The Portland Trail Blazers of a year ago were not a whole lot of fun to watch.
The biggest issue with their defense was a lack of a low-post defenders who could take pressure off of their Swiss cheese-like perimeter defense.
This offseason, the open market was not exactly loaded with players that could help in this regard. Dwight Howard was not walking through that door, and even if he was interested in the Pacific Northwest, the Blazers had no interest in handing him a max contract.
Thus far, the early returns on Lopez are extremely promising.
Providing a Presence
One of the biggest issues with the Blazers last season was the fact that Aldridge was forced into an extremely difficult position.
Throughout his career, Aldridge has always been protected. Like a cleanup hitter in baseball that needs a big bat behind him, Aldridge needs a big man next to him to take the defensive pressure off of him.
Aldridge is a solid defender, but the value he brings to the table is his scoring. He isn't the best rebounder in the world, but his offensive game is stellar.
Last season, the Blazers trotted out a starting lineup that included J.J. Hickson at center. Never mind that Hickson is only 6'9" and is a natural power forward, but the Blazers were determined to play him substantial minutes as the center, where he would routinely go up against guys who were at least three inches taller and up to 30 pounds heavier than him.
Additionally, Hickson is a terrible interior defender; he was not going to be confused with Marcus Camby of years prior.
This pressed Aldridge into double duty, forcing him to become the interior enforcer and rim protector. This role was not exactly putting him in a position to succeed, and the Blazers realized that they desperately needed to add a true center.
Enter Robin Lopez.
Now, Lopez is not an All-Star. He also isn't an elite rebounder, has a limited offensive game and is a solid athlete at best.
But what he does well is play big, as he is a true center that can provide defense, physicality and the occasional blocked shot.
And while his offense isn't top shelf, he can clean up broken plays and uses a nice touch near the hoop.
If you just look at his numbers, Lopez isn't setting the world on fire—6.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. But the key to appreciating Lopez comes in seeing how his game affects his teammates.
Playing Well with Others
While Lopez doesn't have stellar numbers, take a look around at what surrounds him this season.
First, look at the team's record. The Blazers are 4-2 through six games. Also, a defense that was terrible last season is now closer to the middle of the pack, as they are holding opponents to just under 100 points per game and are in the top 10 in opponents points per shot at 1.16.
And despite the fact that they lost nearly 11 rebounds per game in Hickson, the Blazers are still in the top half of the league in rebounding.
But the most telling difference on this team with Lopez in the lineup is how relaxed everyone else on the offense seems to be now.
Lillard and Wesley Matthews are on a tear, with each seeing their scoring average jump substantially from last year. Aldridge has stepped up to another level, too, playing solid defense while adding a few more points per game to his repertoire. He is finally taking a stronger leadership role on the court, which was essentially the last frontier for the big man.
But the biggest surprise has been Nic Batum.
Batum has always been all about potential. Some thought he was a rich man's Tayshaun Prince, while others thought he was a poor man's Scottie Pippen.
This year, he has truly stepped up his game.
Through six games, he is averaging a career high in assists (5.8) and is maintaining a solid scoring average of 13 per game.
But how this relates to Lopez is that Batum is finally developing into a good rebounder, as he is grabbing nearly eight of them per game.
So how exactly does Lopez figure into this?
First off, Lopez has a big body. He takes up space and he plays fundamentally strong. He boxes out on every shot and allows his teammates to track down loose balls.
Batum, with his athleticism and length, is becoming the biggest beneficiary of Lopez and his play.
The Road Ahead
The Blazers have got to be tickled pink to see how well they have played thus far, and their biggest improvement has been at the center position.
Lopez has improved this team, despite not putting up huge numbers. His effect on his mates and on the overall team concept is very telling.
Lopez is your prototypical glue player, and he is showing his value thus far.
That being said, the season really has only just begun. The Blazers still have a ton of huge games and are playing in an underrated division.
But the goal heading into this season was to make the playoffs, and this should still be the focus. After all, this is an up-and-coming team that needs to continue to take baby steps forward.
So far, this team is certainly on the right path, and much of that stems from Lopez.
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