It didn't take a rocket scientist to surmise that when Robin Lopez went down this week, suffering a broken hand during the Trail Blazers' win Monday night over the San Antonio Spurs, it would be a disruption to a team that thrives on continuity. The Blazers were humming along at 19-6 at the time, right there with the best teams in the Western Conference, but they've also struggled whenever they've had to play without a member of the starting five.
So yeah. Losing Lopez for a significant period of time - maybe a month, maybe six or seven weeks - is obviously going to hurt. But we also know the Blazers will persevere. They're still a strong West contender, they're going to tread water well into 2015, and they'll be as good as ever once Lopez returns later this winter. That's that.
The question that's not being asked about Lopez's injury, though, is one with more long-term implications. What does the injury mean for the career prospects of Lopez, who's in a contract year and hoping to land the biggest payday of his life in July 2015?
To understand Lopez' situation, you have to realize - he's been a bargain bin guy his whole career. Given his pedigree and his physical talents, Lopez should be pulling down an eight-figure paycheck, but instead he's one of the most underpaid guys in the league at just over $6 million a year. How did he get here?
If you look back on Lopez' career arc, you realize that he hasn't been the reliable starting center he is now for long. The early years of his career were riddled with minor injuries, including a back ailment that kept him out of the 2010 playoffs for a Phoenix team that needed one more piece to make a run at serious title contention. (The Suns lost the Western Conference finals to the Lakers in six that year.) When Lopez was signed to his current deal, in a 2012 sign-and-trade that moved him from Phoenix to New Orleans, he had never played 70 games in a season.
Only after signing for three years and $15 million did Lopez proceed to play all 82 games in back-to-back seasons. He's reinforced his reputation as a legitimate starting center who can stay healthy and fill his role extremely well. But what does this injury mean for him?
It's tough to say, because you could argue that Lopez needs to put up some stats this season in order to prove he deserves a healthy raise. After all, the numbers he's posted throughout his three-year contract suggest that maybe he peaked last season:
There are a potential few reasons for this. One is the flukiness of the small sample; another is that the strength of Portland's bench this season, including newcomer Chris Kaman and the improving Joel Freeland, means Lopez doesn't have to do as much now. Indeed, his minutes per game have slid this year from 31.7 to 27.8.
Though one area where Lopez has continually improved is on defense. Especially this year, he's proven that he's an elite defensive center, capable of standing up to even the most intimidating big men in today's NBA. Check him out here against DeMarcus Cousins:
That tells you everything you need to know. Lopez is picture perfect here - he stays with Cousins and deters him from attacking the rim early in the possession, then later, when Cousins dishes to Rudy Gay, Lopez cheats toward the basket, positioning himself to offer help defense in case Gay drives baseline. Then he shuffles back to Cousins (admire the footwork!) and keeps the big man from getting off a quality shot. After the off-balance jump hook misses, Lopez boxes Cousins out and swats the rebound away from him, setting Nicolas Batum up for a fast break.
This is the stuff you get out of a healthy Robin Lopez every single night. So what happens if RoLo comes back in February and gives us more of the same - flagging offensive productivity, but tremendous defensive efforts like this on a regular basis? What is that worth?
In order to put a dollar figure on it, it's helpful to look at some of the other salaries being doled out to defensive-oriented centers around the league. Here's a rundown of some notable guys and their 2014-15 salaries:
With those as benchmarks, what would you say? I'd reckon it's fair to think of Lopez as a Varejao type, which means his salary next season could easily push into the $9 or $10 million range. If that happens, can the Blazers afford him?
Oof. Tough question.
Here's what we know about the Blazers' cap situation for next season:
- Batum is under contract. He will make $12.2 million.
- LaMarcus Aldridge is a free agent, but the team has every intention of bringing him back for the long haul. That is going to require a maximum contract worth $108 million over five years. Gulp.
- Wesley Matthews is a free agent. Educated guess? The Blazers need to set aside $9 or $10 million if they want to keep him.
- Damian Lillard is still on his rookie deal, which means just $4.2 million next year, but the team has a Nov. 1 deadline to work out an extension. He will undoubtedly want Kyrie Irving money, which means $90 million over five years.
That's an incredible amount of money for four players - close to $60 million a year. Technically, the Blazers are allowed to pay all four guys because they have Bird rights to them, but doing so would likely mean (a) prohibitive luxury tax payments for Paul Allen and (b) years of terrible bench production from minimum-salary guys.
And then there's Lopez.
The additional problem is that given the current climate, the race to re-sign Lopez is bound to be extremely competitive. Think of the potential suitors:
- There are a handful of teams that may lose their starting centers to free agency this summer. Memphis (Marc Gasol) and the L.A. Clippers (DeAndre Jordan) are the two big ones here. If either player walks away, expect the team losing him to make a serious run at a replacement. This could be Lopez.
- The Spurs have to be nervous that Tim Duncan may retire soon. Who's the heir to that throne?
- The Lakers are in rebuilding mode and have a ton of gaping holes. Center is one of them. Can you see Lopez next to Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle and a 2015 lottery pick TBA?
- The Knicks have been desperate for a strong defensive anchor since they traded Tyson Chandler away. Wouldn't they love RoLo?
- Boston just traded Rajon Rondo for expiring contracts and picks, so Danny Ainge will have plenty of cap space. The Celtics could also really use a strong defensive center. Is that a fit?
You get the point. There are a ton of teams out there that would be thrilled to land Robin Lopez this summer, but what happens right now is we figure out a price range. That's the significance of this season - it's our last chance to take a serious look at Lopez's performance and decide what he's worth. Biting a large chunk out of his contract year isn't a great career move for a 26-year-old center who's hoping for a big payday.
But eventually, the big man will be back, and that's when the moment of truth comes. To say the least, there's a lot riding on 2015.