The NBA has changed a lot in the last ten years and nowhere is that more obvious than the power forward position. Typically some of the toughest players on the team, power forwards lived up to their name, banging inside and influencing the game with their strength and athleticism. Shooting was considered a rare and unnecessary quality for most big men. A nice thing to have but not one of the requirements in the job description.
These days, a consistent fifteen footer is considered a minimum qualification and the three point shot isn't just a luxury, it can be a career changing skill. Almost every team has at least one guy who makes millions primarily for his ability to stroke it from deep and small forwards are finding themselves more and more playing out of position inside.
This shift has just as much to do with the value of spacing as it does with the shooting itself. Every modern NBA pundit talks about how the middle opens up for scoring guards when defenders are pulled out of the paint. Coach Terry Stotts recently talked about how Meyers Leonard, who's shooting over 40% from distance this year, changed the geometry of the floor when he was out there. This is a good thing and it shows how the media and fans are understanding and talking about the nuances of the game more and more.
But there is more than one way to change the geometry of the floor.
The other spacing effect bigs commonly get credit for is the hard roll. Tyson Chandler is the poster boy for this phenomenon as his dives to the rim suck in defenders and create open shots along the perimeter. Robin Lopez isn't quite in the same league but his success finishing on the roll is nothing to sneeze at. According to Synergy Sports, Lopez ranks in the 78th percentile as the roll man and was all the way up in the 97th percentile last year. As a result, teams respect this threat and Lopez has his own gravitational field.
Notice how Markieff Morris takes a step towards Lopez on his roll. This makes his closeout on LaMarcus Aldridge a little tougher and he overcompensates, leaving his feet. Aldridge misses but it's an open shot from 15 feet - the type of look he wasn't getting last week. The other Portland bigs aren't bad in the pick and roll but they don't force teams to bend like Lopez does. It's no surprise Aldridge likes to play with Lopez since he's one of the few players who makes his life easier.
Robin also gets defenders out of position by simply pushing them. When teams double Aldridge, they have to defend two other Blazers with one person. This works if you can position a defender between the two guys on the weakside. Since the pass is so long, one defender can effectively take away the passing lane to both shooters.
But that assumes the defender gets to stay where he wants.
Lopez goes full Hulk and destroys the Suns' defensive balance. Alex Len doubled Aldridge so Morris has to guard both Lopez and Matthews. Robin cuts to the rim pushing Morris a few steps closer to the hoop. As a result, Morris is nowhere near Matthews and he gets a wide open look at a three.
Besides pulling defenders in and out, Lopez uses his body to move people side to side. Modern defenses lock down by loading up extra defenders on one side of the floor. But what if they can't get there? What if there's a huge behemoth in their way, getting as wide as an aircraft carrier and pushing them the wrong way? We've all seen Lopez seal off one side of the lane as a helpless defender watches Damian Lillard waltz in for a layup. If you can't pull people out of the lane completely with the threat to shoot, clearing one side of it is next best thing.
Although, in reality, you can clear the lane the other direction as well. Instead of pulling defenders out, Lopez pushes them and pushes them until their heads are directly under the round orange thing they're supposed to be defending.
Brandan Wright is long, lanky, and any other adjectives that imply comically out of proportion appendages. Those limbs get in the way of everything and would normally prevent a pass across the paint for a layup. But The Boy Wonder neutralizes Elastic Man by forcing him under the rim and creating a passing angle for his partner Constantine (That took some serious digging on my part to find a superhero comparison for the not all that exciting Steve Blake. Detective John Constantine is blond, pretty average looking, and one of the superpowers listed on his DC Comics' profile is "extreme cunningness". I hope you appreciate the effort Rolo). I wrote last week about how the Blazers' biggest problem during their rough patch was the low field goal percentage at the rim and how few assists they were getting in the paint. It's cuts like these that the Blazers were missing.
They also missed his offensive rebounds where Robin uses a similar technique.
The only rebound PJ Tucker is getting in that position is the one that goes through the net. Lopez gets the board on this play but his pin move is more selfless than that. By taking Tucker completely out of the play he's completely removed a defensive rebounder from the floor. This increases the chance the ball ricochets into empty space where it's a fifty fifty ball - odds the offense would happily take every time.
Robin Lopez gets a lot of well deserved credit for his defensive presence and his rebounding but rarely is he considered a key piece of the Blazers' offense. That perspective understates his importance as Lopez is constantly using his big body to move people around and improve the spacing for his teammates (and I didn't even talk about his monster screens). This isn't just being active or playing physical as it requires precise movements and an uncommon understanding of the game. It may not show up in the box score, but Lopez is just as crafty as he is big.
Rolo. Sideshow Rob. The Boy Wonder.
Add "The Big Archimedes" to the list because Robin Lopez is an absolute master of basketball geometry.