Portland Trail Blazers' Robin Is No Longer 'The Other Lopez Twin'

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2014

Both standing 7'0" tall, twin NBA centers Brook and Robin Lopez clearly shared their genetics jackpot winnings.

In terms of raw ability, though, Brooklyn Nets big man Brook seemed to have a leg up on his brother, Portland Trail Blazers interior anchor, Robin.

Brook was the 10th pick of the 2008 draft. Robin came off the board five selections later. Brook was a 13-points-per-game scorer as a rookie and has held his average at or above 18.8 in the five seasons since. Robin notched a career-high 11.3 points a night for the then-New Orleans Hornets in 2012-13.

Brook was deemed worthy of a four-year, $60 million max deal by the Nets in 2012. Robin was deemed expendable by the Hornets-turned-Pelicans and shipped out to the Blazers in a three-team trade last summer.

Yet, as Brook is stuck watching the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on his right foot (the third operation on the appendage of his six-year career), Robin is manning the middle for the NBA's Cinderella contender.

It's been a while since the Blazers (45-24) could even submit an application to join the elite ranks of the basketball world. But this season, their paperwork has already been processed, and they have Robin—no longer just "The Other Lopez" twin—to thank.


Perfect Portland Fit

While Blazers general manager Neil Olshey officially gets the credit for bringing Lopez on board, you get the sense that the basketball gods had a hand in the transaction.

Rarely do we see such a perfect pairing between a player and a market.

Eclectic and energetic, Lopez seems like he should be a Portland native. (He's not, by the way; he's from California). Between his massive mop and scruffy goatee, he'd look just as normal holding court inside a coffee shop as he does protecting the Moda Center paint.

He's a different breed, and not just due to his mammoth, made-for-NBA frame. He's an outside-the-box kind of guy. Well, an outside-the-galaxy one, actually.

For as well as his personality blends with the city, though, his fit with this franchise might be even more harmonious.

The Blazers weren't shopping for a superstar when they scoured the big-man market last offseason. Between prolific shooting point guard Damian Lillard, do-it-all swingman Nicolas Batum and potent power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland had assembled a talented trio built to battle with basketball's best Big Threes.

What this team needed was insurance. Someone willing to do the grunt work.

Lopez welcomed that challenge before it was even assigned.

"My biggest focus is being that last line of defense," he said at his introductory press conference last summer, via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. "Blocking shots, discouraging plays at the rim, deterring drives to the basket. I'm here to play defense."

He wasn't lying. He's tallied a career-best 1.7 blocks a night, more than the franchise has seen since Greg Oden averaged 2.3 in 2009-10.

Lopez's rim presence has been as discouraging as he said it would be. For as many shots as he's swatted away, he's changed even more. His 42.0 field-goal percentage allowed at the rim ranks fourth among all players facing at least five such shots a game, via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.

"He’s given us everything we hoped for on the defensive end," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, via Hardwood Paroxysm's Jordan White. "Both as a stabilizing force in the paint, setting the defensive mindset, and as a communicator."

With Lopez as the heart, soul and voice of this defense, Portland has made important strides at that end of the floor. While there's still work to be done (the Blazers' 104.9 defensive rating ranks 20th in the NBA), there's a hope that it can be accomplished that didn't exist last season (106.9, tied for 26th in 2012-13).

"You never want to get beat,” guard Wesley Matthews told White. “But I know I can be more aggressive, and use more of my instincts because I know RoLo’s back there patrolling the paint."

Patrolling the paint and cleaning the glass—the latter, a massive impact that's easily overlooked on the stat sheet.

Lopez has corralled a good-not-great 8.5 rebounds a night. But by aggressively throwing his weight around underneath, he's helped the Blazers track down far more errant shots than that number suggests.

"Essentially, Lopez's ability to seal off opposing rebounders has completely changed the way Portland crashes the boards," B/R's Fred Katz noted. "It's not the first-year Blazer's job to grab the rebound—just to make sure that someone on his team does."

That's why an eight-year veteran like Aldridge can top his previous career high by a full two rebounds per game (11.1, up from 9.1). Or why the Blazers can climb 15 spots in rebounding percentage (sixth overall this season; tied for 21st in 2012-13) despite getting almost two fewer boards out of Lopez than it got from last season's starter, J.J. Hickson (10.4).

This explosive pace-and-space offense needed a guy like Lopez, someone more than comfortable trading blows in tight quarters. Someone who's turned a lopsided sibling rivalry into a closely contested race.


Better Than His Brother?

If we're talking about raw talent, Brook is far and away the superior player.

He's an offensive threat from anywhere inside the arc. With a deft array of post moves, a soft shooting touch and the strength to finish through contact, he's proven he can carry an offense.

Brook has led the Nets in scoring during four of the past five seasons and finished second in the other. Strong, skilled and incredibly smart, he's one of the premier point-producing bigs in today's NBA.

Of course, basketball is bigger than talent alone. That's what keeps Robin alive in this head-to-head comparison.

He's a player who thrives on the little things, an expert of the intangibles.

"His demeanor elevates everyone else’s demeanor," Stotts said, via Freeman. "He takes blame. He plays every possession and … the other guys who play with him, it’s not just that they appreciate the way he plays, but it also elevates their play."

Robin's on-court tangibles aren't half-bad either:

Throw in those absences on Brook's resume—he missed all but five games in 2011-12 and made 17 appearances before being shut down this season—and this isn't the easy debate the scoring column says it should be.

The financial books don't help either.

Brook is owed $30 million for this season and next. He also owns a $16.7 million player option for 2016-17, via ShamSports.com.

Robin has nothing to his name for the 2016-17 campaign. He'll cost the Blazers just $12 million between now and then.

It's hard to argue against Brook being the superior player, but is he really that much better?

Brook could be a centerpiece, but his fragile foot makes him a risk to build around. Robin can't be the face of a franchise, but, as he's shown this season, he can be the finishing touch for one ready to make a leap.

As for which one is better, it's simply a matter of need. The Blazers found exactly what they were looking for: a bargain contributor, a blue-collar banger making a white-collar impact.

Unassuming and deceptively productive, Robin isn't much different than those superheroes in his comic-book collection. But while most of them do their best work in the shadows, he's proven to be more than ready for the spotlight.

His parents must have figured him out pretty quick. Just like in the comic-book world, Robin is thriving as a sidekick to the stars.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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