The first eight-figure contract of Phil Jackson's rebuilding effort in New York will go to a supporting actor, rather than a Broadway star.
Unrestricted free agent center Robin Lopez has reportedly agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract with the Knicks, according to Yahoo Sports and Bleacher Report. The deal, which kicks in for the 2015-16 season and runs through 2018-19, doesn't include any option years. After spending two seasons in Portland, Lopez heads to New York, where his twin brother Brook is the starting center for the Nets.
"Excited to be part of the Knicks legacy," Lopez wrote on Twitter. "It's going to be like 'On the Town' but with way more box outs and dunks."
Lopez, 27, averaged 9.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks for the Blazers last season. The quirky 7-footer, known for his love of Disneyland, comic books and brawling with mascots, is the quintessential "do the little things" player. Offensively, he's not really a true one-on-one threat to score, but he is effective diving off of pick-and-rolls, setting screens, crashing the offensive glass, and hitting the baby mid-range jumper when help defenders leave him. Defensively, he clogs the paint, challenges shots at the rim, diligently boxes out, and dishes out hard fouls every once in awhile. On both ends, Lopez is a fiery team-first worker who will hit the deck at a moment's notice and understands clearly what he does and doesn't do well.
Physical limitations ultimately cap Lopez's effectiveness. There's often a robotic feel to his offensive game: he's a capable finisher of straightforward plays, but don't expect much improvisation. His lack of quickness keeps him paint-bound on defense: if you're asking to step out on pick-and-rolls or chase guards around the perimeter, you're setting yourself up for failure. Knicks coach Derek Fisher will need to be willing to make the necessary strategic compromises to put his new center in a position to succeed.
As Jackson builds from the ground up, one of the key questions he faces is how his potential acquisitions will fit with Carmelo Anthony. Lopez should pass that test after thriving alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, who, like Anthony, is a high-usage forward who takes lots of jump shots in isolation. If Anthony works through an adjustment phase to Lopez's unpolished game, he will find a teammate who helps him in many ways, forcing switches by setting textbook screens, creating extra possessions with his work on the offensive glass, serving as an efficient and easy-to-target option for passes when defenses load up on Anthony, and regularly covering for his teammates' defensive mistakes without asking for much in return.
Lopez's focus and skill handling the under-appreciated tasks makes him underrated by basketball fans at large but, also, a touch overrated by the online basketball intelligentsia. Last season, Lopez ranked No. 24 in Real Plus-Minus and No. 30 in PER among centers. Even in his prime, on a Blazers starting lineup that fit together perfectly, it's hard to make the case that Lopez was better than average among starting centers. While Jackson and Anthony would kill to get back into the playoffs at this point, Lopez's postseason play was pretty rough in both 2014, when he was completely manhandled by Rockets All-Star Dwight Howard, and 2015, when he saw his minutes cut against a physical Grizzlies frontline.
Even so, the money looks just about right, if a tiny touch high. Lopez was a strong value at $6.1 million last season and his new deal rewards him a substantial raise, even when adjusted for the rising salary cap. Lopez's $13.5 million average annual value is in a similar ballpark to Tyson Chandler ($13 million) and Omer Asik ($12 million), and he has a strong chance to be the best producer of those three over the full lifetime of this contract. There also aren't any major red flags to cause concern about the length of this agreement. Aside from a hand injury last season, Lopez enjoyed very good health for three-plus seasons after two tough-luck seasons in Phoenix to start his career. He's now firmly in his prime and his effectiveness, from a physical standpoint, should remain level for the entirety of the deal.
To boil this down: Lopez is a solid player, but there's a clear ceiling on his impact. Lopez worked in Portland because he was wasn't asked to do too much, and instead encouraged to do what he did well. Will the Knicks, without the Blazers' talent on hand currently, be able to check both of those boxes? If not, Lopez frankly won't be of much use. If so, this deal has a good shot at looking savvy.