Nate Robinson is the Chicago Bulls' leading playoff scorer. He's also No. 2 on the team in playoff PER and True Shooting percentage, and No. 1 in effective field goal percentage. He's been as good and as important as anyone, including All-Star Joakim Noah. He nearly led the Bulls to a series-clinching win over the Nets Thursday night despite throwing up during timeouts due to the flu.
Robinson is also on a veteran's minimum contract for just over $1 million. Back in December and January, there were rumors that the Bulls considered cutting Robinson to clear a logjam at the point and slice off a bit of luxury tax. Of course, the logjam never materialized: Derrick Rose never came back from injury, Kirk Hinrich kept getting hurt and Marquis Teague remained a bit player. Nate ended up with more than 2,000 minutes in the regular season and is playing 30 per game in the Brooklyn series. He was the league's most cost-effective player during the regular season, and he's arguably been more cost-effective in the playoffs.
So he's off to a big fat contract as a free agent this summer, right?
Well, the chances of him getting a fat contract from the Bulls seem low, strictly because Chicago is on pace to be well over the luxury tax threshold without him. And, theoretically, getting Rose back for next season will, along with Hinrich's continued presence, shrink the role for Robinson. So while he's leading the team through this quixotic playoff run now, he becomes superfluous so long as everyone is healthy next year.
It's also impossible to ignore the reason he's on a minimum contract this season: he has an iffy reputation. He was actually pretty good last season for the Warriors in that specific way that Nate is ever good: as a not-too-efficient-but-passable volume scorer who doesn't turn the ball over and can set up teammates with some regularity. Robinson was on a veteran's minimum last season too, but couldn't ink a better deal for 2012-13 because everyone thought it was a fluke season after a dismal two years in Boston and Oklahoma City (two high-quality teams).
In other words, Nate was bad and cranky enough in Boston and OKC to take a buy-out and a vet's minimum. He played pretty well, but for a lottery team ... and got stuck on a vet's minimum again. Now he's played pretty well for a playoff team. He turns 29 at the end of the month, so he should break out of the vet's minimum cycle. But because of that iffy reputation and because of how the Celtics and Thunder look like they were burned by Nate, he's not getting a big ol' Sixth Man of the Year candidate contract.
I think we should blame Mike D'Antoni, who basically ruined Robinson in New York, but I also think Nate would be a good fit for the Lakers. L.A. is desperate to rebuild its bench, and Robinson is an option offensively in a number of different looks. (Plus, Robinson and Dwight Howard, united as one in the wake of those dunk contest battles!) Depending on how the Jazz address the point guard spot, that team is desperate for affordable backcourt help. I'd also strongly support unleashing Nate on Portland, another team with a shallow bench.
The key in any Robinson contract is going to be mitigating against risk, whether through a term length (two years seems safe) or dollar size. It only takes one team to raise Nate's price above reasonable, and at that point, teams will have to show restraint and remember 2009-2011 and easily as they remember 2012 and 2013.