When the Bulls signed Nate Robinson as a free agent last summer, the prevailing sentiment was that the diminutive scorer would offer some offensive firepower off the bench in limited spurts behind Kirk Hinrich and eventually, Derrick Rose, which was reflected in his one-year contract, which was only partially guaranteed.
Instead, Rose never played and Hinrich -- more of a true floor general and no longer the same scoring threat he was in his initial Bulls stint -- suffered multiple injuries during the season, putting Robinson in position to start frequently, as well as function as a primary scorer and the team's top shot creator.
Robinson has lived somewhat of a journeyman's existence during his NBA career, and while he was popular in both New York, where he was drafted by the Knicks, and Boston, where he was a key reserve on a Finals team, his lone season in Chicago was perhaps his best and most consistent season as a pro, as he demonstrated the ability to run the offense, give a solid effort on defense and be a good teammate, which wasn't necessarily his reputation in the past.
But during the NBA playoffs, Robinson took his game to new heights -- from his heroics in a historic triple-overtime win over Brooklyn and vomiting on the sideline while playing with the flu, to his clutch performance in the Bulls' Game 1 win over the Heat and getting his own postseason "BIG" commercial -- and cemented his status as much more than a novelty act.
In the wake of the Bulls' Eastern Conference semifinals loss in Miami, Robinson's tireless approach to the game was evident: "I'm not tired at all, but I wish we could have had another game. It sucks, but it's basketball. Go back to the summer and prepare yourself for next season."
However, with Rose's expected return next season, Hinrich having another deal on his contract and rookie point guard Marquis Teague needing at least the opportunity to develop in game situations, it's unlikely that next season will be in Chicago for the instant-offense scorer and fan favorite.
His heart, toughness and scoring ability will command attention in a relatively weak free-agent market this summer -- Clippers superstar Chris Paul is the top player at the position, but after him, there's a big drop-off, with the likes of Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings and backups like Golden State's Jarrett Jack among the next in line -- and it's easy to envision an organization with more financial flexibility than the Bulls offering Robinson a multi-year deal for more than the league minimum he played for this past season.
"You have to look at all the aspects of what we're doing, where we are salary-cap wise, what the market calls for," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. Nate had a great year. So we'll evaluate it moving forward.
"The thing is about Nate, and again I thought he had a very good year, but in the last month and a half I thought he and Kirk played extremely well together, and Nate was more at the two. I like that versatility, so I wouldn't rule anything out," he continued, implying that Robinson could play off the ball more alongside Rose, who has enough size to defend some shooting guards, or off the bench in tandem with Hinrich. "He's going to have opportunities, so a lot of it is going to be fit and what the market calls for."
If it was up to Robinson, though, the little man with the big heart would be back in the Windy City.
"I would love to. Honestly, I really would, but knowing the guys we have here, I know it's probably limited space for me. But we'll see how it goes. Talk to my agent and stuff like that and figure out what's the best plan for me," the loquacious speedster said. "I love this team, I love these guys and if I could stay here, it would be wonderful."