Last year over at NBAPlaybook, Sebastian Pruiti took a look at players who struggled during the season and looked at whether it was a fluke season or the start of a trend. This year, Sebastian is bringing the series to Basketball Prospectus.
In the 2009-10 season, Robin Lopez was the only true center on the Phoenix Suns and posted a solid campaign, with a WARP of 2.1 in just under 20 minutes per game. He scored 8.5 points per contest and grabbed 14.2 percent of available rebounds while he was on the court. Entering last season, Lopez was given every opportunity to become the starting pivot in Phoenix for the forseeable future. Lopez's play took a step back in 2010-11, and despite being as a starter for much of the season, his WARP dropped below replacement level (to -0.3). His individual winning percentage fell from .519 to .402. Despite starting 56 games, Lopez's overall minutes fell as he struggled to stay on the court due to foul trouble and the eventual acquisition of Marcin Gortat from Orlando.
Where Did He Struggle?
Lopez never was and will never become a strong back-to-the-basket type of center, meaning that his offense needs to come from pick-and-rolls, cuts, and offensive rebounds. While Lopez wasn't the Suns' primary pick-and-roll threat in the 2009-2010 season, he was a very effective when used as a ball screener, scoring 1.299 points per possession (PPP), placing him in the top 10 percent of the NBA. He shot 69 percent when finishing the pick-and-roll.
Lopez's pick-and-roll possessions nearly doubled last season, going from 77 to 143. However, his effectiveness dipped, with his PPP falling to 1.112 on 55.8 percent shooting. One of the reasons for the decline is that he started running the pick-and-pop more often instead of rolling to the rim. In 2009-10, Lopez popped out just 7.8 percent of the time. This past season, Lopez that rose to 13.3 percent. Since he shot just 47.7 percent on those possessions, it wasn't the smartest of decisions:
Lopez isn't a good enough shooter out of the pick-and-pop. When he does pop, he is making things easier for the defense by taking away a threat. There are plenty of examples last season where instead of rolling towards the rim into space, Lopez simply settled and stayed on the outside waiting for the basketball. Even in situations where he chose to attack after popping out and receiving the basketball, Lopez was ineffective. This is because he isn't a strong player with the ball. Lopez is at his best when he can make the catch and go straight up with the ball. So when Lopez pops out and either shoots or attacks the rim, he isn't going to have much success.
Staying On The Court
Despite starting 25 more games in the 2010-11 season than he did the season befo, Lopez actually saw his minutes drop, going from 19.3 minutes per game to 14.8 minutes per game. Part of this had to do with the play of Gortat, who the Suns acquired from the Magic. However, Lopez is to blame as well as he struggled with foul trouble all season long. Lopez committed 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes this season, a jump from 4.3 the previous year. The only players on the Suns' roster that committed more fouls that Lopez this past season were Channing Frye and Grant Hill, but they played close to 300 more minutes than Lopez. Lopez's biggest problem defensively is that he just doesn't get to spots quickly enough. That hurts him as a post defender against the pick-and-roll. When defending the roll, Lopez sent his man to the line 20.4 percent of the time:
No matter whether he is hedging and recovering or if he is the help guy rotating over, Lopez just doesn't get to spots quickly enough when he tries to contest shots. Even in situations where he doesn't actually commit a foul, he is more susceptible to calls because he is always getting there late, allowing the refs to give the offensive player the benefit of the call.
Can He Bounce Back?
So can Lopez bounce back? It depends. If you want him to come out and be the starter day in and day out for your team, I don't think Lopez is ever going to get to that level. In my opinion, I think that the more he is used, the less effective he becomes offensively and the more he is out there, the more he gets exposed defensively. So in that sense, the answer is no.
However, if the question is can he bounce back to his 2009-10 self when he is coming off of the bench and being effective as a backup playing backup minutes behind a guy like Gortat, the answer is yes--he can bounce back. However, he is going to have to revert back to his 2009-10 play, especially in pick-and-roll situations diving to the rim instead of popping out and settling for jumpers.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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