Nate Robinson languishes in a chair he made seem a throne following Denver’s win over the Pelicans Sunday night, an icepack perched appeasingly on a single knee, as he surveys the locker room before him with a discerning eye. As the media shuffles their way into the middle of the room, Robinson decides that music is required and soon Chris Brown is heard trumpeted over the speakers as Robinson sings over the lyrics with Denver Nuggets-themed mad libs. In a flash he is out and about, cavorting around his hemisphere of the locker room, putting on a show for all those who cared to look. He teases Faried, barks at Jordan Hamilton, and tries to get Mozgov to dance.
“If they had a category for energy level,” Robinson said confidently. “I’d have the best energy level in the league.”
Robinson was initially brought to the Nuggets to provide just that, an extra bit of juice to a crowded backcourt that had little need of him otherwise. But that spark has turned into an unexpected bonfire of results when Robinson is on the court, as he is boasting a team high in net rating per 100 possessions. Of particular note is his insane defensive rating, wherein the Nuggets hold opponents to 91.6 points per 100 possession when Robinson is on the court, a rating that would eclipse Indiana’s top ranked mark.
While the sample size is still relatively small and bench players numbers are usually somewhat skewed based on the weaker competition they tend to face, it’s difficult to deny Robinson’s impact. Robinson usually doesn’t guard the primary ball handler dribbling up the court but when the ball is swung to his man, he flies in with appendages a-waving.
“I’m such a pest, I try to just disrupt the guard, make sure they don’t get into their stuff. I just try to attack and our coach, he always says, arrive on catch, and just cause chaos out there. So that’s what I try to do”
Chaos is the name of the game with Robinson, his main focus is not to end up in an isolation with a ball handler but to force the ball out of their hands, to wreck havoc with whatever plan A was supposed to be on offense. Ball denial is a rather obscure defensive skill in the NBA, one that, by its very nature, rejects the type of action one tends to solely focus on. But it is as useful a preemptive defensive skill as one can have and it’s one that Robinson has perfected through the use of that extra spark that permeates every aspect of his game. He will chase his defender across the baseline, through the triple-staggered screen, and to the ends of the earth if it means the ball will stay out of the most dangerous players’ hands.
“With Ty, me and him can play one to two, if he’s tired I’ll guard the ball, let him get a little rest or whatever, he always says ‘nah I got it’. With him I always know how fast he is, and it’s kind of cool playing with another guy that’s, you know, I feel that he’s smaller than me, I tell him he’s my little homie. For us to coexist I told him you better listen to me and he’s doing a great job of listening to me. And then with Dre, I’m the young buck. So I listen to Dre and you know, we’re happy.”
“I just try to take pride in my defense, like I told the fans, I kind of get opponents always trying to post me up, man I don’t like it. So I try to use my strength and use my jumping ability to try and block shots if I can, if not just disrupt his shot and try to make him pass it.”
Not all of Robison’s habits are productive ones however. Despite his constant hounding on and off the ball, well timed screens will derail even the mightiest of evasion efforts for one of Robinson’s statue. Additionally, a good head fake and a smart hesitation dribble can beat him off the dribble, and a trailing Robinson is usually a foul-y one as well. But the wanderings off ball that submarined his defensive exploits in the past only happen now anecdotally. His individual defense is but an asset used to contribute to a larger whole, a remnant lesson still ingrained from his time last season in Chicago.
“Coach [Thibodeau] embedded that in us, Coach Thibs just drilled that in our heads to try and be the best defensive team. There’s not that many guys in the league that can flat-out stop somebody, there’s not a lot of Ron Artest’s and Avery Bradley’s in the league, and Tony Allen’s, but everybody can do it together as a team. It’s about team defense, not one guy that can make it to the NBA championship and win a championship for himself, it’s everybody, it’s a team thing and we’re trying to be the best defensive team in the NBA.”
Nate Robinson’s personality pervades every part of the Nuggets locker room, the sheer force of which is inescapable and cannot solely be kept off the court. His energy compounds itself into whatever lineup he happens to be in and that energy somehow seems to elevate the defense around him. The tiny whirlwind of energy brought in to occasionally set a spark has become the team’s eternal flame, the player that not only never stops, but illuminates the way by which all the players can follow.