Knicks bring in Robin Lopez, continue to build toward a new normal

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Robin Lopez is set to join his twin brother Brook in the Big Apple. (AP/Don Ryan)
Robin Lopez is set to join his twin brother Brook in the Big Apple. (AP/Don Ryan)

Here's what's important to remember, the fact that casts the rest of it in proper context: the New York Knicks were terrible last year.

I mean, sure, they were bad the year before, when they missed the playoffs just one season after winning 54 games, the Atlantic Division and a playoff series for the first time since the Clinton Administration. But they were intensely heinous last season, finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA and the worst mark in franchise history ... and, sepia-tinged remembrances of Willis and the Rolls Royce backcourt and the sweat of Patrick Ewing's labor aside, there's been an awful lot of "worst" in this franchise's history.

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The Knicks could double last season's win total and still be one of the half-dozen or so worst teams in the NBA. They could make real, significant improvements on both ends of the floor and still finish in the bottom third of the NBA in both points scored and allowed per possession. They're not one piece away, or two pieces away, or even three pieces away. They're not retooling; really, despite the presence of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, they're not even rebuilding. They're just building, full stop.

Bricks, mortar, structurally sound girders and load-bearing walls aren't sexy. But when the "house" you'd like to live in is really just a pile of smoldering rubble topped by one massive flatscreen TV with a repaired crack on the lower left-hand side that's still visible through the Ninja Turtles sticker you slapped on it, they're pretty important.

That's why, after making a relatively low-cost, low-risk deal with solid if unspectacular shooting guard Arron Afflalo and coming up empty in pursuit of offensively gifted big man Greg Monroe, president of basketball operations Phil Jackson has reportedly locked up a load-bearer. Robin Lopez might not have a ton of curb appeal, but he can help keep the roof from caving in.

Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that Lopez and the Knicks were discussing a deal that would pay the 27-year-old 7-footer somewhere between $12 million and $13 million per year. (No word just yet on whether Phil's pitch included any bespoke comic books.) ESPN.com's Marc Stein later reported that Lopez had chosen New York over several other interested suitors and had agreed to sign with the Knicks, provided top free-agent center DeAndre Jordan — who met with New York on Thursday — agrees to go elsewhere, with the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks reportedly his top two choices.

The two sides reached terms Friday, according to Woj, that come in a bit higher than the earlier report:

That deal would likely pay Lopez just under $12.65 million next season, leaving the Knicks with somewhere between $7 million and $9 million in projected cap space remaining under the 2015-16 salary cap, depending on whether it settles at $67.1 million as projected or bumps up to $69.1 million, as CBSSports.com's Ken Berger reported earlier this week that it could.

At an average annual value of $13.5 million, Lopez now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Charlotte Hornets' Al Jefferson for the fifth richest per-year contract among NBA centers, per Spotrac, which seems like a very steep price tag for a player who's never made an All-Star team or averaged 12 points or nine rebounds per game in seven NBA seasons. But the money's going to look way less onerous soon, with the influx of revenue from the NBA's new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast rights deal set to inflate the salary cap to a projected $89 million for 2016-17 and an unprecedented $108 million for 2017-18. If anything, it's committing to a four-year deal rather than a shorter-term pact that helps ensure near-future flexibility that might be the bigger potential issue.

Beyond that, though, there's a decent chance that Lopez might actually be worth it.

Public perception of his game has often suffered by dint of comparisons to his twin brother, former All-Star Brook Lopez, who just agreed to a three-year, $60 million contract to stay with the Brooklyn Nets. (Count me among those stoked that the wondrous twins will now occupy the same city.) But those who view Robin as a lesser substitute because he lacks Brook's offensive game drastically undersell his talents.

He's not a primary or secondary offensive option, but he can contribute without needing many touches. He's got enough moves in the post and touch on his half-hooks and short jumpers to be effective in a pinch, and he's shot better than 53 percent from the field and 77 percent from the free-throw line in each of the last three seasons. He's a solid dive man in the pick-and-roll game ranks who ranks among the NBA's best screeners, a pick-setter who consistently makes solid enough contact with opposing defenders to give ball-handlers opportunities to turn the corner and off-ball cutters enough air space to catch and either attack or fire.

He's a good rebounder in his own right, averaging 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes of floor time for his career, and ranks among the league's best bigs at extending possessions, finishing in the NBA's top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage in each of the last two seasons. He's even better at boxing out on the defensive end, helping wall off the area in front of the rim so that his teammates can grab the board. It's no coincidence that LaMarcus Aldridge posted far and away the two best defensive rebounding percentages of his career playing alongside Lopez in Portland. (And until the Knicks add a power forward in free agency, it's worth considering whether Lopez's signing could afford head coach Derek Fisher the cover to more consistently slot in Anthony at power forward, where he shined playing alongside Tyson Chandler in the 2012-13 season and which would mitigate his defensive shortcomings against quicker small forwards.)

You might not think of Lopez as a premier rim protector, but he's consistently blocked shots at rates ranging from solid to near-elite, sending back 4.1 percent of opponents' field goal attempts over the course of his career. He's also been very good at dampening opponents when he's not swatting them, holding them to a microscopic 42.8 percent mark on attempts at the rim during the 2013-14 season, third-best in the NBA behind only Roy Hibbert and Larry Sanders, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. His effectiveness diminished last season, thanks in part to a broken right hand that kept him sidelined for a month and a half and forced him to wear a brace when he returned in February — but he was still solid, limiting opponents to 48 percent at the rim when he was defending, tied for the 20th-best mark among rotation-caliber bigs ... and just ahead of the Clippers' Jordan.

Lopez's defensive acumen extends beyond the front of the rim, though. He's a smart, well-drilled team defender, sliding across the paint to tag cutters and take away passing or driving lanes. He's not the quickest big man on the block, but he uses sound footwork, a massive wingspan and an understanding of angles to keep opposing ball-handlers in front of him on pick-and-rolls. He understands how to move away from the ball on both ends of the floor.

In the two seasons before Lopez arrived, back when the Blazers were living that Marcus Camby-Kurt Thomas-J.J. Hickson life, Portland ranked 22nd and 26th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession, according to NBA.com's stat tool. In the two after Olshey plucked him from New Orleans in the three-way deal that sent Tyreke Evans to the Pelicans, Portland finished 16th and 10th. He's not the sole reason for that improvement, but he was certainly one reason, and his teammates were happy to say so.

“He’s maybe the biggest part of our team right now,” then-Blazer Nicolas Batum said in March of 2014, with Portland enjoying its best season in years. “What he brings every night for us, sometimes you don’t see it in the stat sheet. You can say, ‘OK, he’s averaging 10 points and eight rebounds.’ But what he brings for us is really, like, 25 points and 15 rebounds. That’s how big he is.”

More from last November, via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:

[Batum] pointed across the way at LaMarcus Aldridge, who was dressing in front of his locker, and announced out loud: "Career year." Then he shifted his gaze a few stalls down the row and pointed toward Damian Lillard, who was conducting postgame interviews. "Career year."

The drill continued twice more, with Batum twirling to the right and pointing at Wesley Matthews, before twisting his finger around and directing it at himself.

"Career year ... career year," Batum said. "Only one thing is different: Robin Lopez." [...]

"We all go home in the summer and work on our games and try to get better," he said. "But there's only so much you can do. RoLo changed everything." [...]

"He was exactly what we needed," Lillard said. "He was the missing piece to our team."

Lopez thinks you can bring a lot to the table if you're not focused on how much you get to eat, an attitude he adopted while playing AAU ball with brother Brook and future NBA small forward Quincy Pondexter.

“I didn’t always have the ball in my hands, so I was trying to help out my teammates any way I could,” Lopez told SLAM's Leo Sepkowitz this spring. “That’s not something everybody is willing to do. It’s not something everybody is willing to do well, more importantly.”

It's something nobody on the Knicks was willing to do well last season, and it's something that Jackson has clearly identified as a priority this summer.

As was the case with the decision to take Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, some will question how non-star-level additions like Lopez, Afflalo and perhaps Corey Brewer (once a Knick, always a Knick!) align with last summer's decision to give Anthony a whopping five-year, $124 million contract in free agency. The answer might be complicated and multifaceted, but it might also be simple — maybe it doesn't.

Maybe Jackson realized how dire New York's future looked, given the near-total lack of near-future draft picks, but still thought last year's Knicks were going to be better than they were. Upon being very quickly proven wrong, maybe he quickly decided to set about the business of trying to find high-ceiling prospective future talent.

Maybe he thinks the best way to improve the Knicks in the short term is to add defensive-minded players and guys who can contribute without dominating the ball. Maybe he thinks the best way to improve them in the long term is to start trying to develop a stable internal culture that prioritizes accountability, sacrifice and fit, both on and off the court, and if Anthony winds up fitting into all that, then "man, are we fortunate." And if the 31-year-old scorer coming off knee surgery doesn't want to fit into that, well, he can always waive that no-trade clause.

Whatever the case may be, while many have cast Jackson's early summer as a string of missed opportunities to land instant-turnaround stars, a more charitable view might consider it a stringing together of small victories in pursuit of something more sustainable — station-to-station baseball rather than repeatedly swinging for the fences and striking out. Even if all additions like Lopez promises is normalcy — which, considering Lopez's personality, is a funny word for it — that in and of itself seems like a revolutionary concept for these Knicks. One brick, one beam and one big man at a time.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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