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Robin Lopez is the odd man out, but may stay in Chicago anyway

What’s a veteran big man’s role to be on a rebuilding team?

NBA: Chicago Bulls-Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of change regarding the Chicago Bulls roster this past offseason. Yet on opening night, one thing you can surely expect is Robin Lopez at center the tip.

Lopez isn’t the most talked about Bull or even the most talked about big man on the team, but he still is a solid contributor. He does his job and plays within the limits of the role given to him.

Lopez had a solid 2016-17 season for the Bulls. Despite seeing a dip in overall field goal percentage and eFG%, he still averaged 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He made the most of his impact defensively, recording a defensive box plus minus value of 1.0. Given Chicago’s season long problems on defense, Lopez did the best he could to provide some sort of stable presence in the paint and on the glass. He averaged 1.4 blocks per game while also pulling down 3.4 defensive rebounds in the process. The consistent rebounding effort helped the Bulls become one of the best teams in that category, finishing 3rd in the league with 46.3 boards per game.

We saw Lopez at the height of his power in Game 1 and 2 of the playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Against Amir Johnson, Lopez played straight up bully-ball and put up some great numbers: 13 offensive rebounds in the first two games, and a mid-range jumper enabling him to scoring 18 and 14 in the first two games respectively. It was fascinating since very few, if anyone, expected this type of monstrous performance from the big man. Lopez was one of the key cogs in Chicago’s two victories in that series, where the Bulls were able to slow down and made it an absolute slugfest, with Lopez throwing the biggest haymakers.

Sadly, we then also saw Lopez at his worst against Boston. In Games 3 and 4, the Celtics decided to go small ball with Al Horford at center which forced Lopez to guard him. Boston then decided to completely exploit the mismatch, putting Lopez in PNR situations where he was forced to switch onto the smaller and quicker Isaiah Thomas. When Boston wasn’t doing that, the threat of Horford’s mid-range jumper (which is pretty good) drew Lopez out of the paint. Thanks to the adjustments made by Boston, they completely negated the value of Lopez for the remainder of the series. While those flaws aren’t exactly Lopez’s fault, it does show another example of how NBA teams are negating big men in the era of “pace and space” and small ball.

In terms of his role next season, look for it to be more of the same for Lopez. Expect him to continue to be the starter with Cristiano Felicio still developing. He will still be there guarding the rim and crashing the glass while also providing a veteran presence in the locker room... I don’t think Lopez will suddenly develop a consistent jumper or acquire quicker foot speed.

Ideally, with Chicago now rebuilding, the best scenario for Lopez (or any veteran player) would be to try and flip him for assets. Lopez, at 29, is in the prime of his career right now. If he plays well during the first half of the season, he could then possibly be attractive to a contender at the deadline.

There is just one slight problem: there aren’t many teams nowadays looking to trade for centers. The way the league is trending, players like Lopez are getting fazed out and their value is dropping. Lopez makes around $14m the next 2 seasons, and it may be tough for the Bulls to even get a team to assume that contract, let alone send an asset back to do so. Perhaps it may take an injury on a competitive team mid-season for a trade partner to get more desperate.

Robin Lopez has been exactly the player many expected him to be when Chicago acquired him in the Derrick Rose trade. He’s been good for the Bulls so far, and that will probably be the case when the season rolls around next month. With that being said, if Chicago can find a good deal in which they can move Lopez for future pieces they should take it.