by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman
Nate Robinson was not really supposed to matter for the Chicago Bulls this season.
When the 5-9 guard was signed for the veteran’s minimum last July, the hope was that Robinson would provide some bench scoring and off-the-dribble creativity, something that had disappeared from the Bulls’ offense the second Derrick Rose went down. A “pinch hitter” was how ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy described this intended role during a recent telecast, an explosive but streaky player who could come in, take a few big cuts, and, if he didn’t connect, spend the rest of the game watching from the bench.
For the Bulls, though, very little this season has actually gone according to plan. Not only has Rose not yet stepped on the court, but Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton, two guards who were supposed to help carry some of the offensive load, have missed significant time due to injuries. So has Taj Gibson. Loul Deng has missed multiple games, too.
In their absence, the Bulls have been forced to rely on a man whose contract they weren’t even willing to guarantee until well into the season. And while Robinson’s style—both playing and personal—doesn’t necessarily mesh with the strictly business, no-nonsense one of the Tom Thibodeau-led Bulls, he has become an invaluable member of the Rose-less ones, and a major reason why Chicago has been able to weather the storm of injuries that has hit it, and finds itself heading into the Playoffs sitting eight games above .500 and at the fifth spot in the East.
“Stepping in for Kirk, and with DRose being out, I’ve had to pick up a lot of the slack and try to lead these guys to as many victories as possible,” Robinson says. “For me, though, whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, I don’t change anything. My game’s all about the energy, and I’m always going to bring that, no matter what my role is.”
For Robinson, however, it’s this thought process that, while pure in its intentions, has often led to trouble in the past. On a basketball court there’s a fine line between energetic and reckless, between trying to carry the offensive load and shooting a team out of a game. The difficulty for a dynamic player like Robinson is finding that line, and a coach and system willing to embrace such a quest.
“I always thought Nate was at his best when he seems like he’s just about to get out of control,” says Lorenzo Romar, who coached Robinson at the University of Washington. “He’s a high-risk thrill seeker with a ton of athleticism, and, when you have a player like that, if you want to get the best out of him, you have to let him play instead of giving him rules.”
The problem is, understandably, not many coaches are open to making such a deal with a player who, on a healthy team, is going to spend the majority of the season coming off the bench. In Thibodeau and the Bulls, though, Robinson found his perfect match: a hard-nosed coach and blue-collar franchise willing to go to desperate measures in order to fill a desperate need.
That Robinson is thriving in said system, one no analyst or fan would have ever pegged as a “fit” for him, shows just how far the three-time Slam Dunk champion has come. “They say opposites attract,” says Robinson, who is averaging 13.1 points and 4.4 assists in just 25.4 minutes per game. “[Thibodeau] is more the drill sergeant, and I’m more the free spirit.
“It’s so much fun, man,” he adds. “The thing is, he lets us be ourselves—we’re just expected to know our jobs.” Robinson also admits that playing for Thibodeau has helped him improve in some of the areas where he most needed to, such as guarding the ball and running the point. Those who know the Seattle, WA, native’s game best have noticed.
“I watched a game of his recently, and it was the best I’ve ever seen him play the point,” Romar says. “He was shooting when he was supposed to, being aggressive when he was supposed to, setting his teammates up, but without giving just himself up.
“I’d never seen him look like such a point guard before.”
In the end, the fate of the Bulls will likely rest on the health of a single left knee. But in the meantime, the onus falls on players like Robinson to keep Chicago afloat.
“For this team,” Robinson says, “the sky is the limit.”
Whether or not that turns out to be so could very well be up to him.