Nate Robinson: Beyond Hatred
Posted by Zach Lowe on Dec 21, 2009
There are very few players in the NBA who inspire a visceral reaction—positive or negative—when I watch them play. Nate Robinson is one of them. He has always struck me as more interested in promoting himself and appearing “cool” than in helping his team win basketball games. I’m not talking about the dunk contest, which is about showmanship and self-promotion. I’m talking about the high-fives with Will Ferrell, the Call of Duty salutes after made free throws and the incessant preening to the crowd.
The latter reached a new low for me earlier this season, when the C’s played the Knicks and Rajon Rondo went up for what appeared to be an easy fast-break lay-in. Except Nate Robinson made a tremendous hustle play, sprinting the length of the court and pinning Rondo’s lay-in attempt on the glass. Nate turned toward the crowd, celebrating. A nice moment for Nate, only the ball was still in play right behind him. With Nate distracted, Marquis Daniels picked the ball up and laid it in.
And that, to me, summed up Nate Robinson’s NBA career: Tons of talent, little understanding of what it means to be a successful NBA player on a successful NBA team.
And so I reacted with a combination of anger and nausea when ESPN’s Chris Sheridan reported earlier today that Robinson, who has requested a trade and has veto power over any deal, would accept a trade to Boston. Of course, this doesn’t mean Boston would accept Nate Robinson. But they have the sort of cheap, expiring contracts (such as Tony Allen’s $2.5M expiring deal or the combination of J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker) that could work on the other side of a deal for Robinson.
Were that anger and out-of-hand rejection really warranted? I decided to check the numbers and see. What I found surprised me a bit.
Let me say this: I am not one of those basketball people who believe that numbers are everything. I understand things like adjusted plus/minus and cite them here often, but I watch a lot of basketball and I do believe that some players have qualities that cannot be completely measured by statistics—and that those qualities can either make teams better or worse.
So what I’m about to write doesn’t fundamentally change my view of Nate Robinson as a player. But it does complicate it.
But: It is hard, if not impossible, to prove that Nate Robinson is a bad team basketball player simply by using numbers. Put another way: You cannot make a case that Nate Robinson has made the Knicks worse when he has been on the court.
And that is the case I expected to make. I know Nate averaged 17 points per game last season and threw up an 18.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER)—higher than every regular on the ’09 C’s other than KG.
But I expected that the plus/minus numbers, both raw and adjusted, would show that Nate Robinson hurts his team, especially on defense.
In 2007, the Knicks offense scored 1.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Nate on the floor versus with Nate on the bench; in the same season, the defense allowed 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Nate on the floor. Thus, Nate was a slight net plus that season.
In 2008, the Knicks offense scored 4.7 more points per 100 possessions with Nate on the floor; in the same season, the defense allowed 1.0 more points per 100 possessions with Nate on the court. Thus, Nate was a slightly significant plus that season.
In 2009, the Knicks offense scored 3.9 more points per 100 possessions with Nate on the floor; in the same season, the team gave up 0.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Thus, Nate again was a slightly significant plus.
In the very limited minutes Nate has played this year, the offense is scoring 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Nate in the game, while the defense is allowing 0.5 fewer points per 100 possessions.
All the above numbers courtesy of 82games.com)
At worst, Nate Robinson has had a neutral effect on New York’s defense. Of course, this doesn’t make him a good defensive player. The Knicks defense has been awful with Nate on the floor and Nate on the bench. He’s just not making it any worse when he steps onto the court.
The other metrics we have also show that Nate is not the destructive, loss-causing force I had thought him to be—at least not by the numbers.
In terms of adjusted plus/minus—which adjusts for the quality of teammates and opponents to put every player on an equal footing—only Al Harrington and Tim Thomas scored better among Knick players over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, according to Basketball Value.
In David Berri’s system over at The Wages of Wins blog, Nate Robinson ranked second on the 2009 Knicks—behind only David Lee—in Berri’s wins produced stat, and his wins produced per 48 minutes mark was significantly above league average. Berri concludes that Robinson and Lee were together responsible for two-thirds (!) of New York’s wins last season.
Finally, the new defensive stats at Basketball Prospectus indicate that Robinson’s head-to-head opponents performed at almost the same level against Nate as they did against the rest of the league. In other words, the numbers again show Nate’s defense has had a neutral impact on opponent performance.
Does all of this mean Danny Ainge should be on the phone trying to convince Donnie Walsh to trade Nate Robinson for J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker? Of course not. And I’d be absolutely floored if Ainge considered the Marquis Daniels-Robinson deal Sheridan floated today.
There are fit issues to consider here. With whom does Robinson play if Marquis Daniels is on the roster with him? I suppose he could sort of split the Eddie House role with House, spending a couple of minutes with the non-Rondo starters and a couple of minutes with various bench combinations that don’t include House. (I just don’t think a House-Robinson back court is workable defensively).
There just aren’t that many minutes to go around between Tony Allen, House, Daniels and the theoretical Celtic Nate Robinson, especially during the post-season. In that sense, I suppose it’d be a low-risk move, since there would be no guaranteed minutes at money time. But is it worth mucking up the current rotation to experiment with Nate Robinson?
I still don’t think so. But the numbers tell a more complicated story.