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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.

What now?

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.


The Orlando Magic are in big trouble, down 3-1 to the Hawks and getting dependable production from only Dwight Howard. Can any of their trade deadline pickups from Phoenix bring anything to the table tonight to avoid elimination? Paging Mr. Turkoglu and Mr. Richardson: whattaya got? Even gunslinging Gilbert Arenas came through for 20 points in game 4 for the Magic.

Meanwhile, one has to think the Pacers have won their single token game and will bow out tonight, right? Lakers-Hornets game 5 goes back to LA, where the Lakers look to me to be in one of those situations (Kobe banged up, whispers about poor team chemistry) that will end up with them winning the next two games, and then everyone will forget they ever struggled. Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong about this.

Notes:

  • It seems like an awfully long time ago that Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu began the season in the Suns starting lineup. J-Rich is averaging only 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game so far in the playoffs for the Magic, on a terrible 30% shooting from the field. Not to be outdone in the race to the bottom, Turkoglu is scoring 7.8 points and pulling down 4 rebounds per game on 23% shooting from the field. Any Suns fans missing either of them right now?
  • Pau Gasol isn't producing as well as his brother Marc Gasol so far in the playoffs. Maybe it's not quite true that the Lakers acquiring Pau for Marc was such a steal. Not that the Lakers can complain with the titles Pau helped them win, but this trade has been portrayed as lopsided to the point of being unfair, and that's not turned out to be the case.
  • Derrick Rose doesn't expect his sprained ankle to be a problem tonight.

Game times:

Atlanta at Orlando, 4:30PM PDT, NBA TV. Hawks lead series 3-1

Indiana at Chicago, 5:00PM PDT, TNT. Bulls lead series 3-1

New Orleans at LA Lakers, 7:30PM PDT, TNT. Series tied 2-2

GO!


After looking at the few good developments from the Phoenix Suns’ 2010-11 season, we move on to the bad that came with a 40-42 record and 10th place finish in the West. Here’s the bad...

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Jared Dudley catches royal wedding fever!


Welcome to the third piece of the 2010-11 Phoenix Suns Player Evaluations. We here at Bright Side of the Sun have assembled somewhat of an All-Star cast of writers to put together alternative views on the players, front office, and coaches. Your favorite and least favorite Suns will no doubt get plenty of attention, and the compliments or criticism they deserve. Unless we're talking Vince Carter. Only criticism there. Anyway...

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Hearkening back to the somewhat-better days of last summer, we saw the arrival of three new acquisitions for the Phoenix Suns. Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress were introduced within the matter of just a couple of days, and throughout the 2010/11 season the carousel continued on its merry way. After the curtain dropped rather prematurely in early spring, we had seen Turkoglu, Warrick, Childress, Marcin Gortat, Mickael Pietrus, Vince Carter and Aaron Brooks all make debuts as Suns. Looking back at my own mindset at each respective time, I wasn't more excited to see any one of those players lace 'em up for the Purp as I was when Josh Childress the 'Fro-licious signed here.

It was impossible not to compare Chill to Shawn Marion. His hops, garbage-pailness and athletic yeah-I-just-snuck-in-there-and-did-thatness had me highly anticipating the Matrix Reloaded, right down to the jumper that was so fugly it could put Bill Cartwright in hysterics. 

Well much like the Matrix Reloaded, it was more fizzle than sizzle, even though that 'fro is righteously fo' rizzle. What went wrong? Was all this because of a busted finger? Or did Gentry perhaps cost the team a few wins by not releasing the Chill? It's all just so much pontificating at this point; what's important now is: Will a consistent 25mpg from Josh Childress make this team better?

 

 

For the sake of argument, let's assume that the broken finger he sustained in preseason was the root of most of his troubles. His failure to hit even half of his freethrows after a career of being above-average in that department lends no other explanation. I'm willing to write off his horrid shooting this season as a product of injury. The problem is, even if you wipe that away, things don't bode very well for the future.

For his career (again, not counting this season), Childress has averaged 0.9 three-point attempts per game. As a wing player for the Phoenix Suns, this is, for all intents and purposes, unacceptable. A shy trigger-finger in this system will pretty much punch your ticket straight to Garret Siler land. This is why Mickael Pietrus was given a spot in the rotation, despite maniacally hoisting up scud missiles from anywhere on the court, while Childress was a spectator. I'm not saying it's right, but it's the preference of the coaching staff and likely (and probably more importantly), it's the preference of Steve Nash

It would be natural to point out in defense of Childress that Shawn Marion has a worse career 3pt percentage (.332 to Childress' .343), and that didn't stop him from thriving in the Suns system. The big difference here is that Shawn has attempted 2.3 a game; adding up to 1.4 more attempts from deep than Childress. Drilling threes like Ray Allen is not a requirement to play for the Suns, but passing up shots or showing any hesitation on the perimeter is disastrous for a SG or SF in this system. If Steve finds you open in the corner, you better damn well let the orange fly. 

So what would it take for Childress to earn his keep as a Sun? His reputation as a solid defender preceded him, but like every other part of his game the sample-size as a Sun was too small. His best shot might be to become a younger and more athletic version of Grant Hill while splitting time with him at SF, thus allowing the Suns to keep a versatile defensive ace on the floor when Hill sits. For this to work, however, he would have to A) start shooting when open, maybe learning the corner three Raja-style, or B) be so effective in his defensive-minded garbage-pail role that he can stay on the floor despite his shyness on the perimeter. 

I don't have much confidence in either of those things happening, especially since "earning his keep" would entail playing up to par for a contract that will pay him $29mil/4 years. Even at his best, Josh Childress is still (stop me if you've heard this before) a role player. You know who pays role players $30 million? Championship contenders. Teams that pay role players $30 million and don't contend end up being... the Indiana Pacers.

As much as I hope I'm wrong about this, the best case scenario for Childress and the Suns is for him to play well enough to increase his trade value. This team needs players with potential for growth, not more role players with limited skill-sets.

Sorry Josh, this hurts me more than it hurts you.


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