Entering the summer of 2015, the New York Knicks were commonly linked to high-profile free agents such as LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and Greg Monroe. Unfortunately, New York was unable to sign any of its big-name targets.
Contrary to popular belief, Phil Jackson didn’t strike out out by missing the stars; he just hit a different type of jackpot.
With the stars off the table, Jackson signed center Robin Lopez to a four-year deal worth $54 million. He isn’t an All-NBA center or a borderline All-Star, but Lopez is a high-character athlete whose presence in the locker room is constantly heralded.
According to Al Iannazzone of Newsday, Lopez is proud to know that he was signed for something deeper than what’s seen on the surface.
"“It’s something I totally embrace,” Lopez said. “I think I’m a lot prouder of them wanting to sign me for reasons — they wanted to build, they wanted to have good character guys, hard-working guys, they wanted to build the right kind of atmosphere for the team. I’m so proud to be a part of that.“If you look around the gym, you got a lot of great guys, a lot of chemistry and a fantastic foundation.”"
It doesn’t hurt that Lopez is a very good basketball player.
Lopez started for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2013-14 and 2014-15. He helped the team win 50-plus games in both seasons, averaging at least 27.8 minutes played per game in each.
For his career, Lopez has made 316 starts in the regular season and 22 in three postseason appearances.
For as consistent a contributor as he’s been since he was drafted in 2008, Lopez has always carried a stigma. He’s often viewed as the other Lopez twin, with brother Brook Lopez reaching an All-Star Game with the Brooklyn Nets.
Fortunately, watching his brother score at will has motivated RoLo to improve his defense.
While Brook is more of an offensive star who thrives in protecting the rim, Lopez has drawn more recognition for being the opposite. He’s a defensive stopper who’s skilled offensively, but makes his money via his energy and potential as an anchor.
Simply put, Lopez doesn’t like being scored on.
"“Brook [Lopez]’s always had a knack for putting the ball in the bucket, and I would have to go out there and try to stop him,” Robin Lopez said. “That would be my thing. I don’t like being scored on on the floor. It’s as simple as that.”"
The Trail Blazers weren’t the best defensive team with Lopez in town, but that wasn’t to the detriment of his effort or quality of play. He cracked the Top 25 in opponent field goal percentage at the rim in 2014-15, per NBA.com, and was No. 2 during a healthy 2013-14.
With those traits in mind, head coach Derek Fisher envisions Lopez being the defensive anchor.
"“Well, his hair alone will change a lot of shots,” Derek Fisher said. “He has a presence. He commands things from his teammates. He’s a vocal guy. He’s not afraid to make sure guys are doing their job. When we have an anchor on the defensive end who’s really communicating and letting guys know what they should be doing and what’s going on out there, that helps.“He’s a big dude. So it’s not as easy when he’s around the rim to go and finish. I think he’s going to help us in a big way in terms of being a guy people have to think about when they go in the lane.”"
Defensively, Lopez is expected to give the 2015-16 Knicks with something similar to what Tyson Chandler provided from 2011 to 2014.
Beyond the measurable basketball traits is a human being whom everyone seems to love. Between his Comic Con cosplay and his lighthearted fights with mascots, Lopez is one of the most endearing men in the NBA.
Arron Afflalo, who played with Lopez in Portland and followed him to New York, had nothing but kind words for the big man.
"“I love him,” said Afflalo, who played 25 games with the Trail Blazers last season. “He’s a big inside presence. He’s unselfish with the way he plays the game. He’s one of the best vertical, shot-blocker, defender-type players and he’s a good teammate.”"
That’s the best thing you can ask a player to be.
Lopez will give his all on the court and provide a positive impact in the locker room. He fits the type of roster Phil Jackson has been building—one that may lack a second star after Carmelo Anthony, but has a surplus of high-character players.
Lopez is the player at the heart of that movement.
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