Loss of Robin Lopez Could Be a Big One for the Suns
Phoenix is a team -- with its league-leading offense, much-improved defense, and deeper-than-expected bench -- that could do some damage in the postseason that few would have predicted before the season started. But that's only if everyone is healthy when the playoffs begin, and right now, it doesn't look like that will be the case.
Robin Lopez stayed home as the Suns embarked on a five-game road trip, and was initially slated to miss the trip with a bulging disk in his back. After being re-evaluated on Sunday, you can now count him out for at least the team's next seven games, and maybe more depending on how the treatment goes.
The following quote from the team's GM, Steve Kerr, hints at the possibility that Lopez might not return at all this season.
"Everybody responds differently to back issues," Kerr said. "On the bright side, the long term is he should be fine and maybe even this year."
Maybe even this year? That doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement for optimism here.
At first glance, the absence of Lopez from the lineup may get a shrug of the shoulders and a casual "so what?" kind of reaction. And unless you've followed Phoenix closely, it's with good reason: his season averages of 8.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, and one blocked shot per game aren't exactly eye-popping numbers.
But his presence in the lane, from a defensive perspective, has been a big factor in the Suns' relatively recent improvement.
The team opened the season with Channing Frye as its starting center, and for a while, that worked out just fine. Teams weren't expecting Frye to hit three-pointers at the clip that he did, and it took them a while to adjust to a big man stepping out behind the arc and consistently knocking down shots from the outside. But eventually, they did adjust, and Frye's lack of defense was exposed, forcing head coach Alvin Gentry to make the switch.
Offense has never been the Suns' problem, so the loss of Frye's scoring punch in the starting lineup wasn't missed, while the addition of Lopez sufficiently changed things up enough defensively to the point where teams had to account for him inside, forcing more contested shots at the rim as well as more outside shots. The Suns are 11th in the league in opponent field goal percentage -- up from 22nd last season -- and Lopez's presence is in the paint has been the reason.
So, without Lopez, just how much trouble are the Suns going to be in against some of the league's tougher teams?
We won't find out for a little while. Phoenix handed the woeful Timberwolves their 16th straight loss on Sunday with Lopez out, and the team's next few games are against the Bulls, Nets, and Pistons. They do face the Bucks on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back after the Detroit game, so that may be our first realistic look at how the Suns might struggle without Lopez in the paint.
The next five games, though, to end the regular season, will likely tell us all we need to know about Phoenix if indeed they have to enter the playoffs without Lopez. Home games against the Spurs, Rockets, and Nuggets, along with two road ones against the Thunder and the Jazz, should provide an accurate preview of the Suns' playoff rotation without him.
Jarron Collins started in Lopez's absence on Sunday, with limited effectiveness. Against Minnesota, he managed to stay on the court for only four and a half minutes before picking up two quick fouls, and this was against a front line featuring the likes of Darko Milicic and Ryan Gomes. The Suns got crushed on the boards in this game -- 58-41 total, 20-7 on the offensive glass, while Darko had 16 and Kevin Love had 22 off the bench. And, Phoenix struggled to hang on for the win after building a 21-point halftime lead.
All of that, of course, is not on Collins. But against stiffer competition, it's going to be more difficult for the Suns to try to compensate for what Lopez gives them defensively.
The team and its fans are obviously hoping for the best, which would be getting Lopez back full strength for a run in the postseason. Even without him, if Steve Nash can remain healthy (he was almost a late scratch Sunday due to back spasms) and Amar'e Stoudemire can continue to play in beast mode (he's averaged close to 30 and 10 this month), the Suns are going to be a tough out. But depending on their first-round opponent, the loss of Lopez could be a big one in terms of helping to determine just how far this team can advance.