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Robin Lopez is worth keeping around

The Phoenix Suns are on the verge of making a huge
mistake.

A 7 foot, 255 pound mistake, to be exact.

The Suns, it would seem, are ready to part ways with
center Robin Lopez, which wouldn’t seem like such a bad
thing given the year the Stanford alum has had.

Averaging just 6.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, Lopez
is having what has to be classified as a miserable season.
Poor on the glass, weak taking the ball to the hole and
generally awful, Lopez lost his starting job to Marcin
Gortat and has seen his per-game minutes average fall from
a high of 25 to begin the season to a low of nine in its
final month.

Then, to top it off, Lopez was the third center off the
bench against Minnesota, registering a hearty zero points,
one rebound and three fouls in a little more than six
minutes of play. While giving up on the 23-year-old may
not seem like a big deal, especially when he’s putting up
lines like that, cutting ties with the man affectionately
known as “Fropez” (OK, I may be the only one who calls him
that) would just be another sign of the Suns’
unwillingness to show the requisite patience to develop
young players.

Think about it: Who was the last player to be selected by
(or for) the Suns who then developed into a quality player
while still wearing purple and orange? Give up? Leandro
Barbosa.

That’s right, the Brazilian Blur was the last player the
Suns took from rookie to solid rotation player, and he was
drafted in 2003. And you wonder why the Suns are one of
the oldest teams in the league…

The Suns have a history of, when they’re not selling picks
on draft night, giving up on them before they see the end
of their rookie contract. Going as far back as Zarko
Cabarkapa, the Suns have given their rookies little rope
before declaring that they will be of no use and moving
on. While you will not find a player in that group who has
gone on to flourish with another team (though the jury is
still out on Clark and Dragic), the point is the Suns
either can’t properly identify talent in the draft or are
too impatient with their “win now” mentality. Well, the
Suns are a lottery team, so that really shouldn’t be a
problem at this point.

Even still, Lopez, unlike most Suns busts, has actually
shown glimpses of not only competence, but good play. As
recently as one year ago the Suns and fans were pining for
the big man’s return to the court, as his insertion into
the starting lineup provided the spark the team needed to
capture one of the West’s best records, and his return in
the Western Conference Finals gave the team some much-
needed size to battle with the Lakers up front.

How soon we all forget…

Lopez, for all his faults, is still a legitimate center.
Usually the biggest player on the floor, his size is a
great deterrent for opposing players around the hoop. He
showed impressive ability to finish around the hoop last
season, and his quickness looked like a great asset,
especially for a player his size. He has a competitive
fire that has led him to shattering doors as well as
getting into it with opposing players, flashing a mean
streak that makes you believe he not only cares but will
work hard to improve his game. But, as happens with quite
a few centers, Lopez’s career has been wrought by injury.

Whether it’s injuries to his knee, back, whatever, one
thing that’s certain is the next season Lopez makes it
through healthy will be his first. That has to be a
concern, without question, but it also has to be cited as
a reason for his struggles this season.

While Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby has come
out and said his center is not injured, I’d be willing to
bet Lopez is not 100 percent healthy either. The explosion
that made Lopez such a promising prospect just one year
ago has been absent this year, and the reason can be
traced to the back injury he suffered last season, which
left him with nerve damage in his right leg. That type of
injury takes time to heal, though it is something Lopez
has said he must learn to
play with and play through.

The good news for the Suns is that, while Lopez is
searching for his explosiveness, the team is not at the
same time looking for a center. Marcin Gortat has been a
real revelation for the franchise, consistently posting
double-doubles and providing the team with the inside
presence it desperately needed Lopez to be. Most NBA
centers wouldn’t look so impressive when compared to
Gortat, so naturally a struggling Lopez looks downright
awful.

When the season began Robin Lopez, for all intents and
purposes, was the team’s only big man. The team needed him
to step up and, for whatever reason, he did not. With
Gortat now on board the Suns can actually afford to really
work with the former first-round pick, allowing him the
necessary time to get fully healthy and regain his
explosiveness. When he does, watch him again show the
skills that had everyone excited about him no more than 10
months ago. Just think of how painful it would be to see
him do so in a different team’s uniform.