Miami Heat reaping rewards of empowering Duncan Robinson and maximising his elite shooting skills | NBA News
NBA teams once viewed sharpshooters like Duncan Robinson as one-dimensional and questioned what else they could contribute. But the Miami Heat have empowered Robinson in his major skill, worked to maximise it and are reaping the rewards, writes Mark Deeks.
It is not really an exaggeration to say that, in only his second year, Miami Heat forward Duncan Robinson has given us pause to reconsider how we evaluate players heading into their NBA Draft.
The story of Robinson’s unusual career arc is well-documented. Initially beginning his NCAA career with lowly Division III school Williams College, Robinson later transferred to Michigan in the Big Ten, where, after three seasons of being a limited-minute outside shooting role player, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Heat for 2018 training camp.
Now, not even two years later, he is averaging 10.6 points as a starter for perhaps the best team in the Eastern Conference, who just turned over the regular-season powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks with some ease. And Robinson was no passenger in this dominant display, either; he is one of the most important offensive weapons on a very well-balanced team.
It is nevertheless still fair to say that Robinson is only really in the game to shoot outside jump shots. Sixty-one of his 69 field goal attempts in the postseason so far have come from outside the three-point line, as did 606 of his 687 shots in the regular season. When measured in terms of the percentage of a player’s total points that was scored via three-pointer, Robinson was sixth in the league at 82.4 per cent, and the five players ahead of him barely received any court time.
Where once players such as Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic and Reggie Miller were lauded for being the best and highest-volume outside shooters in the league, none of them ever made as many three-pointers in a season as Duncan Robinson just did. With 270 makes in 73 games, Duncan Robinson just out-shot Reggie and Ray. And it was not just by volume, either, as he hit 44.6 per cent from three on the season, a mark that Allen only surpassed once in his 18 NBA seasons.
To be sure, there are plenty of important points of context that illuminate why Robinson is able to shoot both better and more regularly than the greatest shooters of all time. This is the era of the three, indisputably, as outside shots go up from all teams and all players at all positions more regularly than they ever have done before in the history of the game.
Where Miller once held for so long the single season three-pointers record at 229, players such as Stephen Curry and James Harden are now nearly doubling that, which in turn empowers others. And that trickle-down effect has been a huge boost for Duncan Robinson and players of his ilk.
Multi-position is also now a thing, with stretch fours being almost mandatory and stretch fives being highly desirable. Robinson benefits from this as much as anyone, as a spindly 6ft 8in forward without great length who would struggle if asked to do more conventional forward activities. His rebounding presence is negligible, his defense is more busy than effective, and his play inside the arc is nearly non-existent.
Instead, he is a forward by default, essentially just a large shooting guard, and NBA teams in the modern era are receptive to that idea. Indeed, they desire it.
Two years ago, teams had started to seek it, but the prevailing attitudes still lingered. As the three-point boom started to take over, one-dimensional players such as Robinson still had plenty to prove. Let us not forget that the Heat waived him once, too. Every team passed over Robinson in the draft, and also when he was on waivers, because although it was known he could shoot, the question was, what else could he do? And who does he defend?
Those have always been the prevailing yardsticks by which shooters are judged, by talent evaluators both professional and amateur, myself included. Yet the success of Robinson is a testament to the fact that, if a player shoots well enough, he need not do much else, nor even excel on defense.
Not all shooters are created equal, and Robinson is not merely taking catch-and-shoot attempts on open looks. Instead, he is often the play-saver for Miami, curling around a hand-off or a screen on the perimeter to try and break open the possession, while also having movements run for him in the corners and on the wings.
Good open shooter though he is, he did not just make 270 regular-season gimmes, and with his activity and intelligent movement, he made himself available.
His role now is essentially still the same role he played at Michigan, that of moving off the ball and looking to spot up. And yet, despite the massive step up, Robinson averages more points per game in the much higher standard of the NBA playoffs than he ever did in the Big Ten.
Not because his role changed significantly, nor because he himself changed significantly, but because the Heat empowered him in his major skill and worked to maximise it. They did not just allow their good young shooter to shoot; they sought it.
Robinson’s advanced metrics are testaments to the impact his shooting (and the threat of his shooting) have on the overall team unit.
The Heat simply are better with him on the floor, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.6 points per game more when he is on the court (for comparison, Jimmy Butler is only at +0.2), and he himself has a personal plus/minus rating of +9.
Being such an elite spacing threat (.684 true shooting percentage, including 45 per cent on 450 catch-and-shoot opportunities) allows Jimmy Butler to not have to try and be one, instead freeing him up to get into the paint and get to the free throw line, where he has excelled all year.
Robinson’s presence also allows Bam Adebayo to take opposing bigs off the dribble, spaces the floor for Kendrick Nunn to and try and do his thing off the bounce, and gives Jae Crowder a bit more space from the opposite wing.
The best shooters can make a big impact offensively without even touching the ball on a possession, simply by being a decoy who must always be tracked. And in his short career thus far, Robinson has already earned that Kyle Korver-esque reputation.
It has always been hard to quantify the impact on the spacing offered up by shooters outside of their individual three-point shooting numbers, and as a result, it has always been hard to give a great spacer the credence for their immeasurable impact.
But now that we can – and now that the tangible benefits for the Heat can be both seen and measured – we can see how important a one-dimensional player can be when used properly.
Miami valued Robinson’s shooting, did not make too much out of what he could not do, and entrusted him with a big role in the offense for one so untested.
Robinson in turn has taken these opportunities, and served to remind us all that, if someone can shoot this well and this often, the rest is ancillary.
It would help if he could get to the rim, bump opponents off the spot defensively and perhaps even shoot off the dribble. But he does not have to do all that to be a significant piece of a significant team.
Watch the Miami Heat take on the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, live on Sky Sports Arena on Tuesday at 11:30pm