The Year of Nate Robinson
Watching Nate Robinson
develop over the years has been comparable to a parent watching their child grow up for me – once an annoying ruffian with little maturity, like a young boy making a mess of his toys, now a savvy and intelligent leader of sorts, like a teenager getting his first job and beginning to take on responsibilities. I’ve always been a fan of Nate Robinson, mostly because the egregious brand of basketball he played in his Knickerbocker days was nothing to complain about since the team wouldn’t win anything anyways. Once he was traded he could run amok on some other team. I always wished Robinson the best. He always struck me as a genuinely nice guy and his heart, though in a body of small stature compared to the giants of the NBA, was one of the largest you could ever find.
Heart does not win basketball games on it’s own however, and early on Nate Robinson was far from a perfect basketball player. An undersized two-guard with an itchy but inaccurate trigger finger, Robinson wouldn’t have been receiving minutes had he not been on some of the most dismal Knicks teams in history. His stat line as a Knick is far from extraordinary – 12 points per game in 24 minutes a night, with an eFG% of under 50%. The only reason people knew his name back then was because of his dunk contest appearances. Nate won three All-Star Slam Dunk Contests, in the years 2006, 2009 and 2010. Robinson was known as a transcendent athlete early on in his NBA career, along with a careless chuck with no clue how to run a proper offense or defend anybody. His athleticism may be the most impressive portion of his game, as a 5’9″ player in the NBA, you’re not expected to be dunking on unsuspecting defenders, let alone even play in this league. However, his relentless attitude can’t be fazed thanks to his build, because he’s a damn freak of nature who seemingly never gets fatigued, never takes too hard of a hit, and can race by or plow through you.
His game itself needed improving though, and that wouldn’t happen at any significant or fundamental level in the situations he was placed in while playing in New York. Sure his scoring efficiency took a turn from horrendous when he first came in to below average as his career progressed, but that didn’t immediately make him a worthwhile player. After having to deal with having four coaches in five seasons, Robinson found himself benched by Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni in the 2009/2010 NBA season. Nate didn’t play for an entire month, and in typical Nate Robinson fashion dropped 41 points on 24 shot attempts against the Hawks on the road in his first game back. He was traded to the Boston Celtics later that season, where he proved that he could provide a positive impact to a championship-caliber team under head coach Doc Rivers.
In Boston, Robinson’s minutes per game were cut down by ten, but with the help of Rivers he refocused his game to become more of a controlled spark plug, energizing the house without burning it down all together. Nate’s USG% took a dip, but his TO% did the same. His STL% and REB% were improved, as Nate started taking advantage of his athleticism without having to score the ball. In Boston, compared to his stats as a Knick that season (per-36 minutes), he attempted less field goal attempts but more threes a night, becoming a strong spot-up threat (and every so often a pull-up three in transition, because he’s still Nate) and shooting 41.4% from long range as a Celtic. Come Playoff time, Nate faced his first taste of postseason basketball, and it remained nothing more than a taste. Robinson played 17 of 24 Celtic Playoff games during their run to a Finals loss, playing fewer than eight minutes a night. However, Nate showed the league and himself something Chicago has come to learn, he can win you Playoff games.
In a closeout Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals, Nate Robinson came off the bench to score 13 points in 13 minutes, sparking a Boston win and a trip to the NBA Finals. There, Nate Robinson followed up with a ridiculous display coupled by fellow bench-mate, and the Shrek to his Donkey, Glen Davis, dropping 12 points in 16 minutes of action, half of those points in nine minutes of game time in the tight fourth quarter. Although it wasn’t a stunning exhibition, it felt as if a message was sent. Robinson could play in this league. Yet why did things go downhill from here?
The following season, Boston shipped off Robinson to Oklahoma City as a throw-in in the Kendrick Perkins – Jeff Green trade. Robinson’s numbers mirrored the ones he put up as a Celtic the previous season. The deal went down in late February, and for the rest of the year Robinson checked into the ball game just four times. The Thunder’s run to the Western Conference Finals that postseason included Nate Robinson for a total of just ten minutes. Once the lockout came and went, it seemed Robinson’s career was at a standstill. As a free agent, no team came calling for his services, and it wasn’t until about a week and a half following the shortened season’s opener that a team finally decided to give Nate a shot. This came only after worries grew over Stephen Curry‘s re-injured ankle, their starting point guard. Golden State would never find themselves regretting the signing, as Robinson performed to the point where 2011-2012 was arguably the best campaign of his career at the time.
In 51 games as a Warrior, Nate Robinson took on a new weapon in his offense arsenal – dishing the rock. Robinson’s AST% reached a career high at 31.8% on the year, yet to be matched. Nate played 23 minutes a night and averaged 11.2 points and 4.5 assists, per-36 minutes this equates to a 17 and 7 average for the developing Robinson. His eFG% was under a 50% mark for the fifth time in seven seasons, so his gunner attitude when looking to score the ball remained a hindrance. Once his season with the Warriors included, without a Playoffs appearance, Robinson was yet again a free agent.
Once again, a team desperate for point guard depth (although calling Nate a point guard is rather imprecise) signed Nate Robinson – the Chicago Bulls awaiting the return of their superstar floor general Derrick Rose. After an atrocious showing by rookie Marquis Teague at the Las Vegas Summer League, Chicago picked up Robinson as insurance and 90 games later he’s a focal point of their Playoffs run. Robinson spent the majority of the regular season coming off the bench and producing similar basketball as he did in Golden State. However, his efficiency improved this time around. Both his TS% and eFG% were above 51% for just the third time in his career, in a season where he had the second-highest USG% of his career. Once the Playoffs arrived, with Marquis Teague playing miserable ball and Derrick Rose’s timetable a question mark, Chicago’s season was for a large part in Nate Robinson’s hands.
These past eight Playoff contests, seven against the Brooklyn Nets and one on the road against the defending champion Miami Heat, would prove to be Robinson’s toughest challenge in this league yet. How he responded baffled experts, stunned fans, left opponents’ heads spinning and was incredibly fun to watch. Robinson has averaged 18.3 points and 4.3 assists a game on 50% shooting. On the advanced statistics side, his TS% and eFG% are career high marks, while playing in the biggest moments of his career, at 59.7% and 57.1% respectively. He’s started the past four contests with replacement starter Kirk Hinrich suffering an injury, and as a whole his performance in these Playoffs have made Derrick Rose’s absence (2011 NBA MVP, by the way) seem closer to moot than anyone would have guessed:
Whenever Chicago has called upon Robinson, he’s stepped up. Pivotal Game 4 against Brooklyn? 34 points on 23 shots, including a ridiculous fourth quarter comeback fueled by the man himself, in which he scored 23 of his points. Opening game against the defending champs tight down the stretch with the offense a mess? Not a problem for “Nate the Great” as he dropped 27 points on 16 shots, 11 of those points in the closing quarter. It’s been the year of Nate Robinson, one in which we have almost forgotten about the youthful, obnoxious nincompoop and instead have grown accustomed to watching a stronger, more resilient and grown man doing what he does best. And that’s balling his heart out.