NBA players were allowed to report to team facilities today for the first time since the lockout started on July 1, as long as there was no contact between players and team management. This is another baby step in returning the NBA to normal after the five month lockout, which is still technically in effect as the final details of the new CBA are hammered out. Phoenix Suns Steve Nash, Robin Lopez and Zabian Dowdell were present and accounted for at US Airways Center, and chomping at the bit to finally get this season started.
That Nash would show up on the first day possible is no surprise. In addition to being the Suns most valuable player, he is the unquestioned leader of the team along with Grant Hill and Hill, of course, is an unsigned free agent. Showing leadership, dedication, and enthusiasm, setting an example? That's just Nash being Nash.
"Of course (we can be a playoff team)," Nash said. "I definitely would love to see us improve our roster but I think it's up to us to find that little bit of magic collectively and individually to give ourselves a chance to win enough games to get in the playoffs. I would never say we're not a playoff team. I think that should be the minimum of our goal, and let's see how good we can get."
Robin Lopez' appearance and statements are more noteworthy. Last season, Lopez' third in the league, was a disappointment by any measure as his production plummeted from his pre-injury breakout in 2009-2010. Some of it was due to health, some due to other reasons, but by the end of the season Lopez seemed to have lost the trust of the coaching staff and the support of many fans.
Today, Lopez sounded like a player ready for redemption, as he spoke of his regained explosiveness and renewed passion for the game after the long lockout layoff. Our own Seth Pollack covered today's appearance at US Airways Center and brought us back some tasty quote nuggets.
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Let's flash back to last summer. So excited were we by Lopez' prospects as he returned from a bulging disc in his back that he was expected to make up much of the departed Amare Stoudemire's lost production. This excitement stemmed from an impressive 2009-2010 season from Lopez, which included 14 double-digit scoring performances in the first two months of 2010, and peaked with a 30 point, 12 rebound performance on February 26th against the Clippers.
The following month, Lopez suffered his bulging disc, returned late in the 2010 playoffs, but never quite looked the same after that. Last season, we saw a hesitant and sluggish Lopez, but for the occasional burst of his previous form. By the end it almost looked as if team and player were ready to part ways.
Today, Lopez expressed optimism that his health problems are largely behind him. "I haven't had any pain while playing. I feel a lot quicker. I feel a lot bouncier," he said. "We'll see how it goes."
He went on to acknowledge his poor performance last year. "I think I just needed to use the break to get in the right mindset for this upcoming season and try to get right physically because at the end of the season -- don't get me wrong, I'm not pinning everything on what I wasn't physically, obviously that wasn't it," he said. "I just wasn't playing well, period."
And, from Seth's piece over at the mother ship:
"For the first time in a while, I'm hoping that I can contribute to a pretty good front line out here," Lopez said. "Obviously, we've got Marcin (Gortat) and I'm hoping I can contribute what I failed to contribute last year."
This is literally exactly what I want to hear from Lopez. He's healthy and he's ready to play improved ball. I wrote last spring that the best hope for the Suns is to keep Lopez and build him back up.
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?
Since the lockout ended, our discussion has centered around what pieces the Suns can add to their roster. Unfortunately, prospects to add a difference maker are dim. Among current players, there isn't much upside to be found. Jared Dudley growing into an effective starter? Maybe. Channing Frye or Marcin Gortat adding new wrinkles to their games? Could happen. Markieff Morris and Gani Lawal are completely unknown quantities. The 23-year old Robin Lopez is the one player on the Suns roster who has a reasonable chance to play much, much better than he did last year.
And if he does, the Suns front line becomes that much better. An emerging Gortat with his defense and rebounding, and a rejuvenated Lopez with his scoring touch would be a very nice combo, the envy of many teams. We'll see how it plays out when Lopez takes the court, but he certainly sounds like he's ready for the challenge.