In the span of one year, Robin Lopez went from emerging young stud center who was going to save the day by coming back from his injury to play in the WCF, to the player who was set to be Nash's primary pick and roll partner to help replace Amare Stoudemire's production, to erratic starter, to Marcin Gortat's backup and finally, to being bumped from the rotation in favor of undrafted rookie Garret Siler.
That type of fall is similar to what happened to the real estate market a few years ago. Down, down, down. You wonder if you've reached the bottom yet, don't want to sell low, and aren't sure if you should sell at all. Value's going to go back up at some point, right? Those same questions apply to Lopez. I'm here to tell you he bottomed out last year, and that this is no time to sell. Hold on to Robin and build him back up. It's the smartest move.
It all comes back to his back.
The elephant in the room is obviously Lopez' health. He was diagnosed with a bulging disc in his back in March, 2010 and the exact extent of his injury seems like it has been shrouded in mystery since. When he came back in game 1 of the WCF last year to score 14 points and gather 6 rebounds, then scored 20 in game 3, it looked like his problems might be behind him. Then he was held scoreless in the last two games of that series, and didn't quite look right from the start this season.
Head Coach Alvin Gentry acknowledges that Lopez lost some of his athleticism, specifically leaping ability, but sounded hopeful that he was regaining it. On some nights this past season, he looked fast and agile, other times slow and clumsy, and I don't think anyone knew which version we'd see from game to game. The official word from the team is that Lopez is healthy, and his struggles are primarily the result of non-health issues.
So, why the decline?
In his end of the season press conference, Gentry used the word "regressed" and the term "sophomore slump" (never mind that this was Lopez' 3rd season) to describe Lopez. He also noted that Lopez is only 23, and seemed willing to excuse some of his struggles as growing pains. I won't give a lot of statistics here, because they only confirm what you saw watching him play, but suffice it to say that Lopez' production fell sharply across the board.
From what I saw, it was a combination of physical and confidence struggles, and the absence of Amare Stoudemire that caused Lopez' disappointing season. He thrived playing next to an all-star PF in Stoudemire. When Stoudemire left as a free agent, not only did Lopez lose a teammate who drew defensive attention away from him, he also had a lot more responsibility put on him. Lopez was counted on to pick up a good deal of Amare's lost production, and he simply wasn't physically or mentally prepared to do it yet.
The Gortat factor
Watching Marcin Gortat develop into a strong starting center after he was acquired in December was one of the few positive developments of the season for the disappointing Suns. However, my theory is that his presence wasn't good for the development of Robin Lopez. When Gortat came to the Suns, many fans thought it would help Lopez by lighting a fire under him. But, Lopez didn't need a kick in the pants, he needed a calm voice in his ear reassuring and encouraging him. There wasn't a lack of competitive fire or effort, there was a lack of confidence that came from being in a position for which he wasn't ready because of his immaturity and lost athletic ability.
Where Lopez wasn't physically or mentally ready to be a dependable starter, Gortat was more than ready. He commented that he felt like he was in a cage backing up Dwight Howard in Orlando. And, where Lopez is a sensitive sort with fragile self-confidence, the 27-year old Gortat is full of bravado and aggressiveness. In hindsight, it isn't much of a surprise that Gortat took control of the center position but, as he did, Lopez seemed to retreat further and further into his shell. He needed to be stroked a little, and instead he had his replacement brought in. It must have felt like Gortat was a schoolyard bully who stole his lunch money on the playground.
Let me be clear. I'm not blaming Gortat at all. He did exactly what I'd expect and want him to do in seizing his opportunity, and I have never been shy about expressing my admiration for the Polish Hammer. This is only a theory, it can't be proved either way, but I feel like the presence and success of Gortat sunk Lopez' confidence even further based on his body language and continued decline late in the season.
After this year, which started with mammoth expectations, to be eventually unfulfilled, and ended with a disheartened player, frustrated coaches and fans ready to pull the plug on Lopez, what are we are left with? A 23-year old, 7-foot backup center who, despite what his injury cost him, still has some nice athleticism for a big man and comes at the bargain price of under $3M for next year. He struggled mightily, but also showed flashes of effective play. If I was another NBA front office, I'd be looking at Lopez as a potential low-risk reclamation project if the Suns have given up on him and I could get him for cheap. But, aren't the Suns in a position where a low-risk, young, talented reclamation project would be nice for us to have, too? And, hey look! We've got one! Why give him away for peanuts?
Of course, we should trade Lopez if he's a key piece in landing us the upgrade at PF or SG we need, but trade him for a non-premium draft pick, or an older player who is only a small upgrade (like we did with Goran Dragic)? No, thanks. Going into next season, Lopez won't have those heavy expectations weighing on him, and we can hope that his strength continues to improve. All we'll need from him will be to play 15-20 minutes a night as a backup center, and work on his consistency. There's no reason he can't be a starter again at some point. Most of his career is ahead of him, and he hasn't come close to peaking yet. From an organizational standpoint, continuing to give up on young players is no way to grow a winning team.
I'm sure a lot of fans hate the idea of seeing Lopez flail and fumble around for the Suns any more. But, you know what would be worse than that? Giving up on him after all the investment we've made, and then seeing him make plays like this for another team.