Robin Lopez has entered a situation that many Bulls fans did not see playing out this season, or at least so early in the 2018-19 season. After starting 64 games last season, Lopez has shifted to an off the bench role during his third season in Chicago. And with the reports of the Bulls veteran players being made available in trade offers, it will be intriguing to see how the Lopez situation plays out. He is a great locker room guy by all accounts and he is on an expiring contract, a special type of NBA currency due to the sheer amount of teams looking for salary cap relief. But if the Bulls can get anything of value in return for Lopez--especially draft picks--they would take it rather than see him (possibly) walk in free agency.
Lopez has only played 56 minutes through nine games, so while his 2018-19 statistics do offer some valuable insight--especially in terms of his ability to protect the rim--his 2017-18 numbers paint a much more complete picture of what Lopez can bring to an NBA team in 2019.
NBA trends move fast and Lopez is a relic of a bygone era. He is a traditional rim-protecting center, incapable of switching onto smaller players and providing much in the way of resistance. And with the Bulls newfound emphasis on switching on defense, it makes little sense to just let Lopez sit on the bench when there are teams that use him. It just becomes a matter of the Bulls not setting their asking price too high and thoroughly exploring what will likely be a thin market in terms of suitors.
While switching is not in Lopez’s toolbox, he is still proficient when it comes to dropping back in pick-and-roll coverage. Lopez uses his huge frame well to shield off the basket long enough for his guards to get back in a good defensive position. But therein lies the issue, for Lopez to thrive he needs to play with guards that are actually doing their best to fight through screens.
Opponents have shot worse when defended by Lopez in the past two seasons and any large fluctuation in those figures are a byproduct of playing for a Bulls franchise that has had decent amounts of roster turnover year-to-year.
On offense Lopez is still a good finisher at the rim, hitting over 55 percent of his shots at the rim over the last three seasons. But due to his effectiveness as a screener and passer--especially in dribble handoff actions--Lopez spends most of his time stationed around the free throw line. He has long been an effective mid-range shooter (42 percent on long 2-point jumpers for his career) and could likely become at least a small threat from 3-point line if given the green light.
Overall Lopez provides the best value to a winning team (or team that wants to be a playoff contender) that lets their centers drop back in pick and roll coverage, while creating a decent amount of offense from dribble handoff plays. There are several teams that come to mind when searching for potential Lopez suitors:
The Suns obviously feel like they have found their long-term center in No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, but they have little in the way of insurance. Phoenix is dead-last in the league in terms of opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim at 70.9 percent. And they just bought out veteran center Tyson Chandler, leaving Richaun Holmes as the only option in the event of an injury. Lopez could give the Sun a solid 15-to-20 minutes a night, or at worst provide that emergency option as a solid backup big man. He would be an excellent option to tutor rookie center Ayton on the finer points of defense (an area Wendell Carter doesn’t need much help in) and he already has a sense of familiarity with the Suns community, with Phoenix being the team that drafted Lopez in 2008.
Los Angeles Lakers:
The Lakers have a two-pronged issue with their inside defense.
Not only are they allowing opponents to shoot over 60 percent at the rim, but they are giving up more attempts at the rim (less than 5 feet from the basket) than any team in the league. The fact that they just acquired Tyson Chandler means they won’t be desperate for a center but the LeBron James acquisition put them in win-now mode, and they have their own first-round picks along with a second-round pick from the Bulls.
The Lakers are using to a lot of small-ball lineups early in games but if they want to keep James and Kyle Kuzma fresh for a possible playoff appearance, adding an additional big would help a lot. On top of keeping James and other forwards well rested, adding Lopez to the Lakers would provide a safety in case JaVale McGee has to miss any significant time.
Under new head coach Dwane Casey, the Pistons have an offense that features a lot of dribble handoffs and a generall high number of 3-point attempts. Detroit had already started to shift towards this philosophy last season, but their commitment to the play style has led to a very hot start for Blake Griffin in his first full season as a Piston.
Zaza Pachulia is the only big man in the rotation hind Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin, and he is playing a very limited 15 minutes per game. He is also adept in dribble handoff plays but offers far less in terms of inside scoring and mid-range shot-making ability. Lopez has averaged near or over 10 points per game every year since the 2011-12 season. The last time Pachulia hit double-digit scoring averages was 2007. This is of course partly due to their slightly different roles and skill sets, but in terms of insurance for Drummond--and to a lesser extent Pachulia--Lopez is a solid option, and his superior ability when it comes to boxing out would allow Griffin to snag even more rebounds than the 10.6 per game he is averaging now. Detroit is currently 25th in the league in rebounds per game after being 16th in total rebounds last season.
Detroit has their first-round picks for the foreseeable future and a larger amount of second round picks from various trades over the years. The fact they can do a trade structured around multiple second-rounder picks makes them one of the better candidates listed in terms of Bulls trade partners. They look like a clear playoff team in the new-look East, and additional bodies will always benefit teams as injury-prone as Detroit in recent years,.