Picture Robin Lopez at his favorite spot in Portland, Powell’s Books. His eyes are buried in a comic book—he is a shameless fanatic. His forehead is covered by a curly afro that makes Anderson Varejao wonder if it might be time to try Rogaine. A dark patch of hair triangulates below his lower lip. If it’s warm enough for shorts, you might catch him in his trademark knee-high tube socks. His city’s motto begs its citizens to keep it weird, and Lopez has no trouble doing that.
“Portland really plays to my interests,” Lopez happily confesses. “It’s just perfect for me.”
And he is perfect for it. Perfect for the community, flush with endearing funkiness, and for its Blazers, whose long-time need for a rugged center has been answered by the West Coast native.
“When we brought Robin in, the primary focus was having a defensive-minded center next to [LaMarcus Aldridge],” third-year coach Terry Stotts says. “He fit the bill exceedingly well.”
The Blazers needed an enforcer, and they found a 7-footer with a passion for throwing ’bows.
“I love going in there, banging with the big guys,” Lopez says. “That’s fun. That’s the level of basketball—the level of competition—you want to be at. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Lopez’s fondness for dirty work began while playing AAU ball alongside his twin brother, score-first Brook, and swingman Quincy Pondexter.
“I didn’t always have the ball in my hands, so I was trying to help out my teammates any way I could,” Lopez remembers. “That’s not something everybody is willing to do. It’s not something everybody is willing to do well, more importantly.”
Consider Lopez the L’s premier handyman. He spends his nightly half-hour providing endless high screens for Damian Lillard. His off-ball picks free up Portland’s sharpshooters on the wings. Around the rim, Lopez always checks the opponent’s baddest bully.
“Robin is very unique in what he brings,” Stotts says. “He embraces the team more than anything else. He understands how it fits together. He cares about the right things, and that makes a difference when you’re trying to win as a team.”
Those aren’t the types of attributes that earn players max contracts. Teams do not tank for a guy because he shoots free throws well enough to stay on the floor in a tight game’s closing minutes (Lopez has hit 76 percent of his freebies over six years). But Lopez has perfected the small stuff, allowing an impressive supporting cast to shine.
“There were already so many tremendously talented players here that I didn’t have to do anything,” Lopez says. “We had such great people on the team, it was really hard to screw that up.”
Lopez is, of course, being overly modest. But there’s plenty of truth there, too.
Many of Portland’s core pieces were in place before RoLo was acquired via trade in July of 2013. Take Lillard, unbothered by concepts like defenders being good or 30-footers being hard to make. Or Aldridge, impossibly consistent, devastating from anywhere inside of 20 feet. Wesley Matthews Jr doubled as the team’s deadliest shooter and stingiest perimeter defender until a March Achilles injury. (Newcomer Arron Afflalo figures to be a serviceable replacement.) Nicolas Batum acts as a ballhandler one night and a three-point specialist the next; an energizer in an opening quarter and a defensive wiz by the fourth.
Yep, plenty of talent was laying around in 2013 without Lopez, but it amounted to only 33 wins and a bottom-five defense. Portland improved by 21 games last season in Lopez’s first year with the team. As of this writing, the Blazers own the League’s third-stoutest defense per 100 possessions.
Portland has morphed from a good regular-season team (152 wins from 2009-2011, 6-12 in the Playoffs) into a balanced (but banged-up) force looking to erase 15 years of postseason futility.
Admittedly, it would be foolish to credit only Lopez—Lillard and Aldridge are each fringe MVP candidates still on the rise. But there’s a case to be made for a puzzle’s final piece being its most important, regardless of size.
At some point this postseason, there will be at least one avalanche of momentum that swings a game their way, a Rip City staple. Dame Time is inevitable, Aldridge will deliver when it counts. The duo will be heavily praised when the game is over.
Nothing wrong with any of that—we watch the game to marvel at its stars.
Just don’t forget to tip your wonky handyman if you ever do see him around.
Leo Sepkowitz is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @LeoSepkowitz.
Image via Getty