What was Robin Lopez‘s role for the Orlando Magic during the 2022 season?
That was the question a lot of people had when he signed with the team in the offseason. Why would the Magic sign a third center — and a veteran one at that — to come off the bench with two young bigs in the starting lineup? Why would a veteran center and spot starter volunteer to join a clearly rebuilding team?
It was not clear what he or the Magic were doing. Certainly, Lopez, who is a big Disney fan and shares one of the ritzy townhomes on Disney property with his brother, wanted a little slice of home and a chance to go to his beloved theme parks. But this was something more than that.
Robin Lopez understood his role for the Orlando Magic and that made him the perfect veteran to teach a young group and have fun in the process.
That might mean sometimes he would go long stretches without playing. That means sometimes he would play major minutes. His job was to be ready whenever the team called on him for that purpose and to be a good teammate in the process.
Lopez worked so well for this Magic team not just because he proved he was still a capable player who understood what he was good at and what his limitations were. He also worked well because he integrated so well into the group.
He was the big brother who could give the younger players guidance and embrace the role of the veteran. But he was also still enough of a kid to enjoy the ride with this young bunch.
Just look at him hanging out with rookie Jalen Suggs at Disney World late in the season:
What made Lopez such a success this past season was that clear understanding of his role. The Magic very easily could have offered to trade him to a contender at the deadline, where he had shown he could still contribute something to a team. But he wanted to stay and see things through.
Maybe that was a sign of his comfort in Orlando. Maybe it was a sign of how much he enjoyed being part of the process with a young team. He was invested in his role with the team.
He indeed was the utility player for this team. And it is hard to say Lopez was nothing but successful.
The signing, in the end, made some sense, giving the Magic an emergency center with their surprising two-big lineups and playing well in the process.
Lopez appeared in only 36 games, marking the first time he appeared in fewer than 50 games in his career and just a year removed from playing in 71 games for the Washington Wizards a year before.
This was by choice from the Magic, who were clearly focused on other younger players at the position but wanted the steady veteran hand of Lopez around on and off the court.
That hand was apparent with how well Lopez played and helped stabilize the Magic’s lineup with some scoring and garbage points around the basket.
Lopez averaged 7.1 points per game in his 17.0 minutes per game. He added 3.5 rebounds per game including 1.9 offensive rebounds per game.
Lopez has made his hook shot famous, and it was in full force every time he hit the floor. It was a thing of beauty and the Magic were able to break their usually mobile offense to set him up in the post and let him get to work on the block.
According to Basketball-Index, Lopez had a rim shot quality of +0.2, placing just outside the bottom quarter of the league. Despite this, he made a 64.62-percent adjusted field goal percentage at the rim and was one of the best finishers around the basket — rating at +1.0, placing him in the 87th percentile.
That is the power of a dependable hook shot.
In a league going increasingly away from post-up plays, Lopez is still the old school, Earthbound big. Lopez averaged 3.0 post-ups per game, the 13th-most in the league. He scored 0.87 points per post-up possession, 12th among those heavy post-up users.
According to Basketball Index, he was in the 99th percentile in terms of total post frequency spending 45-percent of his possessions in post-ups and putbacks.
Lopez is undoubtedly slowing down and his post shot was not nearly as effective as it was the previous year in Washington when his hook shot really started getting some more notice. But Lopez is still a rare treat and could be a terror.
Especially considering his offensive rebounding. His size alone was enough to keep him engaged around the basket and he did a good job gobbling up rebounds when he missed because of the position he created with his good footwork on post-ups.
He ranked in the top quarter of the league in most offensive rebounding categories tracked by Basketball Index, grabbing 4.3 offensive rebounds per 75 possessions despite having 82-percent of his offensive rebounds contested and 2.6 putbacks per 75 possessions.
Lopez obviously still has major shortcomings defensively. He knows how to use his size and has an understanding of his limitations to not put himself in bad situations where he can help it. He is good at contesting shots at the rim.
But nobody will confuse Lopez for a great paint or rim protector anymore. Opponents still shoot worse when Lopez is around. Lopez just has to work harder and give up some ground to be in a position to contest those shots. That is no longer his forte. But his minutes were limited this year, making it hard to judge a whole lot.
Lopez’s greatest strength is understanding who he is and leaning into those strengths — both on and off the court. That made him valuable to a young team. He could stay out of the way and contribute where he could. And he was happy to serve as that role model for how to accept and play your role.
Player Grade: B+
It is hard to say Lopez had a bad year. He took is limited minutes and did a lot with them. His 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in a surprise win over the Brooklyn Nets the day after the team got hit with COVID was his first real playing time of the year and showed how his craftiness could make up for a lot.
Lopez had several other strong games like that one (not that strong) where he just contributed in his minutes and gave the team a good energy boost. That is all the team wanted from him. Getting 11 games of double figures was probably a bonus the team was not expecting.
It is also really clear that Lopez has some severe limitations. The kind of limitations that likely mean his days in a regular rotation are nearing an end. He is better in small doses or as an emergency player because of those limitations. Lopez is starting to slow down some, even if he recognizes it and tries his best to cover for it.
The Magic will need another emergency center this year. That is clear. But it is not likely to be Lopez. Orlando will probably want someone who fits the team’s more mobile, versatile style.
And Lopez is the opposite of versatile right now. He can play only one style and one way and that necessarily limits what the team can do.
Lopez had a good season. The Magic are thankful for the example he set in the locker room. The team could not have asked for a better veteran in the end. They will need to find someone who can replace Lopez’s presence and accept this kind of role again.
It will be a hard thing to do to find someone who understands that so well.