The Nate Robinson free agency sweepstakes was supposed to feature a bonanza of offers from team’s who witnessed him eviscerate Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs last year while a member of the Bulls. Many believed teams looking for an offensive spark off the bench would jump on the Nate Rob bandwagon after it became clear what he could do under pressure in the playoffs. Except, that’s not what’s happened so far.
Through the first two weeks of the NBA’s free agency period, most column inches were devoted to Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Chris Paul and other big name free agents. There was nary a mention of the 5-9 dunk machine and there just didn’t seem to be much of an interest.
The Knicks have expressed interest in bring Robinson back, especially with J.R. Smith undergoing knee surgery, but they could only offer the mini mid-level exception, or the minimum salary Nate played for with Chicago last year. So have the Nuggets, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. But you’ll notice those links are five days old, and still Nate hasn’t signed a deal.
Not even Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau wants him back despite Nate almost single-handedly helping a Bulls get out of a tough seven-game first round series against the Nets. Thibs is at least a little understandable since Nate was just the plug to shore up Chicago’s woeful offense with 2011 MVP Derrick Rose out all season recovering from the ACL tear.
But Nate’s offensive heroics should have piqued at least a little interest from teams that needed some scoring off the bench, and didn’t mind spending a little something to bring someone onboard with big game bonafides. Remember, in Game 4 of the Bulls-Nets series, he put up 34 points, 29 of which occurred after the third quarter, in a classic triple OT playoff game the Bulls stole. In Game 6, while vomiting from the illness that put Luol Deng, Rob still managed to score 18 points to almost force Chicago to victory. Then Nate Rob scored nine of the Bulls’ final 12 points in Chicago’s shocking upset of eventual champion Miami in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. All of his happened with Nate earning the league’s minimum last season.
Is there something we’re missing, besides the hesitation of NBA GMs to throw money at a 29-year-old shoot-first guard that stands only 5-9? Maybe you can make the argument that he’s simply not a good enough defender to warrant a multi-year deal exceeding $2 million a season. But he did shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range last season while attempting 4.2 threes a game. Among players who averaged over four 3-point attempts last season, only 13 in the entire league shot better than 40.5 percentage from distance, according to NBA.com.
Robinson’s PER was better than Goran Dragic, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Jeff Teague, Damian Lillard and a host of other players, per hoopdata.com. But aside from Lillard’s rookie deal, all those players earn a lot more than Nate. Plus, Nate’s usage rate last season was higher than all those players except Holiday. He was usually the only player off the bench and late in games who could create his own shot in Chicago’s lethargic offense.
So what gives?
Robinson might be in the latter stages of his prime at 29, but he’s undeniably effective in situations where you need a bucket. We already mentioned his shooting, usage and efficiency, but according to Synergy Sports, he ranked within the top 33 of the league as the P&R ballhandler and in spot-up opportunities. With those two plays accounting for more than half of all the plays Robinson finished last season with Chicago, it’s no wonder he averaged the second-highest points per minute of his career. He’s still really hard for defenses to corral, especially when he has the green light to pull the trigger.
Score-first guards like Robinson might become the runts of a league that’s increasingly valuing size and defense to counteract the offensive boom after hand checking was outlawed. But aren’t there other teams who need scoring off the bench from the backcourt? With a lot of teams gathering assets and molding rookie-scale contract players for the future, very few appear willing to offer Nate a multi-year deal averaging much more than the minimum for an eight-year vet. Robinson has made over $20 million in his career so far, but a long term, big money deal just seems like it’s a thing of the past. Maybe it’s his defense that’s the culprit?
Robinson isn’t a terrible defender—at least, he’s not on par with the Jamal Crawfords of the league. This is true despite Thibodeau looking like he’d blow a gasket every time a guy like Beno Udrih snuck around a high screen for an easy lay-up with Robinson unable to cut him off in time.
Robinson isn’t awful when it comes to defending in the post, either. It’s a place where you’d think someone of his stature would do worse. But he ranked highest on post-up defense, according to Synergy. Likewise, Robinson was a bit better than his overall average against P&R ballhandlers, which accounted for almost half of the plays he faced on the defensive end. That said, he was dreadful when attacked in isolation. He is after all 5-9, and even if he’s an explosive tank at that height, it’s still a problem when 6-5 guards are clearing out a side to take him to the bucket.
Overall, Robinson is below average on the defensive end, but not so much so that it negates his offensive production and last season’s efficiency combined with a sizable usage rage for someone who comes off the bench. Again, we’re left to ponder why NBA GMs aren’t willing to shell out a little bit more for a scoring guard that doesn’t need to start to drastically impact a game. Robinson is a ticking time bomb for an offensive explosion like that Game 4 against Brooklyn. While that sometimes works against him when he’s cold, it can be the difference between a first round exit and advancing to the next round.
If J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford and other shoot-first guys can command multi-million dollar contracts for bench offense, it stands to reason so could Robinson. The question is which team will take the plunge. The new CBA’s luxury tax penalties may have scared away any potential suitors who just don’t have the cap space. If that’s really the case, then Smith and Crawford’s deals are rash, but it’s more likely that some team will luck into Robinson for close to the league minimum on the final day of July. You know, just like Chicago did last summer.
Robinson’s heroics in Chicago over the postseason haven’t been forgotten by Bulls fans, but they appear to have slipped the minds of everyone else.