Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Worst NBA Champions: Glenn Robinson

worst nba champ - robinson

Many of you either know or have guessed that I attended Purdue University. As it so happened, my freshman year coincided with Glenn Robinson's final season as a Boilermaker.

I have to tell you: Robinson was a college basketball beast. As his NBA.com bio points out, he was nicknamed "Big Dog" for his oncourt ferocity. During that 1993-94 season, Robinson was...

...named the 1994 National Player of the Year by Associated Press/Rupp, United Press International, the Sporting News, Basketball America, Basketball Times, Basketball Weekly, CBS-TV/Chevrolet, ESPN and ABC analyst Dick Vitale, NABC/Kodak, Naismith and the RCA/U.S. Basketball Writers Association...recipient of the John R. Wooden Award as the nation's top college basketball player...led the NCAA and the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding averages of 30.3 ppg and 10.1 rpg respectively...also the unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year by coaches and media, in addition to being selected the conference's Male Athlete of the Year...first player to lead the Big Ten in scoring and rebounding in the same season since Minnesota's Mychal Thompson accomplished the feat in 1977-78...his 1,030 overall points that year and 560 conference points were single-season scoring records...the total of 1,030 points ranked 13th best for a single-season in NCAA Division I history...became the 15th Division I player all-time to score 1,000 in a season...finished his career at Purdue with the fourth-highest scoring average ever at 27.5 ppg...led the Boilermakers in scoring in 56 of his 62 contests and recorded 31 career double-doubles (pts/rebs)...his 44 points against Kansas (3/24/94) was a school record for an NCAA Tournament game.
But it wasn't just the numbers. Robinson's performances were overwhelming. Drives. Dunks. All manner of crazy shots that routinely went in. And, most importantly, victories.

And yet...there were warning signs I didn't pick up on back then. Minor ones. Like despite the fact that he was so physically dominant, he loved taking jump shots, jacking up more than six three-pointers a game. Sure, he hit almost 40 percent of his treys, but he was always a little too ready to chuck 'em up...which is why he shot less than 50 percent overall against competition he quite simply owned. Furthermore, he averaged only 1.9 assists, meaning he was too busy creating offense for himself to do it for his teammates. And he averaged more than four turnovers per game.

Still, like I said, he was a beast. His coach and comb-over master, Gene Keady, said that Robinson was "an absolute warrior on the court, especially the practice court. If all my players practiced with the same intensity and listened to his coaches as he does, my job would be much easier."

Sounds positively Kevin Garnett-esque, right? And Keady was a straight-shooting hardass of a coach, so I had no reason to suspect that Robinson didn't have that desire and killer instinct that separate the Michael Jordans from the Harold Minors. When he decided to turn pro rather than play out his senior season at Purdue, I was absolutely convinced that Big Dog was going to become the NBA's next major force.

The Milwaukee Bucks had the first overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, and Robinson was the obvious number one pick, even in a draft that featured Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Eric Montross (good call on that one, Celtics). And so Robinson became the first Boilermaker to be chosen number one overall since Joe Barry Carroll (also known as "Joe Barely Cares") in 1980. That fact was pretty ominous...and it was a sign of things to come.

See, Robinson submitted some pretty serious demands. Specifically: a 13-year, $100 million contract, to which the Bucks responded by spitting out their champagne and stuttering "Wha...what the fuuuuuuuuu...."

The Bucks wanted Robinson. Desperately. But not desperately enough to commit to that kind of deal. So Robinson held out until the beginning of training camp, when he and the Bucks finally agreed on a 10-year, $68 million contract that set an all-time record as the richest rookie contract ever. That record still stands, mostly because Robinson's deal freaked people out so much that the league instituted a salary cap for rookies the very next season.

Generally speaking, you'd prefer for a player to force a rule change through his, you know, play.

Big Dog had a pretty good rookie season: 21.9 PPG (10th in the league and number one among rookies), 6.4 RPG (second among rookies), 2.5 APG, 1.4 SPG (second among rookies), and 45.1 percent shooting. He even cut down on his three-point attempts (only 3.4 per game), although his accuracy dropped to 32.1 percent. He was also sixth in Usage Percentage. Unfortunately, he also led the league in total turnovers (313).

Even more unfortunately, the Bucks weren't winning. So even though he earned two Rookie of the Month awards (in December and April) and made the All-Rookie First Team, he finished third in balloting for Rookie of the Year, behind co-winners Hill (19.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.8 SPG) and Kidd (11.7 PPG, 7.7 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.9 SPG), who supposedly had better all-around seasons.

Of course, the voting was skewed by a few factors. In Kidd's favor was the fact that his Mavericks improved from 13 wins in 1993-94 to 36 wins in 1994-95 (Robinson's Bucks only improved from 20 wins to 34 wins). Hill's Pistons improved by only eight wins (20 to 28), but Grant's apparently selflessness was considered a stark contract from the me-first Robinson, who held a proverbial gun to his team's head and held out for an historic contract.

Still, considering the slow-it-down and grind-it-out era in which he was playing, the numbers from Robinson's rookie season seemed to mark him as a superstar in the making. What nobody could have known at the time was that Robinson had already more or less hit his peak as a player. He would average a few more points (23.4 in 1997-98) and rebound a little more (setting a career high with 6.9 RPG in 20001-01), shoot somewhat better from the field (47.2 percent in 1999-00) and downtown (39.2 percent in 1998-99), but his career averages (20.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.7 APG, 45.9 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent from downtown) were pretty indicative of what he gave the Bucks year-in, year-out.

And hey, those are solid numbers. Guys have made All-Star teams with worse stats than that, and, in fact, Robinson made a couple of those (in 2000 and 2001). But honestly, those results were pretty disappointing for somebody whom people expected to become a Jordan-like player.

So what happened with Glenn? My first roommate out of college, who was also a Purdue alum, liked to say, "Glenn got $100 million coming out of college and spent it all on Twinkies." Robinson wasn't fat, exactly, but he did look a little soft. He played like it too. I mean, here was a physical specimen who averaged only 4.4 free throw attempts per game over his career. As his career progressed, he took jump shots more and more and attacked the basket less and less. Robinson became the master of the midrange jumper...kind of like Luol Deng before Luol Deng was Luol Deng.

His defense was soft too, which helps explain why his career Defensive Rating (107 points given up per 100 possessions) was higher than his Offensive Rating (102 points scored per 100 possessions).

Eventually, the Bucks got better, although it had as much to do with the additions of Ray Allen and Sam Cassell as it did with Robinson. That trio was good enough to almost make the NBA Finals in 2001, but they were upended by the Philadelphia 76ers (not to mention some very questionable officiating) in the Eastern Conference Finals. Robinson lasted only one more season in Milwaukee before being traded to the Atlanta Hawks for Toni Kukoc, Leon Smith and a 2003 first round draft pick that would become T.J. Ford.

In Atlanta, Robinson was who we thought he was -- 20.8 PPG and 6.6 RPG, just like clockwork. But even though he led the team in scoring, ranked second in assists and steals, and came in third in rebounding, that wasn't good enough for the 2002-03 Hawks (these days, that kind of output would have earned him a six-year, $119 million contract). So Atlanta included in in a four-team trade: Robinson and a 2006 second round pick that became Boobie Gibson were sent to the Sixers; the Minnesota Timberwolves sent Terrell Brandon to the Hawks; the New York Knicks traded Latrell Spreewell to the Timberwolves; the Sixers shipped a 2007 first round pick to the Hawks while sending Randy Holcomb, Keith Van Horn and a bag of cash to the Knicks.

In theory, Philly had finally found the long sought-after second option for Allen Iverson. Only Big Dog had never been paired with a ball hog like The Answer. Not surprisingly, his stats took a big hit (16.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 44 percent shooting). To make matters worse, he missed 40 games that season (including the last 20): three because of suspension and 37 due to injury (first a left ankle sprain and then right elbow surgery).

The following season, Robinson didn't play a single game for the Sixers. Supposedly, this was due to injury, but the scuttlebutt was that Philly coach Jim O'Brien refused to play him (which was true) and that Robinson up and left the team (which was also true, but that was actually due to the fact that his mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and, sadly, passed away during the season). And so on February 24, 2005, he was traded to the New Orleans Hornets for Jamal Mashburn and Rodney Rogers. Then, on March 1, the Hornets waived him. A little over a month after that, he was signed by the San Antonio Spurs.

You might be tempted to say, "Huh, wha...?!" But the move made sense, in an "Oh, shit, we are in panic mode" kind of way. See, at the time, Tim Duncan and Devin Brown (who had become an important offensive component for that team) were hurt, and the Spurs -- who after much begging were finally turned down by Karl Malone -- were literally praying for offense. As Gregg Popovich said after the signing: "He's a heck of a shooter, and we have some nights where we have trouble getting it into the hole."

Like most of the rest of the world, the Spurs were dubious about whether Big Dog could adjust to, you know, passing the rock and playing D. Said Popovich:

"I had him set up pretty good, I think. [The Spurs' players] were expecting a black hole. You know, somebody [who] as soon as he caught the ball, it was gone; never see it again. I said, 'I want you guys to make sure that you give him an opportunity to learn defense and all of that; but trust me, all he's going to do is shoot it every time he touches it. You're going to have to be very patient (with him).' We had him set up that way. He's smart. He came in and it might have taken him, you know, five minutes before he shot (the ball). He took a whole five minutes! In that five minutes, they saw him try to play D, so they accepted it."
Said Robinson: "This is one of the best teams in the NBA. All I have to do is to come in and help out. ... This is a new beginning."

Well...sort of. In his nine regular season games as a Spur, Robinson averaged 10.0 PPG and 2.7 RPG in 17.4 MPG. Which was about right: His Per 36 stats were 20.6 PPG and 5.5 RPG...pretty much right on target with his career Per 36 minute numbers of 20.2 PPG and 5.9 RPG.

And about that defense? Pop wasn't worried about it: "The good thing is, he's intelligent and he understands the game. He'll pick up the team-defense concept, so he won't have to be the best individual defender."

It was kind of true: In that (admittedly small) nine-game sample, Robinson had an Offensive Rating of 106 and a Defensive Rating of 100. It was the one and only time in his career that Glenn scored more points per 100 possessions than he gave up. He even squeezed out one last Big Dog game: 23 points (on 9-for-11 shooting) in 22 minutes against the Grizzlies on April 18. It was the last 20-point game he ever had.

Then came the playoffs.

During San Antonio's road to the title, Robinson appeared in 13 games, playing 8.7 MPG and averaging 3.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG and 0.1 APG while shooting 35.6 percent from the field (16-for-45) and 30 percent from downtown (3-for-10). His Effective Field Goal Percentage was 38.9, his PER was 11.7, and he scored 97 points per 100 possessions while giving up 101. He managed a Win Share of 0.2.

During the NBA Finals against Detroit, Glenn appeared in only three of the seven games. The first three. In Game 1, he actually provided a small spark off the bench: 6 minutes, 2 points, 3 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. Those would be his only positive contributions of the series. Robinson was a non-factor in Game 2, mostly because he didn't check in until there were about three minutes left and the Spurs were up by 22 points (he went 0-for-1 from the field and committed a turnover). Afterward, Robinson said:

"Man, I'm happy. All I have to do is just be available. Just like in Game 1. If I'm needed, just give them a little spark. And leave the rest up to the guys.

"I'm going to get a chance in one of these games. People know what I can do. People understand the things that I've been going through, and I'm still moving. That's why the minutes don't bother me. I'm gearing up for next season."
That "next season" never came. After a token appearence in Game 3 -- 5 minutes, 0-for-2 from the field, 0-for-1 from beyond the arc, all zeroes across the box score -- Robinson never again logged a single minute for the Spurs. I mean, he celebrated like a mother fucker when San Antonio won the title in Game 7, but the Spurs didn't ask him back. No other team signed him. And Big Dog quietly faded into retirement.

That was way back in 2005. Meanwhile, Hill and Kidd -- who beat Robinson out for Rookie of the Year way back in 1995 -- are still in the league. Last season, they both made significant contributions to 50-win teams. Hill even played in the Western Conference Finals.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Robinson was supposed to be The Man. I can't tell you exactly why it didn't happen. I mean, I can point out the flaws in his game. I can suggest that there might have been a lack of killer instinct. Too many mid-range jumpers, not enough all-out attacks on the basket. Too much money too soon. Maybe even too many Twinkies. I guess we'll never know for sure.

What I do know is that, as a Glenn Robinson fan and a former Boilermaker, watching him dance around like a maniac during the Spurs' championship celebration made me feel kind of ashamed. Because, honestly, in my foolish youth, I believed Robinson would be winning multiple titles as the leader of his team. I thought he could be a Larry, Magic or Michael-level player.

Maybe I'm projecting. Maybe I should be more disappointed in myself than I am in Glenn. Maybe I'm just embarrassed because my basketball acumen failed me when I was evaluating him. But I'm not the only person who got hoodwinked. There are an awful lot of people who feel -- despite the 20+ PPG average over his 11 seasons -- that Glenn Robinson failed to live up to his potential.

But -- unlike Hill and Kidd -- he has a ring.

Update! Bonus video: This is must-see Basketbawful TV: Robinson putting Basketbawful mascot Greg Ostertag in his poster.

And again:

No comments:

Post a Comment