Ignoring the original Chris Paul trade, Robin Lopez was the first Dell Demps move I was moderately skeptical of. $15+ million due to a player requiring surgery to repair a torn meniscus within a month of his acquisition was always going to be a little puzzling. Toss in his often shaky, indecisive play for the Suns, and this was only exacerbated.
Gradually, things became a little less murky. Years 2 and 3 (2013-14 and 2014-15) of his deal were not guaranteed. The summer's market for bigs featured inflated prices across the board (Asik to Houston for $25M over 3 years, Camby to New York for $14M over 3 years). Even if you quibbled with the player himself, he was probably acquired for something very close to market value, filled a position of immediate need, and brought a skill (picking and rolling) that jibed well with the team's best player's best skill (operating around picks).
It made some sense... until the first game of the preseason. On Sunday, Lopez was asked to operate with his back to the basket on offense, guard smaller, quicker players on defense, and in general was disastrous. Some of that we can write off to rust, small sample size, preseason shenanigans and the crisp Mexican air. Just some of it though. If Monty Williams and the Hornets actually believe it's a good idea to plonk down Lopez in the middle and play up the importance of having a 90's style, lumbering, Diplodocus type center, they're in for a rude surprise.
Lopez can't create his own offense. Maybe it was a function of literally everyone else struggling on Sunday, but the team simply cannot look for Lopez with his back to the basket. A year ago, Lopez shot 38% on postup possessions, and in 2011, that figure was 37%. In actuality, those numbers are closer to league average (for postups) than one might think, but they're certainly not worth pursuing. Even the robotic Emeka Okafor (love you, Mek) hit 43% with the Hornets with his back to the basket. I just can't emphasize this enough; New Orleans would be better served by Anthony Davis airballing seventeen hook shots a game than by allowing Lopez repeated isolation touches.
It's especially true because Lopez is very good at another aspect of offense - setting picks. His screen setting form isn't fantastic because he extends his hips into offensive players far too obviously at times, but he uses his size extremely well. Synergy data has him in the league's top 30 P&R screeners in each of the past three years though there's obviously two ways to look at that. On the one hand, he was setting screens in Phoenix for possibly the best P&R player of this generation. But on the other hand, it's a good indication that if the Hornets can get their P&R sets straight and if Eric Gordon can stay healthy or Austin Rivers can improve, Lopez could continue his success with the play. That brings up another weird issue from Sunday - Lopez set plenty of screens but rarely rolled hard to the rim as a followup. That too will need to change.
Rounding out his offensive game, Lopez has a 10 to 15 foot jumper that very often looks awkward but sometimes looks quite smooth. He lacks Jason Smith's range, but his numbers from 3 to 15 feet are very comparable (though he can't compete with Smith's close range numbers in 2012. Smith's ridiculous 79.5% showing at the rim was almost 15% better than the league average rate, was arguably the most impressive figure by any player in the league given how many opportunities he had, and sadly will be a virtual impossibility for him to repeat in 2012-2013).
The blueprint on offense for Lopez should be very straightfoward - set perimeter screens, roll hard, stay largely out of Anthony Davis' way, and establish rebounding position at all other times. Lopez has been a solid offensive rebounder throughout his career, and Anderson/Lopez lineups could prove quite successful on the offensive glass.
Defense is where things get a bit more complicated. Lopez doesn't have good footspeed, can't elevate well (probably even more so, post surgery), and has never been a great defensive rebounder. Whether his defensive issues allow his marginal offensive contributions to have much value is an open question. But this is where I defer entirely to Monty Williams and his coaching ability. In previous years, Williams has successfully deployed Aaron Gray, D.J. Mbenga, and Chris Kaman on the defensive end, incorporating each seamlessly into his schemes.
In each one of those cases, the player in question served as a sort of backstop to the rest of the defense - strongside help assisting a primary perimeter (Trevor Ariza) and on-ball post defender (Emeka Okafor). In each one of those cases, an otherwise unimpressive defender was able to perform an important role defensively. Because Williams blends so many elements of zone into his system, the individual ability of each defender (and especially the secondary post defender) is of reduced import as long as the primary skilled defenders are in place. Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis step into those roles in 2012-13.
Robin Lopez likely won't make many highlight reel defensive plays this season, but he does bring a block rate equal to Emeka Okafor's. More importantly, he brings great size, an attribute Monty Williams has consistently converted into defensive production, even when that size has come at the expense of mobility.
Optimally, Robin Lopez is New Orleans' 4th big even if he starts. Anthony Davis should see expanded minutes because he's Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson brings a lot to the table even if he's the 6th man, and Jason Smith provides more energy and positional versatility than Lopez. Still, if he's used correctly, Lopez could prove very important. On a roster loaded with positionally ambiguous talent, Lopez will be asked to play just one role, but it's a critical one.