Both Spurs, Bulls pleased with new big men Pau Gasol and Robin Lopez
CHICAGO — In stature, there’s maybe five pounds and a silly millimeter difference between the two 7-footers.
Both have shaggy hair, depending on the numbers of days since their most recent stops at the barbershop. Both sport scraggly facial hair, although one looks like an aging hipster artist and the other like Sideshow Bob.
Each of them, statistically improbable as it is, is part of a sibling tandem, with all four ranking among basketball’s elite as NBA starting big men. For Pau Gasol and his brother Marc, though, this plays out as more of a friendly rivalry. For Robin Lopez and his twin brother Brook, we’re supposed to believe this is the stuff of blood feuds, real Michael-and-Fredo stuff driven by enmity between their pet cats.
Pau Gasol, who returns to the United Center tonight with the San Antonio Spurs (9:30 ET, TNT), started at center for the Chicago Bulls for the past two full seasons. Robin Lopez has that job now. And beyond the transition from an eclectic to an eccentric, the switch appears to have gone well for all concerned.
Gasol, after earning two late-career All-Star selections while averaging 17.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in his time with the Bulls, is playing and scoring less this season with the Spurs but enjoying it more; San Antonio is 18-4 and has yet to lose a road game (13-0). The Bulls went 92-72 during Gasol’s stay under two different coaches, 1-1 in playoff series, and missed the postseason entirely last spring.
Having won championships in 2009 and 2010 with the Los Angeles Lakers but ready to leave after changes there worked against him, Gasol signed an under-value contract with Chicago (three years, $22 million) for what he felt would be a shot at another ring. The city and its vast array of artistic, musical and culinary options never disappointed him — he sought out the Civic Opera, the symphony, theater and the finest restaurants — but the basketball ultimately did.
“I wasn’t there as long as I was in Memphis or L.A.,” Gasol told the San Antonio Express-News as the clash with the Bulls neared. “I was emotionally committed to the team, trying to make it work. Things didn’t quite work out the way I expected them to, or the way the franchise expected them to.”
In San Antonio, Gasol’s numbers are down — 11.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 26.1 mpg, all career lows — but still formidable pro-rated out to 36 minutes. Besides, he is 38 and filling a specific role in easing the Spurs’ loss of franchise icon Tim Duncan. The W-L record is all the testimony Gasol, his teammates or his bosses need on that.
Coach Gregg Popovich told the Express-News: “He’s easy, so to speak. He’s been around long enough and been successful enough that, to him, it really is just basketball. No matter what system he’s in, he’s going to figure it out pretty quickly.”
Gasol is playing with his fourth organization in 16 NBA seasons. Lopez, by contrast, is with his fourth in five seasons and six in nine seasons overall since being selected by Phoenix with the No. 15 pick of the 2008 draft (five spots after brother Brook). His ability to acclimate to new systems and surroundings is every bit as facile as Gasol’s, judging by how well he has slipped into the center spot for Chicago.
Lopez’s offensive impact, not just scoring (9.8 ppg) but attacking the boards for second and third opportunities (15.2 offensive rebound percentage), has been invaluable on a team that ranks 22nd in field-goal percentage. Teamed up front with Taj Gibson, a full-time starter now, Chicago has vaulted to the NBA’s top spot in offensive rebound percentage (29.9), up from No. 13 (4.5) in 2015-16.
On a 36-minute basis, Lopez’s numbers aren’t that far off from Gasol’s. He’s been playing at a pace of 12.5 points on 12.3 field-goal attempts, 10.2 rebounds (5.1 offensive) and 2.4 blocks vs. the Spurs big man’s 15.7 on 13.4, 10.1 (1.8) and 1.5.
It’s at the defensive end, though, where the difference is most noticeable. According to NBA.com/Stats, Lopez ranks first among all players in contested shots (16.8). Gasol entered Thursday’s game at 9.9.
With defensive-minded Joakim Noah’s disruptive move to the bench last season by Hoiberg and then his exit for shoulder surgery after just 29 games, Gasol’s limitations at that end led to some consternation among the Bulls and their fans. This season, Lopez’s awkward intensity has proved to be more satisfying for many of those critics.
“He’s not real flashy with how he plays. What he does is he carves out space,” Hoiberg said recently. “Just little things like screening, you’re not going to see a guy get on [ESPN] SportsCenter by setting a screen. That’s what Robin does. He’s helped our offensive rebounding in a huge way from where we were a year ago. It’s so many little things, but it certainly doesn’t go unappreciated by his coaches and teammates.’’
Terry Stotts, who coached Lopez in Portland in 2013-14 and 2014-15, was just starting to sing the big man’s praises before the Blazers-Bulls game Monday when Lopez passed the media glut in the United Center hallway.
“Robin was really good in a lot of ways. He’s a great teammate…” Stotts said before spotting his former center. “Anything you want me to say about you?”
Lopez didn’t even crack a smile. “No, it sounds like you’re doing a great job already.”
So Stotts carried on: “As that attests, he has a great personality. On the court he had a toughness. His offensive rebounding was something that we never really coached but obviously he’s doing the same things here. I think he gave us an edge. The first month that he was there in Septebmer (2013), he made his presence known in pickup games that he was going to be an important part of our team.”
Lopez’s deadpan sense of humor is most evident in his sparring with Brook. That includes the feline feud they cited as their reason for separate residence during their shared 2015-16 season in New York, Robin with the Knicks, Brook with the Nets. In style, he’s a vast departure from the suit-and-tie Gasol, more prone to wearing jeans, T-shirts and a well broken-in Seattle Mariners cap. You’re more likely to spot him at Comic Con than at “Carmen.”
But there’s a professionalism about him once he’s in uniform. His take on the Bulls’ up-and-down, barely .500 first quarter of 2016-17 is no different from veterans such as Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
“We’re doing OK,” Lopez said. “Obviously there’s a lot of things we can work on but there’s a lot of promise too. When we come out focused and come out with energy and intensity, we’re a difficult team to contend with. I’d roll with us on just about any night.”
Unspoken? When they don’t bring those qualities, they can lose to anybody. “There’s a lesson every night,” Lopez said.
The musical chairs of Bulls centers that began in June when the Bulls traded Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday essentially for Lopez and Jerian Grant continued in free agency when Noah signed with the Knicks and Gasol chose the Spurs. Each appears to be in the right place, with Gasol winning in a niche role, a struggling Noah at least back in the city he loves and and where he grew up, and Lopez fitting in as a defender, a rebounder and an opportunistic scorer.
“I try to be a little flexible,” he said. “I’m stepping out and shooting that mid-range jumper a little more. Pau and Jo are both fantastic, they’re both amazing players. I’m trying to help my teammates however I can out there.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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