Court Changes: Nate The Lil’ Nugget

by July 24, 2013

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

by Jay Wallis / @JayWallis11

Nate Robinson signed a two-year, $4 million contract with the Denver Nuggets.

The Denver Nuggets made this signing because: they now have a bona fide scorer off the bench who can shoot from deep.

Denver ranked second in both the regular season and postseason in terms of bench scoring last year; however, most of their scoring decided to go elsewhere (Iguodala, Brewer), isn’t likely to be back until midseason (Gallinari) or will now be in the starting lineup (Chandler, McGee). Suddenly, Andre Miller, who might even be on the move before the season starts, became Denver’s best option for offense off the bench. That’s not a reliable option. Even though newcomers Randy Foye and JJ Hickson have the potential to play this role, they have yet to show the consistent ability to be this type of instant force.

Enter Kryptonate. There may be plenty of things Robinson struggles to do well as he has been a one-dimensional player during his eight years in the League. But he excels in that one dimension. Robinson is one of the best players at exploding and scoring in bunches. He can create for himself in isolation, effectively utilize pick-and-rolls as the ball handler, hit all kinds of shots that he shouldn’t be attempting or making, and instantly change the tempo of the game.

In Derrick Rose’s absence last year, Robinson averaged 13.1 ppg in 25.4 mpg, playing in all 82 regular-season games. When Chicago had no business competing in the postseason with their severely crippled roster, their 5-9 athlete caught fire on offense and carried his Bulls to multiple victories. During the Bulls’ triple-overtime win against the Nets, Robinson gave Chicago a performance for the ages with 34 points off the bench, including 23 in the fourth quarter alone and one huge runner. Four games later, he poured in 27 points in a Game 1 upset over the reigning and future champs. He might not have finished the season strong since James and the Heat began to hone in on him as they did to Rose two seasons ago, but Robinson certainly showed that he can be a confident little guy who provides energy, entertainment and plenty of buckets.

The Nuggets also signed Robinson for the same reason they brought in sharpshooter Foye. Struggling to stretch their floor last season, Denver ranked 25th in three-point shooting, making only 34.3 percent of their shots from deep. Even though they averaged a League-best 103.0 ppg in the Playoffs, their shooting got even worse from deep (31.1 percent). Not only did Robinson shoot a career-best 40.5 percent from three-point range, he also put up 4.2 attempts per game last season. He has always given himself the green light from deep, and the Nuggets will happily allow this color to remain the same.

This is good for the Nuggets because: they will be paying Robinson well below his market value.

JR Smith, Jamal Crawford, Jarrett Jack and Kevin Martin were the top four vote-getters for Sixth Man of the Year last season and all recently signed contracts lasting four years and worth more than $20 million each. (Due to an unforeseen injury, Smith’s contract was reduced to three years, $19 million.) All of these players are known primarily for offense and bring little else to the table. Smith is the best rebounder of this group and Jack can distribute the ball—but their respective teams value them for their scoring.

Robinson is just as serviceable as any of these players. Last season, Robinson was the only one of these five to have an effective field goal percentage (eFG%), which adjusts to the fact that three-pointers are worth more, of above 50 percent in both the regular season and postseason. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Smith failed to shoot 50 percent in both parts of the season. Furthermore, if their ’12-13 statistics are expanded to 36 minutes per game, Robinson would have scored at just as high of a rate (18.5 ppg) as all four. The only glaring difference in Robinson’s game is something he can’t control—his height.

In a League that is often driven by fair market value, the Nuggets got an absolute steal by signing their soon-to-be sixth man and sparkplug to a few million dollars a year.

This is bad for the Nuggets because: this offensive-minded team still lacks a defensive-minded anchor.

After being one of nine teams to allow over 101 ppg during the regular season, Denver gave up 107.2 ppg during six playoff games, including 131 in a Game 3 beatdown against the Warriors. That’s nauseating. This average may have been due to George Karl’s up-tempo, offensive-minded approach along with the Warriors suddenly catching fire at just the right time. No matter the reasoning behind it, if the Nuggets want to enter back into the VIP section known as the West elite, they must find a player who defines himself by his defense. And unfortunately, with the team’s second-leading shot blocker (Koufos) and best wing defender (Brewer) off the roster, the defense has gotten even worse this summer. (Also—standing at 6-8, Faried might have a highlight block or rebound occasionally, but it can’t be forgotten that he is extremely undersized at the power forward position.)

By bringing in Robinson, they are worsening this problem. Robinson really struggles on the defensive end and plays dreadful isolation defense. This weakness is one of the main reasons he is joining his sixth team in five years. He might be scrappy and work to fight through screens, but with his small stature, his explosive nature can only go so far when he is facing guards seven or more inches taller than he is. For the average NBA player, that’s the difference between a point guard and a center. This shouldn’t take away from what he brings on the other end of the floor; however, with a current roster that lacks significant defensive prowess, Robinson does little to fix this deficiency that possibly caused the Nuggets to be upset in the first round after a 57-win season.

This is good for Robinson because: placing him behind Ty Lawson in the rotation gives the Nuggets a potent and electric point guard duo.

The point guard position is arguably the most important position on the court as this player often directs the offense and establishes the flow of the game. A backup point guard doesn’t necessarily need to play the same way that his starter does, but he should be able to fit into the starter’s system as seamlessly as possible. This transition will determine the success of the second unit along with a team’s ability to hold onto a lead.

Robinson joins Lawson and gives Denver another playmaker who can create his own shot or create shots for others. This tandem is lightning quick and now gives their team the ability to run up and down the floor for 48 minutes a night. Denver used the second-most possessions in the League last year, which demonstrates their fast, sometimes frantic pace, and Robinson looks his best when things become frenzied.

He may not be the prototypical pass-first point guard, but the past two seasons, Robinson has shown an increased aptitude for using his teammates. With the Warriors two years ago, he averaged a career-best 4.5 assists. With the Bulls last year, he averaged 4.4 assists during the regular season and postseason while also effectively running the pick-and-roll. Having this speedy duo and their never-ending energy and penetration is bound to tire countless opponents.

This is bad for Robinson because: he is joining a team that already has two point guards under contract from last season and can only play alongside one of them.

(If management decides to change their mind and move Miller, this problem could be partially solved.)

Lawson and Miller have commanded the point guard position for Denver the past two seasons. They both are ball-handlers that must have the ball in their hands to successfully create for themselves and their teammates. Neither of these players work well spotting up or coming off screens; their rhythm relies on getting touches.

Robinson is a similar type of guard who isn’t necessarily a ballhog but has always been inclined to work with the ball in his hands. Unfortunately for him, there are already two returning guards who have similar needs, and there’s only one basketball for them to share. During his time in Chicago, due to Rose’s absence and the rest of his team’s offensive deficiencies, Robinson frequently took control of the offense and ran things his way for long stretches, leading to scoring flurries. It is unlikely he will get many chances to take control while in Denver, which will diminish his strengths.

Whether or not Miller remains a Nugget, the team now has two point guards under 6-feet and 200 pounds. Since Lawson has already been struggling to contain larger guards during his four years in the NBA, putting Robinson in any sort of lineup beside Lawson would be a defensive nightmare. This reduces Robinson’s minutes and impact even more because he will be restricted to mainly playing when Lawson needs a breather or is in foul trouble. And since Lawson has averaged 34.6 minutes the past two seasons, that doesn’t leave many extended minutes for his fellow tiny point guard.

This is confusing for sports analysts because: this franchise has completely transformed its identity.

Since the Nuggets won a franchise-best 57 games and took their exit in the first round for the fourth straight season, this franchise has gone through an extreme makeover—NBA edition.

Reigning Coach of the Year George Karl was the first to go, as the Nuggets front office fired their eight-year tenured coach. After being named Executive of the Year, former general manager Masai Ujiri left the Nuggets for the Raptors, and Tim Connelly was hired as his replacement. Connelly went on to hire Brian Shaw as the team’s new head coach. Iguodala took the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach and signed a multi-year deal with the Warriors.

Including Robinson, the team now has six new players under contract. The team has retained their Lawson/Gallinari/Faried core and reunited Robinson with Chandler and Gallinari from their Knicks’ days, but it is still unclear what this team really is. Is this an elite team, a fringe playoff team, or a lottery-bound team? Will Shaw continue to play up-tempo or decide to slow things down? From changes in the players to the coaches all the way up to management, the Nuggets are making it difficult for others to figure them out. Robinson intensifies this ever-changing identity.

This signing will have a moderate impact on the Nuggets because: they have “that guy” who won’t be afraid to take “that shot” at the end of a game.

During last year’s Playoffs, with five minutes to go and a point differential of five points or less, few were better than Great Nate. Other than LeBron James (37), Tony Parker (31) and Kevin Durant (25), no other player scored more points than Robinson (24) during this clutch period. He made big shot after big shot for a team that didn’t have many other options on offense.

Due to this clutch play and his many late-game heroics, Robinson will force opponents to change how they defend the Nuggets toward the end of regulation. Even if they do, Robinson won’t be afraid to take the last shot—something the Nuggets have missed since Melo was shipped off to the Knicks. Lawson has had his fair share of big shots, but Robinson gives the team one more confident option down the stretch.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Robinson’s impact can only be so significant in a conference that already has six elite contenders that all have stood pat or gotten even better. But from a game-to-game standpoint, the Nuggets just brought in a captivating player who will never stop competing and has the fiery passion to make a city become exhausted with or fall in love with him. As Faried told, “[Robinson] plays hard, he’s not afraid of a challenge, and he backs down from no one, so I respect that from him.”

He and the Nuggets will now have to fight through the ever-improving, deep Western Conference. Nate will surely be ready to fire away and accept the challenge.

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