Over the course of the 2012-13 NBA season, it was abundantly clear that the biggest issue that the Portland Trail Blazers faced was paltry production from their reserves. Considering that there was legitimately no player on their bench that provided anything notable, it’s safe to say that the Blazers had one of the worst benches in the league last year.
However, one of the overlooked weaknesses of Portland last season was their starting frontcourt, most specifically J.J. Hickson playing at the center position. Though Hickson averaged a double-double, he was clearly playing out of position as the Blazers’ starting center and was a detriment to an already shaky defense.
As Hickson left Portland in free-agency, though, the Blazers were able to replace him as part of the three-team sign-and-trade involving Tyreke Evans as they acquired Robin Lopez. Sure, Lopez is nowhere near the force at the center position that his brother, Brook Lopez, is, but he’s been solid for the Blazers thus far.
On the way to a 13-2 record with Portland, Lopez is averaging 8.2 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 30.6 minutes per game while shooting a solid 49 percent from the floor. His raw numbers aren’t as gaudy as Hickson’s were last season, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of how he’s been an upgrade over Hickson.
With Hickson on the floor last season, the Blazers were actually 1.5 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 1.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively. That’s not a huge margin, but considering the awfulness of the Blazers’ bench last year, that’s pretty telling of Hickson’s value. In comparison, the Blazers are 4.1 points per 100 possessions better offensively and 3.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Lopez on the floor (per 82games.com). Obviously it’s a smaller sample size right now with the Blazers and they have been incredibly hot as a team, but those numbers are a ringing endorsement of Lopez.
Lopez is simply a more well-rounded player that fits with this Blazers team. He’s a more willing passer and, though he’s not an elite defender, is leaps better than Hickson, especially considering that he’s not having to play out of position at the five. There are a lot of reasons, like an improved bench, that you can point to this impressive start for a Blazers team that was in the lottery last season, but the upgrade to Lopez from Hickson isn’t something that should be scoffed at.