Following shootaround, the mood was light, laughter abundant.
It was unsurprising, really. At 29-9 and second in the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers don’t have much to fret about these days. Like wins, a jovial atmosphere has become the norm for them this season.
Off to the side sat Robin Lopez, which upon first thought may seem natural. He’s an ancillary figure on a team that boasts the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, headliners of the league’s newest darling squad.
However, as his position might nominally suggest, Lopez finds himself at the center of a team with some of the best chemistry in the NBA – both on the court and off of it.
Since making his way to Portland via a three-way trade with New Orleans and Sacramento, Lopez has been with the team for about six months – even less so with his teammates, considering training camp’s September start date – but that’s been plenty of time for the personable big man to assimilate.
“He’s one of those guys that you could put him in a room with a whole bunch of random strangers and he’d just fit in,” Aldridge said. “He’s a funny guy, kind of how he comes across on the court – very creative, funny and always trying to make sure our people are having a good time. He’s fun to be around.”
The Trail Blazers’ chemistry off the court has been significant in their success, but their tangible display on the floor is what has taken the league by storm, and Lopez plays just as vital a role in that respect.
Averaging a modest 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, Lopez’s numbers don’t exactly stand out on a team that does just that.
Lillard is the league’s preeminent pick and roll maestro, while Aldridge, lethal with his mid-range game and turnaround jumpers, is making a strong case for starting in next month’s All-Star Game. But without Lopez and his big frame planting sturdy screens or doing dirty work in the paint, Lillard and Aldridge may not have the freedom to reach their offensive potential.
Batman had Robin, sure, but even they’d both be lost without Alfred. Lopez’s versatile, energetic play has set the table for the success of Portland’s dynamic duo.
“I think he’s great for us because he takes up space, he makes guys play him at the rim. He’s very unselfish,” Aldridge said. “He doesn’t care if he gets two shots or 10 shots; he just plays the right way. I think he’s taken on the mindset that if he doesn’t get a shot, he’s going to go get it off the offensive boards, and that’s keeping pressure on the other team and getting their big men into foul trouble.”
Aldridge is having one of the best seasons of his career, vying with Kevin Love for the mantle of the NBA’s top power forward. With a bevy of moves in his arsenal, Aldridge is an imposing presence with his back to the basket and the focal point of Portland’s offense.
Playing next to such a prolific forward is nothing new for Lopez, in his third stop in six years as a pro, and he’s taken from past experiences to thrive alongside Aldridge.
Last season, he played next to the rising star Anthony Davis in New Orleans, where Lopez’s size and skill set allowed for his rookie teammate to play power forward, a position he’s perhaps best suited for.
Before that, in Phoenix, Lopez’s frontcourt pairing was Amar’e Stoudemire, one of the most dominant offensive players in the league when healthy.
Aldridge’s game isn’t quite like Davis’ or Stoudemire’s – Lopez cited Davis’ youth and Stoudemire’s “extreme” athleticism as differences – but the magnitude of it draws similarities. (Lopez hesitates to hyperbolize, he said, but deemed Aldridge the best of his three career frontcourt partners.)
For someone that towers over most at 7-feet-tall, Lopez has spent plenty of time living in other players’ shadows, but the complimentary role is one he whole-heartedly embraces.
“I just try to do the dirty work. I try to alleviate in any way I can, just make it easier for (Aldridge),” Lopez said. “I’m just trying to do a little bit of everything. Whatever I need to do that night, I’m trying to help out with – obviously my focus is on the defensive end, grabbing boards when I can and working inside, but if they need me to score a couple points, I try to get a couple easy points; if they need me to grab some rebounds, I’ll try to get some offensive rebounds, extra possessions, things like that.”
His willingness to do what is asked of him as a role player, and ability to do so successfully, has been an understated key to the Trail Blazers’ early accomplishments.
While his efforts may sometimes go unheralded outside of the locker room, none within it overlook them.
“He’s been a complement to everyone. … He’s having a career year,” Terry Stotts said. “I think he’s fit in seamlessly with the way we play on both ends of the floor.”
For the first time in years, Lopez finds himself on a team with a shot at postseason success, which is a good feeling, he said.
Lopez and the Trail Blazers are playing at a high level, exceeding most everyone’s but their own expectations, and they’re having fun doing it.
“We’re having such a great time on and off the floor,” Lopez said. “And that’s what basketball is all about – basketball’s a game.”
Featured image courtesy of Valentino Valdez/Flickr.