In a recent look at the Miami Heat and their outside shooting issues, the challenges faced by overt bouncing pros Duncan Robinson was a key part of the narrative. Robinson has been on the fringes of the Heat’s rotation as he starts every game in three years as his three-point efficiency has increased from 44% to 34%. Shooting is an above-average NBA skill he has, so he always had to be in place and he didn’t.
Unfortunately, meanwhile, the cheap teenager went from bargain to pretty expensive veteran. Following the conclusion of his third season, where his production was down slightly (31 minutes, 13.1 points and not much per game, 40.6% three-pointers), the Heat re-signed Robinson to a five-year $90 contract. $80 million guaranteed million dollar contract. This is premium role player money.
While he’s a top-notch role player, he’s not. With 37.2% shooting averages of 7.0 points and 2.1 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game so far this season, Robinson’s steady decline has continued for a season and a half and is no longer always in rotation. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where he’s one of the worst players in the NBA right now.
Robinson was always a limited player, but the shot was the go-to feature. The gravitational effect that his sweet shot and threat would have on the defense caused an assault weapon to be overlooked with danger. But that only worked when he became one of the best shooters in the sport. When that is not the case, a player who does not dribble, is exploited defensively in any encounter, expects a foul if caught in any space, and neither wins nor has the ball. He’s just an expert, and at least according to last year’s Heat estimate, he’s apparently just a regular season expert at this.
All this is not meant to be a deliberate burden on Robinson, who is trying to do his best. There’s nothing wrong with being an expert, especially when it comes to expertise. the expertise in modernity. The three-point blast has taken the NBA in a whole new direction over the past decade, something Robinson has both benefited from and played a small part in bringing about.
Note that Dennis Scott set the record for most three-pointers in a season with 267 in 1995-96; that number was slightly better with Ray Allen’s 269 in 2005-06. It has been so for a long time. In the thirty-plus-year history of the shot, these were records, and anything that hits more than 200 three-pointers in a season was holy grass. It was only in 2012/13 that the Stephen Curry factor began to reset the bar. And then imagine how even an impromptu sophomore like Duncan Robinson hit 270 in 2019/20. This is truly a new game and one where shooting is considered a new premium.
But Robinson serves as an example of the dangers of overestimating this premium. Teams that go overboard may end up with a healthy, relatively young shooter with a big contract that they still don’t feel like they can play, no matter how much they’ve been raving about him lately. And Robinson is not the only example of this.
Five years after the San Antonio Spurs selected him in the second round of the 2011 NBA Draft, they finally brought Davis Bertans forward, and he proved that that extra five-year season was well worth it. It didn’t take long for him to adapt to the NBA, and especially the three-point line, and as a rookie, he hit 39.9% from the outside. Two more seasons of incremental improvement followed—a mix of catch-and-shoot wing trios and the occasional pop-up block—and in his third NBA season, 2018/19, the Bertans hit a brutally efficient .632 FPS. ball role.
Surprisingly, Bertans’ salary was lowered by the Spurs to the Washington Wizards that summer, but that wasn’t a hindrance for him personally. Even the opposite; This was followed by a debut campaign where the Latvian player averaged 15.4 points per game and maintained his 0.628 field goal percentage. His game wasn’t particularly versatile, but he’s very handy at 6’10, with an excellent smash hit, opening speed and mind to look good, and still the occasional chase block in his game.
Just like Robinson, Bertans got his money’s worth. Specifically, it received five years and $80 million, with $69 million guaranteed. And yet, like Robinson, it slipped backwards from there. The first season on the new deal saw their numbers drop overall—most notably, including the three-pointer—and then their second-year low. Bertans struggled with injuries, lost his shot, lost the field goal and was given to the Dallas Mavericks as a purely financial part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
Since then, Bertans has mostly been out of rotation. He’s played just 170 minutes in 17 games so far in this campaign, the twelfth highest on the team, and his impact can be just as surprising. Some nights, he’ll take a few shots and get a nice infusion from the bench. Some other nights he’ll miss a few shots and fans will wonder what the team paid for. And most nights, it seems, he doesn’t play at all.
Herein lies the danger of the shooting specialist. Their effects depend on their shots, and that shot depends on many other things. Of course all players are susceptible to injury, but especially action shooters (and if a shooter isn’t a quality action shooter then he’s probably not an NBA-level shooting expert). The quality of their appearance is also not something they can control much because they don’t create with their hands, and the foundation of their value is fragile, given their insignificant influence elsewhere on the pitch.
For a time, Bertans had the youthful advantage and the occasional heartbreaking moment of defense that allowed both hope and anticipation for its future. For a time Duncan Robinson’s services were very cheap and it all came in huge profits. But in high-level sports, things are unstable – an injury, a fall, a change of status, and all of a sudden there’s a surplus of specialists.