"Sometimes things are left better a mystery," Nate Robinson told CSNChicago.com late last season. "To not know where you're going to be."
But even having that mindset going into free agency, it's still almost unfathomable that after his postseason heroics and arguably his best season in the NBA, the diminutive scorer doesn't know where he'll be playing next season.
Hopefully, by the time you read this, reports of Robinson inking a deal will have surfaced. But as of right now, a player who seemed destined to garner some combination of a multi-year contract, a substantial raise from his salary last season or a much more prominent role is still unemployed.
No, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Robinson to return to Chicago. For one, he should believe that he deserves more than the veteran's minimum that the Bulls could offer him-or have already offered, according to various media accounts.
But with Derrick Rose's return to the lineup, an established, defensive-oriented veteran in Kirk Hinrich backing him up and the hope that Marquis Teague can carve out a contributing role in his second professional season, it doesn't make sense for Robinson to come back, even with his game-changing scoring ability.
For those who believe that Robinson could function as a shooting guard behind Jimmy Butler, not only is Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau not the biggest proponent of trotting out smallish backcourts for extended stretches, but Hinrich-whose health issues should be eased by having less of a workload next season-can also play both guard spots. Free-agent acquisition Mike Dunleavy Jr. is also capable of playing either wing position, not to mention leaving a sliver of opportunity for first-round draft pick Tony Snell, if he exceeds rookie-year expectations.
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Basically, there aren't enough minutes to go around for a proud veteran like Robinson (now, for a young player still trying to make a name for himself, like Bulls summer-league sharpshooter Andrew Goudelock, that's a different story, but even with his limited NBA track record, the former Lakers reserve is probably looking for a situation with a more meaningful individual opportunity) in Chicago. Robinson is experienced enough to understand that fact, even if visions of him and Rose terrorizing opponents seem like a no-brainer to some fans.
But despite periodic leaks of interest from the likes of the Nuggets, Bucks, Wizards and Lakers, Robinson remaining unsigned in the middle of July, with virtually every other significant free agent accounted for (apologies to Brandon Jennings, Gerald Henderson and Nikola Pekovic, though those players are restricted free agents, unlike Robinson) is mind-boggling. Sure, he isn't perfect as a player, but while his shot selection and defensive issues were still evident in Chicago, not only did he make strides in those areas with the Bulls, but also went a long way in addressing his reputation for immaturity.
Robinson's clutch play for the Bulls appeared to put him over the hump, helping him turn the corner from a journeyman-for-hire into a piece-to-the-puzzle type warranting some degree of professional security moving forward, particularly with outside shooting being such a priority for NBA teams this summer. Former teammate Marco Belinelli, who was essentially in an identical situation, didn't reap a huge payday, but although the Bulls also passed on bringing him back-instead opting to sign Dunleavy to the very same two-year, $6-million deal that Belinelli received from San Antonio-he quickly found a new home and on another title contender, to boot.
Why haven't things gone the same way for Robinson?
Despite knowing that he's highly unlikely to return to Chicago, the scorer showed up in Las Vegas for the Bulls' summer-league loss Thursday night to Miami, showing support to former teammates like Teague and Malcolm Thomas. In an extremely candid interview with NBA TV--with whom he did some studio work during the playoffs, after the Bulls were eliminated by the Heat--Robinson was honest about how the process has gone for him.
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"It's frustrating because you put in your hard work. I worked my butt off year in and year out, ever since I was a little boy, to get to this point now, not to be signed. But at the same time, I'm not going to let that discourage me of being who I am, just working hard. I want people to understand and know Nate Robinson is that player who's going to play his heart out, no matter what, good or bad. Everybody has flaws. At the same time, that's one thing I do: I really cherish this game and I'm really thankful for it, the blessings that God has blessed me with and right now, I'm just waiting. God will put me on that team that will deserve me and that's how I'm looking at it," said Robinson, who was caught on camera autographing an infant courtside before his television appearance.
"I'm open to whatever team that wants me. That could be every team in the league or nobody. It is what it is. Right now, we're talking to a few teams and there's a lot of teams that showed interest, and right now, we're just trying to figure out what's the best fit and who really wants me to be a part of their team, and build something special. I just really want to be a part of something real," said Robinson about his future prospects.
"I'm really just tired of the one-year deals. It happens and I told myself, 'If that's something I've got to do through my career, that God puts in my way of overcoming obstacles of one-year deal, one-year deal here and there,' if that's my destiny, that's what it is and I'll accept it. I won't make excuses. I won't say, 'Oh, it's my agent, it's me, it's my attitude,' because I know it's not my attitude. I know it's not me being a bad teammate because I'm a great teammate. All the knocks that these teams are saying, GMs have questions of and I really, truly feel that they're judging me, which they are, but only God can do that. For me, I just go out and play with my heart. I don't know any other way. I don't know how to be anybody but Nate Robinson. I'm going to continue to be me, so it is what it is.
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"It's funny because I never want to start. I never want to start because that's not my forte. My thing is, I know what I do. I come off the bench and I give energy. That's what I want to do for whatever team that wants me," he continued. "I want a team to want me to be there. Not because somebody's injured. Not because somebody's down or, 'We don't have this, we don't have that, so let's go get Nate Robinson.' No, I don't want that. I want something that's real. Like I said, I want a commitment and that's something that I'm going to do. I'm committed to do my job and that's to show up every day, be professional, never late, work hard and perform at a high level, and I think I've done that throughout my whole career."
Nothing Robinson said during the game broadcast can truly be argued with. Whether he's been caught in a bit of a numbers game, his reputation preceded him or his seemingly-reasonable terms--analyzing his comments, it's fair to say that he'd like a multi-year contract and a defined role as the primary backup point guard from a team--don't appeal to his would-be suitors, at this late stage of free agency, Robinson is on the outside looking in, despite averaging 13.1 points per game (third-highest on the Bulls and the second-highest average of his career) and shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range, while playing in all of the injury-riddled squad's contests.
A year ago, Robinson also signed late in free agency, getting a partially-guaranteed contract from the Bulls (it seems like ancient history now, but he wasn't assured of staying in Chicago all season back in January, when the front office decided to keep him for the rest of the campaign), resulting in his memorable playoff performance, which included his epic, out-of-body virtuoso game in a triple-overtime win over Brooklyn, playing with a severely-lacerated lip, vomiting during timeouts while playing with the flu and a highlight-reel block against a foot taller LeBron James.
Robinson seemingly changed the previous perception of his game-from a motor-mouth, dunk contest-winning sideshow to a legitimate player who could help a winning team (if Metta World Peace, after being amnestied by the Lakers, can almost immediately find a soft landing spot, then concerns about Robinson's perceived issues are certainly overblown)-but he finds himself back in the same position the following summer.
In the end, Robinson will surely land somewhere, regardless of whether he gets a deserved bump in salary or not, but why it's taking so long to happen has to be frustrating. From his season-long stint in Chicago, there's no doubt he'll use it as motivation, only further fueling his ever-present chip-on-the-shoulder mentality and attempting to make teams that once again underestimated him pay for their mistake.
After all, as Robinson himself said, sometimes things are better left a mystery.