Duncan Robinson Cuts Footloose

If you only looked at the box-score, Duncan Robinson was not having a good game.


The Atlanta Hawks were crowding him at the three-point line like any team with a functional scouting report, yet Robinson was still getting his looks. Seven times the ball went up and it only fell through once when Robinson had enough time on the catch to consider his next podcasting topic. Otherwise, it was I Heard You Build Houses.

Yet the Hawks didn’t change their coverage. Not one bit, not one iota. So when the HEAT on Sunday were advancing the ball trying to fend off another Hawks run that this time had them within four points, Kevin Huerter marked Robinson inside the arc with a fistful of jersey.

This time, Robinson parried and went for the riposte.

It may not have looked like it on paper since he still shot 50 percent from deep, but Robinson’s 2-of-4 showing against the Utah Jazz in mid-February felt significant. Perhaps it was an inflated sense of importance given how poorly Miami as a whole played in the second half of that game. Narratives and general ire will attach themselves to a player’s outlier evening after a bad night and Robinson’s four attempts, half his nightly average, stuck out like a sore thumb. Utah hadn’t done anything too different from what Robinson had seen in the playoffs the year before. They just did it better than most, stunting to his spots from a pass away and essentially playing bump-and-run coverage as he tried to run his routes, all while keeping Rudy Gobert fully in place as a rim deterrent.

Bogdanovic’s help in the first clip was novel, particularly in how Utah scrambled on the back side, but it’s Jordan Clarkson’s physical play as he top-locked Robinson – standing in the way of Robinson and the screen or handoff he’s trying to use – that most teams try to replicate. Depending on their personnel some may add on a hedge-and-recover from the big man or outright switch. They’re all variations on a theme. The goal remains the same. Make Duncan Robinson’s life as difficult as possible.

“They’re trying to take Duncan out of the game,” Bam Adebayo said following that loss in Utah. “The stuff we were doing with Duncan last year, we can’t do this year.”

Last season the stuff, as Bam calls it, was famously the dribble handoff. Outside of Nikola Jokic and his cadre of guard creators, no pair ran more handoffs than Robinson and Adebayo, and those two blew away their competition producing 1.32 points per direct handoff – accounting for 275 of Miami’s total points or nearly four per game. With teams trying to fill that particular bit of machinery with as many gremlins as they could feed after midnight, the volume has remained the same but the efficiency has dropped off to an average-ish 1.02.

“They’re more tuned in,” Robinson said. “They’re being physical and just trying to knock it down and not let me get to it. In the regular season last year teams weren’t as keyed in on that so I could get to it more freely.”

Within the confines of that scouting report, Robinson’s overall efficiency has also fallen off – though the degree to which it has it a matter of perspective. The list of players to shoot 44 percent on eight three-point attempts per game is Robinson and Steph Curry. The problem for Robinson is that such a monumentally historic shooting performance came in his first full season. The temptation is to look at that and make it Robinson’s baseline when in actuality it’s a humongous outlier for anyone who isn’t the greatest shooter since the Mesozoic Era. Robinson was always going to have to improve just to have a shot at staying the same, statistically. Even though he’s down to 39 percent on the same volume, he has improved because finding and executing counters is an improvement.

When Robinson next faced the top-locking Jazz, he took the contact and used it to create an opening in the opposite direction.

“That off-ball movement is required,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a necessity born out of how teams are playing him now. There’s not a team that will let him come off a handoff or some kind of pindown cleanly anymore. Those days are behind him. He’s not going to get those days ever again in this league. That’s a great respect. He’s adapted already, greatly this year learning how to move without the ball, learning how to cut, keep defenses honest at the rim.”

When Toronto, another team that has given Robinson trouble in the past, did the same, so did he.

These are not Ghost Cuts, the sort Dwyane Wade made popular in manufacturing spacing despite not being a shooter by darting through blind spots when defenders turned their vision cones. Quite the opposite. These are in your face. The defender can see and feel it coming and not be able to do anything about it simply due to their own deliberate positioning.

Still, at times a particularly brilliant pass from Adebayo is necessary…

…but every passer needs a target. And that target has to finish. Since that first Utah game Robinson is averaging nearly a cut per game. Overall he’s scored 1.63 points per possession on 19 total cuts. A miniscule number to be sure, but a welcome one. To paraphrase Erik Spoelstra, menu diversification in itself can be the point.

Part of what made Robinson so effective last season was just how much he already moved off the ball. He was No. 13 in total distance traveled at 90.3 miles on the offensive end alone and this year is much of the same where he sits No. 8. That’s all as a guy who doesn’t spend a ton of time with the ball in his hands. You might notice it on one possession where he’s flying around multiple picks, catching, throwing it back to Adebayo and flaring back out to the weakside, but even when your eyes are elsewhere he’s in constant relocation mode.

And yet that movement wasn’t always a given.

“I think that’s part of why he wanted to come here, he knew there would be a constant evolution and push to develop all aspects of his game,” Spoelstra said. “Even when he got here he wasn’t a catch-and-shoot player, he was a spot-up three-point shooter. We spent so much time with him on the move and watching Wayne Ellington film to try and create a facsimile of a lot of the stuff Wayne [and Ray Allen] did. He really spent a lot of time to develop that.”

Distinguishing between spot-up and catch-and-shoot is crucial. Steve Novak led the league in three-point shooting (47.2 percent) with the Knicks back in 2012, but once he met the HEAT in the playoffs his attempts dropped from 14.2 per 100 possessions to 4.1 because Novak’s lack of mobility meant Miami could just stick a defender on him and take him out. In the last three games of that five-game series, Novak took a total of two shots beyond the arc. Robinson’s volume carried over shot-for-shot into the postseason because he remade himself into a player who could do it. Volume, and reputation, creates gravity.

The next step in that same process has been playing already. Cuts are crucial as far as “giving the defense something to think about,” Robinson says. They’re an added worry, like the day you realize your kid can open doors now and you have to add entire rooms to the what-trouble-could-they-get-into-now-while-I-wash-the-dishes danger zone. Cuts also don’t happen all too often, as we noted. Many teams will gladly concede one or two a game if it means they’re not giving up clean extra-point opportunities. They’re a counter, not the meal. Putting the ball in Robinson’s hands for pick-and-rolls is more than that. It’s a new dimension.

“Now teams are scheming against [him] and pick-and-roll can be another way to loosen the defense up,” Spoelstra said. “It’s been effective for us this year, he’s spent a lot of time. Same type of process.”

Last season Robinson and Adebayo ran just barely one pick-and-roll per 100 possessions. That number has jumped to 3.9 this season, still not a ton but an increase three times over and not including some creative sets where Robinson actually screens *for* Adebayo. They’re repetitions geared toward growth in some ways, but they’re productive reps all the same at 1.08 points per direct screen.

As much value as handoffs have as high-speed actions, when teams jammed Robinson up it could often leave him stood up with a dead dribble. Using screens allows him more creative freedom with which to leverage his own gravity. Down the stretch against Sacramento in recent weeks Miami ran this action on consecutive possessions, Robinson first flowing into a simple pull-up and then following up with a lob for Adebayo.

“Duncan has a level head,” Adebayo said. “He’s never too high and never too low. He works himself to death. He’s watching film, he’s trying to figure out better ways to get easy shots.”

When the defender jumps out just as they would in a handoff, Robinson has breathing room to see the pocket coming. Granted he won’t ever be Curry – nobody will – but he can unlock Adebayo’s inner Draymond Green all the same.

As with the aforementioned stationary Novak trying to transition his game to the postseason, activating Robinson on the ball could help late in games when his attempts have typically been reduced (and Miami’s overall fourth quarter offense has suffered for it). This is just a theory, but there may be a bit of a clutch volume cap on any catch-and-shoot player as defenses tighten up, lock in and get more physical. Curry can take 15 threes or more just about whenever he wants, if he isn’t being trapped, because he can create them. Playing off the ball, you’re always reliant on multiple factors you cannot control.

Is Robinson perfect operating as a ballhandler? Hardly. Part of the reason why his numbers are down – outside of normal regression – is he’s shooting just 30 percent on pull-up threes after 38 percent last season. Robinson took some of the toughest shots in the league then, according to Second Spectrum’s Shot Quality metric, and that’s no different now. Still difficult, he’s also shooting some different shots as he tries to expand his game.

“Once he gets better at this, it’s not going to stop,” Spoelstra said. “There’s going to be something else.”

Even now, there’s something else. A great story like Robinson’s, from Division III to Division I and undrafted G-Leaguer to an all-timer season and the NBA Finals, doesn’t give you a pass on defense. Robinson executes Spoelstra’s scheme, but it’s a scheme designed in part to help mask the deficiencies of the team’s weaker defenders with help. Just as Spoelstra has to consider spacing when he has relative non-shooters in Adebayo, Jimmy Butler or Andre Iguodala on the floor, he has to do the same with defense when he wants to put more than two of Miami’s shooters together.

It’s a problem most teams would be happy to have. Last year Robinson led almost the entire league with a plus-13.7 points per 100 differential when he was on the court. This year the HEAT are merely plus-6.1, though that’s within the context of Robinson having played every game and possibly being asked to do too much with Butler missing so much time. When Robinson has shared the floor with Butler, the team is a healthy plus-8.4 per 100. The shooting numbers might be down, but the intended impact is still there.

“With Duncan you can’t always look at that final number,” Adebayo said. “All of us do that. All of us can be impactful without that final number being a certain number that everyone wants.”

The numbers are always going to matter for Robinson. Percentages translate to points, and he is on the floor to help produce points. He will. He’s improving through a combination of developmental growing pains and natural falloff from a historical peak. In both ways, it’s a tale familiar to all the league’s best shooters. Even Ray Allen would endure a cold spell each season.

Robinson gave the league all it could handle a year ago. Now he’s known and it’s the second-time through the order. It’s time to add some of that off-speed stuff to the repertoire. If you look, it’s already happening.