There’s bedlam in the NBA — absolute chaos. It is heartening to see the solidarity, the compassion and the desire to create positive change that has come about as a direct consequence to Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s deplorable comments. It has also, to an extent, dimmed the lights on the greatest NBA playoff show in a long time.
Don’t believe me? How about this: the Eastern Conference was so monumentally terrible that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated that he would “take a fresh look” at the playoff format to perhaps include only the best 16 teams, according to NBC Sports. Now, while Silver’s comment is almost certainly an idle threat — if only because the current format ensures that a significant portion of the major markets will be represented — it highlights how historically bad the East was. So, despite how the Pacers ended the season, Las Vegas had them on April 16 at 5-1 odds to get rings. The Hawks? 1000-1.
It’s everywhere: The Mavs battling the Spurs, the impossible-to-judge (and Brook-less) Nets maybe coming together at the right time, the Grizzlies silently grinding out games against the Thunder, and all of a sudden, the Wizards are the best team in D.C.[divider]
For a moment, it would appear that Robin Lopez is a part of all the upheaval, but it may have been a long time coming. There is no doubt that he struggled during his time in Phoenix. He certainly developed in his last two years there despite injuries that stymied his growth. But it was clear that he was continually uncomfortable playing in his role for the Suns. Head coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense and fast play were never really a fit for Lopez. When he moved to New Orleans and then on to Portland, there were four important changes.
First was the switch to a slower half-court, set offense. Second, perhaps due to a slower game, Lopez was finally able to stay healthy. Third, he was in a situation that did not put too much pressure on him offensively, yet demanded significantly more of him than in Phoenix. But the most significant change by far was his transformation into a tremendous defensive player, and the Trail Blazers are seeing dividends. In Lopez’s only year in New Orleans and his first full season, he amassed 462 rebounds — 226 of which were offensive — and 128 blocks. His best numbers before that came in 2011-12, in which he played 64 games — remarkably, without starting a single game — and had 209 boards and 60 blocks. This year, Robin Lopez had 700 rebounds — 326 offensive — to go with 139 blocks, all the while reducing his turnovers from last season’s 110 to 84 and turning himself into an adept passer with 73 assists down low.
A lot has been made of Joakim Noah’s emergence this year in the same mould. Noah turned himself into a lethal passer at the point and, already an elite defender, had his best year defensively. While Noah, by many accounts — not this writer’s — was an MVP candidate for a significant portion of the year, Lopez barely breaks the list for Most Improved Player. Those of us who watched him buckle down Dwight Howard after his first-quarter barrage, blocking him clean at key fourth-quarter moments on Sunday night, saw a top-10 defensive center play for the Blazers, and his name was not LaMarcus Aldridge.
Lopez’s emergence, lest we forget, has occurred incredibly quickly. Three years ago, he lost his starting job at the end of his rookie contract, which, in the NBA, is just an awful spot to be in. Two teams later, and he is the leader of a Portland defense that is shutting down one of the most potent offenses in the NBA in the Houston Rockets. Still don’t think these playoffs are crazy?
Robin Lopez has 37 rebounds so far this postseason and Roy Hibbert has 17. And Hibbert has played in one more game than Lopez. Short of something involving a basketball and pastel aliens, I have no explanation for this. Maybe once the dust settles, it will all start making sense — I can bitterly watch the Heat play the Spurs or the Thunder and know that although I may be miserable, all is right with the world. But if Lopez’s emergence is any indication, we may be in for a wild ride.
Nicholas Radoff can’t help but reminisce back to when Robin Lopez was tearing it up in Maples Pavilion, when The Sixth Man was all stricken with laryngitis due to the amount of times they chanted “you got swatted!” in a given game. Help him get over it at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.