The transformation of 11-year veteran Robin Lopez from a hard-working role player to a low post scoring machine is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my long career covering the NBA.
Lopez owns a career scoring average of 9 PPG playing for the Suns, (formerly New Orleans) Hornets, Trail Blazers, Knicks and Bulls. His previous high for a season was an 11.8 PPG average in 2017-18. But all of a sudden, the guy they call RoLo has morphed into a modern day version of Kevin McHale with a series of advanced low post and pivot moves that have left defenders totally perplexed.
Since the start of February, Lopez has reached double figures in 16 of the Bulls’ 20 games, including six games of 20 points or more. He’s averaging right around 16 points over that span, shooting 63% from the field.
What’s behind this sudden offensive explosion? Part of the reason is the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Jim Boylen. Boylen likes to play an inside-out style in his half-court sets, using post touches and guard penetration to set up open looks on the perimeter. That means more touches for the center, with a green light to score if opportunities present themselves in the low post.
Another reason is the thumb injury that sidelined top draft pick Wendell Carter Jr. for the season after 44 games. If Carter Jr. was still active, Lopez would still be in a limited 15-to-18 minute role off the bench.
But even with increased touches and minutes, it still comes back to a more aggressive mindset on offense that we really hadn’t seen in any of Lopez’ previous NBA seasons. RoLo always had the ability to score from in close, using jump hooks with either hand, but now he’s displaying spinning crossovers and up-and-under moves right out of the McHale textbook.
What makes this even more amazing is the scoring spree comes right after most fans and media believed RoLo’s run in Chicago was about to come to an end. Lopez is on the final year of a contract he signed with the Knicks, paying him $14.3 million this season. The Bulls explored trade possibilities before the early February trade deadline but couldn’t find any takers, with interested teams assuming they could get Lopez without giving up assets on a contract buyout.
As it turned out, Bulls’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson decided he wanted Lopez to finish out his contract, especially with Carter Jr. done for the season, Bobby Portis traded to Washington, and little faith in holdover 3rd string center Cristiano Felicio. Instead of brooding over losing the chance to join a playoff team, Lopez focused his energy on expanding his game and continuing to play a vital leadership role on the youngest team in the NBA.
So, will this late season scoring spree earn Lopez another contract in Chicago?
Right now, it’s hard to predict how the Bulls’ offseason plans will develop. They could draft a big man with their early 2nd round pick, and Paxson has indicated the Bulls will pursue quality veterans to strengthen their bench unit in free agency.
This new and improved version of Lopez could fit into that equation, but there are several questions to be answered, including what kind of salary Lopez will expect in free agency, and whether he’d be satisfied in a more limited role backing up Carter Jr. in seasons to come. The Bulls also could look to add a free agent big man who fits more with the modern day NBA. Someone like Portis, who’s a threat from 3-point range and has a better chance with hard shows and switches on high pick-and-roll actions. But it won’t be Portis, whose salary expectations led to the deal with the Wizards in the first place.
And then there’s the issue of the Felicio contract that has two more seasons remaining at around $8 million a year. The Bulls’ front office would have a hard time convincing Lopez that he should re-sign at a figure lower than what Felicio is making to be the primary backup for Carter Jr.
Any way you look at it, Lopez has made his upcoming free agency a lot more interesting by unveiling his complete offensive arsenal on an unsuspecting league. It’s provided a fun storyline as the Bulls head towards another last place finish. You can’t help but root for a guy like RoLo, who always puts the team first and is one of the hardest workers in the game.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
One of the teams that had been mentioned as a possible destination for Lopez in the buyout market was the Golden State Warriors. When the Bulls decided they wanted to keep him for the rest of the season, Golden State turned to an old friend to provide some depth behind starting center DeMarcus Cousins.
The Warriors plucked Andrew Bogut out of the Australian professional league (NBL) after he won the NBL MVP and his team’s season had been completed. Ironically, because of an injury to Cousins, Bogut wound up starting in his debut with the Warriors, scoring 7 points and grabbing 7 rebounds in a loss to San Antonio on Monday.
Bogut was the starting center on Golden State’s 2015 championship team, so he’s very familiar with Steve Kerr’s offensive system. Bogut has always been an underrated passer for a big man, and will set hard screens to free up the team’s deadly 3-point shooters. Adding another quality veteran to the mix should only improve the Warriors’ chances of winning a 3rd straight title, and 4th in the last five seasons.
San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich is working his magic again, leading his team on a late season run that could bring home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. After limping through their annual rodeo road trip with a 1-7 record, the Spurs have suddenly caught fire, reeling off nine straight wins to pull within a game and a half of Portland for 4th place in the West.
San Antonio was one of the league’s worst defensive teams through the first two-thirds of the season, and gave up an average of 122 points per 100 possessions during their disastrous road trip in February. Just when Pop thought he had lost the ability to motivate his squad, they suddenly turned it on at both ends of the court.
Unheralded 2nd year guard Derrick White has played a big role in the turnaround, providing quality minutes alongside DeMar DeRozan and Bryn Forbes in the Spurs’ three-guard starting lineup. During the current nine-game winning streak, San Antonio has beaten the Bucks, Warriors, Nuggets, Thunder and Trail Blazers. The Spurs probably aren’t talented enough to made a deep run in the playoffs, but anyone who thought Popovich couldn’t stay competitive in the new NBA is sadly mistaken.
Finally, did you hear about the fan who paid nearly $7,000 on StubHub for a pair of courtside seats at Fiserv Forum to watch LeBron James and the Lakers square off against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks Tuesday night?
Turns out both superstars were declared out for the game. James because of a lingering groin injury and Giannis because of a sore ankle.
Never a good idea to count on star players suiting up for games late in the regular season, especially with James ready to bring down the curtain on one of the most disappointing seasons of his career.
Oh well, at least the fan will have plenty of time to tour the Bucks’ brand new arena.