Are Players Like Robin Lopez Really Becoming Extinct in Today's NBA?

It’s unfortunate the Bulls play just one game before the trade deadline this week, Wednesday in the United Center against the New Orleans Pelicans. Because then it gives everyone too much time to think and perhaps worry, though Robin Lopez says none of that really troubles him.

“I’m just going out there, particularly defensively I am trying to help my teammates,” Lopez said. “I am trying to get my guys open with screens and such. No thoughts on the (Thursday) trade deadline, honestly.”

I believe the 11-year veteran in the final season of a four-year contract with the Bulls, which also is one big reason why his name has been mentioned in trade speculation. The other reason is the growing narrative around the NBA that a player like Lopez is a dinosaur, a lumbering seven footer who doesn’t much shoot three pointers and isn’t particularly adept at switching on screen/roll, the basic defensive philosophy of most NBA teams these days.

So as the Bulls were concluding their three-game road trip last week, I asked Lopez about being a dinosaur. Though, more specifically: If he were a dinosaur, which dinosaur would he be?

Lopez brightened with that inquiry since after a decade in the NBA he’s heard all the questions he wants to hear and responded mostly dryly and out of habit.

But the best part is Lopez didn’t have to hesitate much at all.

Which is another reason why players like Robin Lopez are more valuable than they appear as an object in a rear view mirror. And why even as some believe his species is growing extinct, you might want to wait before you begin to dig for the bones of this 275-pound seven-footer.

“What kind of a dinosaur am I?” Lopez repeated, his eyes widening with curiosity. “I guess something like a triceratops,” Lopez answered. "A triceratops is not too dynamic, but has a little strength. Some horns, will gore you kind of a little bit.”

Robin Lopez wearing a black jersey.

Something more colossal? I wondered. Which also tells you that you may not be missing much in these media/player conversations.

“Would not want to be a T-Rex with the short arms,” Lopez said. "I have some visible gifts.”

Perhaps more than many realize.

As for the triceratops comparison by Lopez, it was a slam dunk.

The triceratops is that horn-faced dinosaur that somewhat resembles a modern rhinoceros. Sort of the ancient version of Lopez since the triceratops’ horns were believed to have been mainly used as a defensive weapon. It was a bulky creature, faster than you expected and equally dangerous.

Somewhat like the fierce, defensive-oriented Bulls center whom the team basically has been trying to replace for the last two years, and who keeps coming back because he’s not as obsolete as it’s seemed.

“He impacted the game the other night,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen noted about the Bulls victory in Miami. “He protected the rim, caught the ball in the pocket and made plays. His size was very important against (Hassan) Whiteside. When he was out of the game, Whiteside was dominating in the second quarter. When we put him back in, for whatever reason, we got the game back under control. He blocked two shots at the rim and he is a big body that matches up good with a big body.

Robin Lopez and Wayne Selden Jr. block out a Miami Heat player.

“Rolo is a professional, a wonderful person, well liked by his teammates and I feel like Bulls across his chest means a lot to him,” said Boylen. “I feel he’s having a good season for what I am asking him to do and his role. Where he might start and not finish the game or he might play eight minutes and not play again or might play another eight minutes, he’s ready to play, respectful and for me he’s having a good season.”

So why so quick to move on from Lopez? not that the Bulls ever have said they are or intend to, at least for now.

It’s just that with an expiring contract, the belief the team has to move on with young players (Lopez will be 31 in April), top draft pick Wendell Carter Jr. a center with Cristiano Felicio under contact two more seasons and the possibility of obtaining a draft pick in return, Lopez often is asked about the upcoming trading deadline.

Though it’s nothing unusual for a player with his fifth team. Been there, experienced that.

But there’s perhaps more value to Lopez than the naked eye can see, and for the Bulls, too. The Miami/Whiteside experience was a good example.

Without Lopez, the Bulls aren’t very big at center. Felicio has mostly been out of the rotation. Carter is hurt and out for the rest of the season. But at 6-10 he has had difficulties with the taller centers. Likewise, the Bulls have tried Bobby Portis, who isn’t a particularly big rebounder and also about 6-10. Seven footer Lauri Markkanen isn’t strong or physical enough against the league’s big centers.

And there are many more of them than the conventional wisdom suggested the last few years.

The NBA dream in recent seasons modeled on the successful Golden State Warriors was this so called “positionless” basketball where a team would have five players all about 6-7 or 6-8 who would switch every screen and thus remain in defensive position, all to shoot threes and rebound and run. Having three of the best three-point shooters in NBA history made them something of an exception. And then in the middle of all this perfect scenario came guys like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns and Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan and a heck of a lot more of these talented ultrasaurus types. They were free to romp over the smaller guys unless someone were in their way, like perhaps a bony, hard edged physical triceratops type.

There is a place for players like Robin Lopez.

Robin Lopez speaks to the crowd before the start of a Bulls game.

“By players like me, I assume you mean exceedingly well rounded players off the court,” said Lopez when asked if his type has disappeared. “There’s always going to be a place for those kinds of players. The pendulum swings a little bit, but as long as you are an intelligent player, have some skill down there, I think you’ll be OK.

“I think the game evolves,” Lopez added. “I think there will always be a place. Who knows how players are going to develop in the future? I work on developing my own game. So hopefully in the next few years I’ll be taking more three pointers; so who knows. There are a lot of young, dominant centers in the league, not a dearth at all. So I think there always is going to be a role for those kinds of players.”

But, I protested, what about what everybody is saying?

“You don’t go into a battle of wits with people unarmed,” Lopez warned.

Really, how could anyone not like him?

Lopez has also been the remarkably good teammate and team member the last two seasons, benched last season to perhaps make way for the young talent, and then again to start this season when then coach Fred Hoiberg wanted to play a more free flowing style. But with injuries and need, Lopez found his way back in and again as a starter. And in an ever more important role, like the game in Miami.

Lopez plays with passion and enthusiasm. He may play with more joy than any of his younger teammates. He still engages the hostile team mascot. He leads the team in technical fouls, refusing to accept blatant inequality and injustice. He’s something of the Bulls George Washington, first in war, first in peace and in the hearts of his teammates.

Lopez is averaging a seven-year low 6.1 points and 2.9 rebounds this season as he’s been rotated in and out of the rotation. But since his last benching in Los Angeles in January, the bearded and shaggy haired iconoclast is averaging in the last nine games 7.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in about 19 minutes per game. He is shooting 56 percent and with 1.2 blocks per game. He also made a three. Plus, he’s scored at least 13 points three times with 17 points against Denver All-Star Nikola Jokic.

Lopez has become in some respects a vital last line of defense against a growing number of physical seven footers around the NBA. If you have to face the tyrannosaurus types that roam the NBA landscape, it helps to have your own version of the triceratops. They’re not all fossils quite yet.