Let’s hear it for the little guy

The Golden State Warriors trailed the Miami Heat by one point late in the fourth quarter as Nate Robinson stood at the free throw line to shoot a technical foul shot. Even without the context of giants standing around him, Robinson looked conspicuously tiny as he wrapped the ball around his waist twice, bent at the knees and dropped in one of his 23 second half points in the Warrior’s stunning comeback over the the South Beach Juggernaut.

This is remarkable because the Warriors, and Nate Robinson himself, aren’t very good. It was electrifying because Nate Robinson isn’t even 5’8”.

The Warriors are Robinson’s fourth team in six years. After an exhilarating run with the Knicks in which he blocked Yao Ming and won two dunk contests, Robinson’s flame burned a bit too erratically to bear tending in Boston and Oklahoma City. But Robinson has immediately endeared himself to the denizens of Oracle Arena, perpetual supporters of the underdog, and Robinson is certainly that.

Robinson is a part of a strange group of players in the history of the NBA, tiny guys whose primary talent is scoring over and around giants. Today, Robinson and J.J. Barea carry the torch for 5’5’’ Earl Boykins.

In soccer, football and most sports, the limiting factor on the field of play is space in two dimensions. Sure, certain positions benefit from size. It helps if you are a 6’5’’ wide receiver or a 6’4’’ central back with the ability to dominate the aerial game. But height only matters to a certain degree, in the end these games are played on the ground.

Only basketball’s dimensions specifically include height: that ten foot rim. All the clever ball handling and devilish quickness can’t change that fact that eventually, the ball has to go up. Having a head start in that elevated contest, whether through leaping ability, long arms, or brute size is an obvious and tremendous advantage.

Or put another way, being 5’9’’ in a league where six out of ten players on the court are usually at least 6’6’’ is like showing up to a gun fight with a sheet of dried seaweed. But that’s what these guys do every night, and fans love them for it. Of course they do! It just looks so cool. The optics of the situation distort our ability to objectively evaluate what we are watching. The means are so spectacular as to render the ends secondary.

It’s not the most serious example, but for spectacle it’s tough to surpass the NBA’s dunk contest, which Robinson won in 2006 over 6’6’’ Andre Iguodala.

Watch these slams and you’ll see what I mean. Of course it’s perfectly subjective, but eventual champion Nate Robinson’s dunks are dunks we’ve seen before, just done by a small person. Even his “jump over another guy” gimmick involves Spud Webb, as if to remind everyone that Nate Robinson is very short. Meanwhile Iguodala does the near impossible—coming up with dunks that look cool and that no one has ever done in a major contest.

OK, we’re getting a little distracted here. Another way to get at this is to point out that J.J. Barea, he of championship stock, got $4.8 million per despite never posting a league average PER until this season. Even in last year’s playoffs, when the basketball world fell in love with the spritely Puerto Rican, he only shot 42% from the field while averaging nine points and three assists.

But reducing Barea’s performance to a statistical measure of his impact misses the point. He kept Dallas’s offense afloat when Nowitzki went out of the game and, more importantly, seemed to psychologically ruin his opponents. It’s tricky to prove, but can you imagine Andrew Bynum trying to decapitate Jason Kidd at the end of Game 4?

It seemed as though Barea represented the Lakers’ unlikely undoing in a way no other Maverick could. His maddening ability to get in the paint off of ball screens demoralizes his opponents, who can’t help but see novelty when they look at munchkin in a big boy uniform. Emotion is not just for fans.

This season, in Barea’s first game with the Timberwolves, Russell Westbrook immediately fell victim Barea’s infuriating guile. Not four seconds after Barea checked in, Westbrook drove middle where Barea slid, cut him off and, though his feet were still moving, absorbed Westbrook’s shoulder straight on the chin. The ref gave Barea the benefit of the doubt (as if often the case, Barea’s shockingly effective post defense strategy is “rest chin on opponent’s shoulder, snap neck back at any movement, repeat as necessary”) and Westbrook lost his mind for about two whole minutes of game play. He harried Barea with “coach’s son fake hustle” defense on the next possession, then jacked up a 26-footer with 19 seconds on the shot clock when the Thunder got the ball back, essentially committing back-to-back turnovers.

Their ability to get under their opponent’s skin is a real virtue, one that may make these little guys more valuable than their stats suggest. But man, those stats offer a strange profile. Of all the things for these two to specialize in, scoring, the one act that requires they invade the lofty domain of men a foot taller than then, seems an unlikely one. Shouldn’t they be scurrying around the floor, slipping into pockets of space and finding taller teammates with bounce passes?

But Robinson and Barea (and I apologize for grouping them throughout this piece as Barea is a superior player) aren’t good passers. Barea’s distributing skills are decent when he knows where everyone is going to be like he did in Dallas, but he’s far from the prototypical Napoleonic floor general. Robinson doesn’t even keep up a pretense of passing and often looks at his own laces when he dribbles.

As scorers neither has ever posted a league average field goal percentage. But passing presents other problems for men their size. First, you have to be able to see the court, and that gets tricky when your vantage point is obscured not only by limbs but waistlines. Plodding Hedo Turkoglu can play above the fray, tracks two weakside shooters in vision as he spies Howard rolling to the hoop and keeps his own scoring opportunities in mind. Little guys have trouble maintaining visual contact with those moving targets, but the rim is a fixed object, a beacon for the likes of Barea and Robinson.

They aren’t great or even very good players, but they create chaos, a madness and energy even during the drudgery of the midseason slog. When they hit shots and make plays, like Robinson did Tuesday night against Miami, everyone goes nuts– their teammates, their opponents, and the crowd.

Over the course of the season, the law of averages and gravity will drag Robinson’s impact into the realm of statistical irrelevance. Barea’s gamechanging performance against Oklahoma City will be canceled out by a dud in Dallas. In time, even they descend to an unremarkable norm.

But this reality neither captures nor reduces their essential weirdness, which thrillingly, maddeningly threatens to upset the natural order of things every time they step on the court.

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