As if losing to the Raptors at home last night wasn't bad enough, Suns center Robin Lopez got himself ejected from the game in the second quarter due to another of his failures at temper control. It was a new low for Lopez in a season that had started so well for the Suns big man. He showed enthusiasm and commitment by showing up on the first day players were allowed back at team facilities as the lockout was ending, looking and sounding physically and mentally rejuvenated.
Lopez was so impressive in preseason that there was talk of competition at starting center between Lopez and Marcin Gortat, even though Gortat had clearly won the job down the stretch last season. Then Lopez took advantage of the opportunity provided by Gortat's injured thumb to score 22 points to go with 7 rebounds in the season opener against the Hornets. Despite a Suns loss, he was the team's player of the game.
Unfortunately, that game nearly a month ago was his finest moment of the season, by far. And now the Suns will not sign Lopez to an extension by today's deadline, making the 4th year player a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
In the Suns' current situation, the lame duck status of their backup center doesn't make sense for either party. It's time to aggressively shop Robin Lopez and trade him for the best available return before March 15th's trade deadline.
It's not surprising that neither the Suns nor Lopez are all that interested in a deal right now. The Suns' primary focus has been to avoid salary commitments after this season, in hopes of a major push in July's free agent market. Lopez is a former starter and talented player who finds himself in a position where he has virtually no chance to start given the emergence of Gortat. The Suns don't want to invest too much in a backup, Lopez must think he's capable of being more than a backup; there's no deal to be made. (More on the rules of restricted free agency in the NBA can be found here.)
Of course, come July it's unlikely that this dynamic changes any. Centers are at a premium in the NBA, especially young and athletic ones, and it's a virtual certainty another team will offer Lopez more than the Suns are willing to pay a backup. The Suns also figure to have several irons in the fire this July, looking for talent at shooting guard, small forward and power forward, at least. If Steve Nash decides to sign elsewhere or retire, the Suns will be in for a complete roster makeover and the only starting position that will be relatively set will be Gortat at center.
In short, the Suns will have a long to-do list this off-season and re-signing Lopez to back up Gortat will be a very low priority.
What kind of offers can Lopez expect to see? In one example, the Warriors signed Kwame Brown to a 1 yr/$7M contract this past off-season. You don't think Lopez could command a salary in that neighborhood, or a longer-term one? And if so, why would it make any sense for the Suns to match the offer? If they didn't, Lopez would walk and the Suns would get nothing in return. Trading him now would at least net some return, minor though it might be.
Most importantly, Lopez hasn't done anything this season to warrant the Suns keeping him. Sure, he looks healthier and has regained much of his lost athleticism, but that isn't helping his production any. Let's look at his career stats:
Through 17 games, he's actually producing even less in nearly identical minutes per game than last year, shooting less often and less efficiently. The one stretch of his career that gave the Suns a glimpse of what a playing-to-full-potential Lopez can do started about 2 years ago and lasted only about 2 months. Are we to hang on to that and ignore the rest of his 3+ year career? No, of course not. Lopez has had his opportunities and he hasn't succeeded at anything close to an acceptable level of consistency. Time to part ways.
None of us truly know what other NBA front offices would be wiling to give up for Lopez. A first-rounder would be great, a second-rounder would be a little tough to swallow but probably tolerable. Or the Suns might be able to pick up another low-priced contributing player, or dump a salary on a trade partner. None of those options are too exciting, but much better than the option to hold Lopez now and watch him walk for nothing in July.
Epilogue: The NBA's Circle of Life
Robin Lopez was selected by the Suns with the 15th pick of the 2008 draft, a pick acquired from the Atlanta Hawks along with Boris Diaw and the 21st pick in the 2006 draft (used to select Rajon Rondo, who was immediately traded to the Celtics) in exchange for Joe Johnson in an August, 2005 trade.
Johnson had been acquired by the Suns in a February, 2002 trade with the Celtics, along with Randy Brown, Milt Palacio and the 2002 #22 pick (used by the Suns to select Casey Jacobsen) in exchange for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk.
Rogers had signed with the Suns as a free agent during the 1999 off-season and had a nice career as a role player in Phoenix, including winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2000 while making 44% of his 3s that season, 4th best in the league.
Delk was a Suns free agent signing before the 2000-2001 season and became a solid contributor as well, averaging double figure scoring as a guard backing up Jason Kidd. He scored 53 points in a game at Sacramento on January 2, 2001.
So, this asset of Robin Lopez originated with two shrewd free agent signings, one in 1999 and one in 2000. Soon we'll find out who, if anyone, is the next link in this chain.