For those younger Jazz fans out there, you might be wondering why us older folk are getting psyched about Raul Lopez being back with the team. After all, you probably hit up Basketball Reference, looked at his brief NBA career, and though, “Why is everyone excited about this guy???” Here’s five things to know about Raul Lopez.
1. Lopez was the heir apparent to John Stockton
Before European sensations started their mass migration to the NBA, Lopez was one of the first of many international players the Utah Jazz brought on. The post Stockton to Malone era had a very international feel with Raja Bell, Andrei Kirilenko, and Raul Lopez. Lopez more than any of these players had an impossible task of following a legend. While Andrei Kirilenko would never be compared to Karl Malone, Raul Lopez because of his stature, boyish good looks, and being white was compared every day to John Stockton. Every game that was the favorite announcer trope, how’s this Raul Lopez guy going to live up to arguably the greatest point guard of all time.
The #24 pick of the 2001 NBA Draft should never have the expectation of filling the shoes of a Hall of Fame point guard, but, surprisingly, Raul Lopez seemed to be picking it up pretty quickly. His first season with the team he had PER36 numbers of 12.7 ppg, 6.8 apg, and 3.5 rpg. He also was a stingy defender and a pickpocket. He played behind Carlos Arroyo who had himself a season.
2. Lopez was part of the magical 2003-2004 Utah Jazz team
When I’m asked about my favorite Utah Jazz squads, I instantly go to the 2003-2004 Utah Jazz team. Yes there’s the NBA Finals teams which were just dominant until they met the likes of Michael Jordan in the Finals, but the 2003-2004 Utah Jazz squad was fun because they weren’t supposed to fun. In fact, they were supposed to be horrendous. The Utah Jazz were supposed to challenge the record, then held by the 1972-1973 Philadelphia 76ers who went 9-73, for the worst team of all time. It seemed like an easy pick.
The Utah Jazz’s best player returning from the post Stockton-Malone years was Andrei Kirilenko. Beyond AK47, the Utah Jazz had a WAY over the hill Greg Ostertag, veteran Carlos Arroyo, and tons of young players like Raja Bell, Mo Williams, and Raul Lopez. It was an island of misfit toys. Kevin O’Connor would go on to say years later that they built the roster to get a high draft pick, but Jerry Sloan wouldn’t allow that team to fail. The prize for that season would have been Dwight Howard.
Instead, that Utah Jazz team grinded. They were the 14th best defense in the league and the 19th best offense. Raul Lopez was part of that. His exceptional play off the bench was invaluable for that stretch. The Utah Jazz’s 2017-2018 motto might have been “The strength of the team is the team,” but the 2003-2004 team was the original. Without a true superstar, that Utah Jazz squad was the epitome of next man up. They scrapped. They were real underdogs. They clawed their way to an above .500 record and missed the playoffs by one game.
3. He was a lot of fun to watch
While it would be impossible for Raul Lopez to live up to John Stockton’s legacy, he seemed to have that Stockton DNA that made Jazz fans stan so hard for John Stockton. Just check out this series of plays against the Milwaukee Bucks that feels like you’re watching John Stockton. This series shows his craftiness, defensive intensity, and showmanship.
He seemed to have the je ne sais quoi of a Utah Jazz point guard. But why did he only play two years in Utah? Well ...
4. The mind was willing, the knees were weak
Raul Lopez was drafted in 2001, but couldn’t get out from his contract in Europe until 2002. In 2002, he signed a contract with the Utah Jazz, but ruptured his ACL while playing an exhibition game with the Spanish National team. Yes, Dante Exum isn’t the first young Utah Jazz point guard to tear up his knee in an exhibition game with his national team. That injury forced Lopez to miss all of the 2002-2003 season. He would return for the next season backing up Carlos Arroyo and play in all 82 games.
The following season, however, Raul Lopez’s other knee would start acting up. In February of 2005, his left knee was experiencing soreness which would require surgery. He would only play in 31 games. “He was devastated when I talked to him,” would go on to say about the Spanish point guard. “I feel very, very bad for him.”
Soon Lopez would grow homesick of Spain. Who could blame him? He spent much of his young career rehabbing knee injuries in cold Salt Lake City, Utah. Most likely due to his desire to return home, the Utah Jazz would end up trading Raul Lopez in the offseason only a 3 years after signing him to a contract to the Memphis Grizzlies in what would become the largest trade in NBA history involving five teams, 13 players, and two draft picks. Just look at this trade courtesy of NBA.com:
MIAMI HEAT acquires F Antoine Walker from the BOSTON CELTICS and G Jason Williams, F James Posey and G Andre Emmett from the MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES and the draft rights to C Roberto Duenas from the NEW ORLEANS HORNETS in a five-team trade that sent G-F Eddie Jones to Memphis, F Rasual Butler to New Orleans, a 2006 second-round draft pick, a conditional second-round draft pick, F Qyntel Woods and the draft rights to Albert Miralles to Boston; The UTAH JAZZ acquired C Greg Ostertag from Memphis; Boston acquired C Curtis Borchardt from Utah and G Raul Lopez from Memphis; New Orleans acquired G Kirk Snyder from Utah.
Thus the Raul Lopez era came to an end in Utah.
5. Raul Lopez would end up backing up Ricky Rubio in 2008
Raul Lopez shortly after being traded would sign a contract with Real Madrid. He balled out in Europe. He played with the likes of Nikola Mirotic and Bojan Bogdanovic. He had some amazing seasons. He would earn a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics with the Spanish team.
Speaking of that team, he would even mentor some upstart young point guard named Ricky Rubio during his time with the National team. It was that friendship and mentorship that ultimately would bring Raul Lopez back to where some of his darkest days of his young career originated: Utah. This time, however, it’s much better.