in the aftermath of the Wesley Johnson trade (weird deal in hindsight), he got his first full-time starting opportunity and showcased his impact on both ends of the floor. Lopez averaged a career-high 11.3 points on 53.4 percent shooting from the floor, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks.
He was traded in the 2013 offseason to the Portland Trailblazers as part of the three-team deal based around then-Kings-now-Pelicans wing Tyreke Evans. Lopez solidified the 5 spot for Portland immediately, averaging 11.1 points on 55.1 percent shooting from the floor, and a career-high in rebounds (8.5) and blocks (1.7). The Blazers had a +5.8 net rating with Lopez on the floor; that dropped to -0.7 with him on the bench.
Lopez’s 2014-15 campaign was an injury-riddled one, missing 23 games. He wasn’t at full force, noticeable by his dip in production (9.6 points on 53.5 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks), but the Blazers were still had a +4.7 net with him on the court, and a +3.8 net with him on the bench.
Lopez bounced back last season as a member of the New York Knicks, averaging 10.3 points on 53.9 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. The Knicks, while improved, were still a mess; however, they were even more of a mess when he was on the bench (-4.4 net rating) than when he was on the floor (-1.5 net rating).
Sometimes we lazily label players. When guys get the “hustle/energy” guy label, you typically imagine players with very minimal skills that just bounce around everywhere and make an impact.
That’s not Robin Lopez.
He certainly does hustle his tail off, and showcases that mostly through his prowess on the offensive glass (more on that in a moment).
Lopez is a high-IQ player with an underrated skill set, and that starts in the post.
I’ve never in my life seen a player shoot hook shots practically from their knees like Lopez does.
And it freakin’ works!
Via Basketball-Reference, Lopez attempted the second most hook shots in the league (226; Magic center Nikola Vucevic took 233), converted the second most hooks (126; Vucevic made 131), and ranked 16th in field goal percentage (55.8) among the 47 players that attempted at least 50 hook shots.
Lopez ranked in the 68.2 percentile on post-ups via Synergy — ahead of players like Al Jefferson, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, Enes Kanter, Jahlil Okafor, and Jonas Valanciunas — while being one of nine players to shot 50 percent or better on post-up possessions (minimum of 150 possessions).
Lopez is also a reliable option in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 57.5 percentile via Synergy. Much like Cavs center Tristan Thompson, he stays wide at all times — with the screen and as he slides down the lane. He’s always patient, which allows him to seek out the most efficient path that’ll give his guard room to operate on the drive, as well as a window to deliver a pass into Lopez’s soft hands:
Though it isn’t a consistent part of his game, Lopez has shown flashes of a mid-range jumper if he’s feeling it:
Lopez is one of the NBA’s best offensive rebounders. He reads the ball quickly, uses his body to gain favorable position inside, then uses his soft hands to catch-reset-finish, or simply tap the ball in:
Lopez’s activity makes him difficult to deal with on the offensive end. He’s constantly on the move, roaming around the paint or setting screens to free his teammates on and off the ball. That activity pays off for him on the offensive glass.
Via Basketball-Reference, among active players that have played at least 500 career games, Lopez ranks fifth with 5.7 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions — slightly behind noted glass-eater DeAndre Jordan (5.8), and ahead of guys like Dwight Howard (5.2), Zach Randolph (5.1), and Kevin Love (4.9). Lopez also ranked in the 76.1 percentile on putbacks, via Synergy.
Defensively, Lopez makes things difficult for opposing players at the rim. He isn’t a leaper, but uses his length and impeccable timing to be a deterrent:
Lopez ranked in the 71.9 percentile when defending post-ups, via Synergy. Opponents shot 49.6 percent inside of six feet when he was the nearest defender — a whopping 10.7 percent below their average.
He does struggle in space if pulled too far from the rim. Lopez doesn’t move quickly enough laterally to hold his own against quicker bigs or guards when he’s switched onto them.
Last season, opponents shot 47.8 percent from 15 feet or further when guarded by Lopez — nearly nine percent higher than their average. Via Synergy, Lopez ranked in the 49.4 percentile when defending isolation possessions, and ranked in the 31.3 percentile when defending the roll-man in pick-and-roll.
Bulls fans may miss Joakim Noah for his leadership on and off the floor, but in terms of talent, Lopez represents a clear upgrade. He’s skilled, plays hard, and fights mascots in his spare time.
What’s not to love?
Lopez should man the middle just fine.
Also: don’t forget his movie comes out this fall: