Roger Wollstadt - Creative Commons
The Hornets lose in Indiana.
Whether you watched this game all the way through, caught just a few possessions, or simply glanced at the box score at the end of the night, you'll know one thing -- this recap starts and ends with Robin Lopez. It has to.
It's not just because of Lopez's line itself, though his final line was about as ridiculous as they come. Lopez finished 3 of 17 from the field and 15 of 17 from the stripe. Only one time in NBA history before tonight had a player hit 15+ free throws and attempted 15+ field goals while converting on 3 or fewer: Charles Barkley, seventeen years ago.
I will fully cop to that being an egregiously cherry-picked stat, but it serves to underscore the weirdness of this night. The box score leaps up and smacks you in the eye every time you scan back towards Robin Lopez's line, and the fact that he made it out of a 3 for 17 performance both alive and boasting a measure of efficiency -- at 1.23 points per shot, he easily outdid the league average -- is extraordinary.
And somehow, it wasn't just the line itself. Robin Lopez, tonight, was a perfect encapsulation of the offensive and defensive philosophies of both the Hornets this season and Monty Williams at large. Forget Vasquez and Aminu and Rivers and Anderson and Mason and Roberts -- if you could pick one guy in one game to learn what the Hornets, in their current injury-ridden state, are all about, it would be Robin Lopez in this game. It has to be.
It is weird, and I have no idea how or why or when, but Robin Lopez has become Proxy Eric Gordon. It isn't as apparent on nights that the swirling, slashing Anthony Davis show is on display. But on nights it isn't, Lopez is the team's go-to for disturbingly long stretches. When a ball-handler -- Vasquez, Mason, Roberts, Aminu -- is in trouble, it is Lopez's giant, huddled figure he seeks refuge in. Lopez is happy to oblige, receiving the ball countless times with his back to the basket, 20 feet away from the hoop.
In short order, he's become New Orleans' personal Statue of Liberty, eagerly welcoming the team's beleaguered, its tired and its poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free and/or dribble at a semiprofessional level.
It is often a sloppy exchange, wasting valuable seconds of an all-too-frequently already overmilked shot clock. It is often followed by a hurried reset to whichever guard is nearby. Sometimes, it precedes Lopez turning and careening barbarically towards the rim, a strategy that does allow for some measure of success, at least on Hibbert-less nights.
Needless to say, there are many problems with Lopez, Point-Center. Turnovers: bad. Quality of shot: bad. Loss of rebounding ability due to the team's 7 foot center being 15 feet from the hoop even if he's a pretty pedestrian rebounder: also bad.
It should also be obvious that very few of these things are actually Robin Lopez's fault. Tonight, he was really splendid in his traditional center tasks: his 7 offensive rebounds came against a genuinely excellent (4th best in the league!) defensive rebounding Pacers team and fueled many free throw opportunities both for himself and teammates. Lopez fought as hard as anybody on the floor, and for a 270 pound dude on the tail end of a road back-to-back, that's impressive. It wasn't just effort either; the results were great -- 21 points on 17 shots, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 turnovers.
The role he's being asked to play on this team right now though just makes no sense, and that goes back to a central issue with the way the Hornets are currently constructed. They're far too reliant on one guy, and that guy happens to be rehabbing in Los Angeles. Anthony Davis obviously looks well on his way to being an offensive force, but he's not there yet. And while he develops, the Hornets will need to come up with an offensive plan a lot more innovative than stuffing the ball into Lopez's hands indiscriminately.
Defense is where it gets a bit more interesting.
The Hornets have been bad on that end thus far. Legitimately terrible. Going into the night, they'd allowed 108.3 points per 100 possessions, the 3rd worst mark in the entire league. They allowed 122 points per 100 possessions tonight, and that overall rank is going nowhere but down. Again, Lopez's game against Indiana holds the answers to many questions on the defensive end.
Since he's been here, Monty Williams has designed defenses that funnel strong side perimeter help to a post defender rotating from the weakside. Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza were generally those strong side defenders, and Monty Williams rotated through a sea of variously shaped bigs as the primary rotator in the post -- Aaron Gray, Emeka Okafor, D.J. Mbenga, and Chris Kaman all played the role with a good degree of success. Their common attribute is obviously size; when both Okafor and Kaman were healthy and on the floor together, Williams always preferred to use the much larger Kaman as primary post help.
Robin Lopez was clearly acquired to slot into that same role, and so far he's done a decent job of it. Overall, New Orleans ranks in the bottom half of the league in terms of field goals allowed in the paint and has been about average in terms of field goal percentages allowed from closer to the rim. In other words, Monty's controlled paint collapse strategy has been working decently well; indeed, the post and paint defensive figures are worlds away from the hideously inefficient overall numbers on defense.
The problem has been one of over-collapsing. Guards help in the paint and are completely unable to get back onto the perimeter to contest shots. Forwards get caught on picks and can't contest. It's an issue of footspeed and simple defensive awareness. Teams have been shooting well on the Hornets, sure -- their allowed 3P% is eighth highest in the league -- but it's because they cede so many high quality, wide open shots. Teams attempt more threes against the Hornets than anyone else because it's easy to. It's exceedingly simple to create open three pointers versus the guards of New Orleans.
Opponent Threes Attempted per 100 Possessions
|Team||Opponent Threes/100 Possessions|
|4. Golden State||23.1|
|1. New Orleans||28.2|
The disparity between the #1 and #2 teams is absolutely massive, and it's telling. The Hornets' rotations are awful, and Monty Williams' underlying defensive philosophy -- prevent high quality shots in the paint -- exacerbates the issue of poor defensive perimeter talent on the roster. Vasquez and Mason lack footspeed, Roberts and Rivers lack awareness, and taken together, it's a trainwreck.
And so Robin Lopez had a good game on both ends against Indiana. Defensively, his work holding back Roy Hibbert and challenging his Pacer teammates was important. Offensively, his contribution was more than adequate if ugly.
But Lopez raises more questions than he answers, through no fault of his own. Without Gordon and with Anthony Davis still adapting to the speed of the NBA, it's worth considering whether this current defensive system is at all sustainable with the Hornets' current personnel. The early returns are not pretty.
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.