CHICAGO – The mathematics of NBA free agency generally starts with six zeroes, which makes it very good math for those players who timed their availability right, created a market for themselves or both.
Yet even then, decisions frequently come down to competing numbers, an either/or choice in which something – money, opportunity, satisfaction – has to give.
Consider Nate Robinson, the feisty journeyman point guard who demonstrated serious value for the Chicago Bulls last season through Derrick Rose‘s and often Kirk Hinrich‘s absences. Robinson was nothing less than a godsend for coach Tom Thibodeau, a fireplug of confidence who played without conscience, strayed only occasionally from Thibodeau’s parameters and often created something of the Bulls’ offensive nothingness.
The 5-foot-9 scorer from Washington had the best of his eight NBA seasons, averaging 13.1 points and 4.4 assists on 43.3 percent shooting, including 40.5 percent from 3-point range. He set career highs in games (82), total assists (358), 3-point makes and his percentage from the arc.
And it came with team success on a team missing its star player: Robinson stepped in as a Rose surrogate well enough that Chicago went 45-37 and qualified as the East’s fifth seed. That 2008-09 season when Robinson played a little more, shot a little more and averaged 17.2 ppg? His Knicks team went 28-46 in the games he played and finished last in the Atlantic Division.
Let’s not forget the Bulls’ playoff run through two rounds this spring. Robinson, off the bench, scored 34 points in the memorable Game 4 triple-overtime victory over the Nets in one of 2013′s top postseason performances. He scored 20 or more three more times in Chicago’s final eight games, including twice against Miami, and even earned some of LeBron James‘ defensive attention.
By the end, Robinson also had earned some folk-hero status among Bulls fans – but apparently no new contract due to a) his market value and b) the team’s salary-cap limitations.
Chicago is knocking on the luxury-tax door, a threshold that team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf always has been loathe to cross. Thus, Robinson and others – notably wingman Marco Belinelli and backup big Nazr Mohammed – have to fit into what the Bulls have available or they have to go.
In Robinson’s case – and this has been assumed since Chicago got eliminated in the middle of May – the next sound will be the door shutting behind him, as Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote Friday:
According to a source familiar with the situation, Robinson and his camp have already made it clear with the Bulls that the two sides will part ways, as Robinson seeks a multi-year contract. Even if that contract isn’t made available to the point guard, a one-year deal with a team that will give him extended playing time is next on his wish list.
This is, after all, business for these guys. Robinson has been paid more than $20 million so far, with multi-year deals for his first two contracts. But he played last season for the veteran’s minimum, his $1.146 million salary the lowest since his rookie year. So at age 29, no one begrudges Robinson the chance to cash in, perhaps with the last big payday of his career.
Returning to Chicago – with Rose expected to be back and healthy – would be different for Robinson; in Rose’s 2010-11 MVP season, his backup (C.J. Watson) averaged only 13.3 minutes and 4.9 points. The Bulls also have Hinrich and last year’s rookie, Marquis Teague, at point guard and might be tempted to flesh out the roster with half-coach John Lucas III if he’s available.
Ideally, Robinson showed enough to be the Bulls’ or someone else’s Vinnie Johnson-like offense generator off the bench. There always are minutes available for guys like that.
But in going elsewhere for the best financial deal – which he absolutely should – he might miss some of the satisfaction and excitement from last spring, when he averaged started eight of 12 playoff games, averaged 33.7 minutes (compared to 7.0 mpg in 20 previous playoff appearances).
Belinelli might have to choose, too. He reached the postseason just once in his first five seasons, then started seven times against the Nets and the Heat in the final two weeks.
It’s the way of the NBA. Some players hit free agency in search of cash, others seeking opportunity. Some teams plug basketball holes, others heed financial constraints. Stars get it all. Everyone else has to choose. Guys like Robinson are grateful for those occasions when it is their choice.