Robin Lopez was expected to do a lot of things to help the Knicks improve from their franchise-worst performance last season. He was expected to do big things, like protect the rim and clean up the many mistakes of the Knicks’ anemic backcourt. He was expected to do little, unquantifiable-yet-very-important things, too, like box out for his teammates, set devastating (illegal) screens, and get out of the way on offense to let the team’s natural scorers go to work.
For all the things he was expected to do, however, it was widely accepted that Lopez had his limitations, and that the most glaring of those would be on offense. In other words, there were a lot of things he wasn’t expected to do, and he wasn’t expected to do those things because, well, he had never done them before. There’s a reason, after all, why he had been known as the “defensive-minded” Lopez brother; why he was viewed as something of a consolation prize for the Knicks after they struck out on signing two-way stars like Marc Gasol and Lamarcus Aldridge. Prior to this season, Lopez had averaged just 8.2 points, five rebounds, and less than one assist for his career. He had never been a major option in an NBA offense, and a large part of the offense that he produced came from cleaning up the offensive glass when his teammates missed shots.
Lopez wasn’t expected to produce much on offense, and through the first thirty-four games of this season, he largely met expectations as he averaged 7.4 points on 49.3% shooting to go along with 2.3 offensive rebounds and a career-high 1.6 assists. He seemed to be trying to diversify his offensive game as he busted out a few post moves and threw up mountains of awkward hook shots. Still, despite his best efforts, Lopez remained mostly an afterthought on offense, often caught holding the ball in the fading moments of the shot clock with no choice but to force a contested shot.
Recently, however, something has changed. Over the last ten games, a stretch in which the Knicks have gone 7-3 and suddenly started clicking on all cylinders, Robin Lopez has emerged as not just a legitimate option in the Knicks offense, but also one of its driving forces. His once-rusty post moves have become quick and smooth. He has learned to establish position deep in the post and has become confident enough to call for the ball when he does so. That awkward hook shot is still awkward, but it falls now, so much so that Carmelo Anthony declared it “unblockable.” In the last ten games, Lopez has averaged 13.7 points on 60% shooting, 3.3 offensive rebounds, and 1.5 assists. During that stretch, the Knicks have scored 113.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor and only 106.2 when he’s been on the bench, according to NBA.com/stats.
There are a lot of factors that probably contributed to Lopez’s recent growth on offense, including Carmelo Anthony’s recent emergence as the multi-faceted player people have always hoped he could be. Likely the biggest factor in Lopez’s development, however, has been time. Lopez now has just over a half-season playing in the triangle and with the Knicks’ roster under his belt, and certainly some of his improvement can be attributed to the comfort and knowledge of the offense that comes with repetitions. Perhaps more important, even, is the fact that Lopez has seen his playing time increase substantially in the new year, as he went from playing just 23.9 minutes a game over the first thirty four games to playing an average of 30.5 per game over the last ten thanks to Fisher’s reduced rotation. This added playing time, which generally comes in the extra minutes Lopez now plays in the first and third quarters, appears to help him to embed himself into the flow of the offense and to read the way defenses are playing him so as to exploit any openings.
When Derek Fisher was asked about Lopez’s emergence after Wednesday night’s overtime victory against the Jazz, he suggested that, indeed, the comfort brought by spending more time in the offense has been vital to his development. “I think he’s gotten more comfortable as the season’s gone on, understanding where those opportunities will come from in this particular offense,” Fisher said, according to Anthony Rieber of Newsday. “I think he’s been able to find a level that he’s actually capable of sustaining.”
The question of whether or not Lopez can sustain his recent production is an interesting one with important implications for the remainder of the Knicks’ season. He’s been a force to be reckoned with in recent games, and his added contributions have helped to take some of the scoring burden and defensive pressure off of Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Clearly, the Knicks are a better team when Lopez is active on offense and a worse one when he struggles to find himself in the flow of the game. If RoLo keeps rolling, the Knicks’ will continue to push their ceiling for this season just that much higher. If they find themselves flirting with playoff contention come April, expect Lopez’s blossoming offensive game to have been an important part of that.