Nate Robinson never looked more valuable than he did this spring, when Chicago's third-string point guard took over the starting role and lifted the team to a Game Seven win on the road in Brooklyn. Robinson and the Bulls followed that up with a strong challenge of the Heat in the conference semifinals. His trademark inconsistency still surfaced, as witnessed by his performance in a pair of Game Fours. In the fourth game against the Nets, he scored 34 points, but he went scoreless on 12 field goal attempts in the fourth game versus the Heat. Yet the "Good Nate" mostly outweighed the "Bad Nate" during the playoffs, especially as he showed an ability to fit in with coach Tom Thibodeau's defense. That should be enough to merit a healthy raise on his minimum-salary deal, and that means he'll probably be out of Chicago's price range.
Robinson was a break-even player during the regular season, as the Bulls scored just about as many points with him on the floor as they gave up. That's what many teams look for out of their backups, so Robinson has probably earned a shot in a team's rotation next season, a job that normally warrants more than the minimum salary. Robinson appeared in every one of the Bulls' regular season and playoff games this year, and shot 40.5% from behind the arc, the first time he's eclipsed a 40% rate of success on three-point attempts. He embraced a playmaking role, as he did in Golden State last year, posting a respectable 4.4/1.8 per-game assists-to-turnover ratio with the Bulls. His strides on defense, where he became less of a liability, and his ability to accept Thibodeau's hard-charging coaching style, were even more impressive.
The Bulls have Robinson's Non-Bird rights, so unless they dip into their mid-level exception, the most they can pay him next season is $1,519,172, an amount equal to 120% of the minimum salary for a player with eight years of experience. Chicago is in line to pay the tax again next season, so the team's only method of signing other teams' free agents for more than the minimum will likely be the $3.183MM taxpayer's mid-level exception. Robinson's market value is probably right around that amount, so using the mid-level on him wouldn't allow Chicago to upgrade elsewhere. Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich will presumably be back to man the point guard position, and the team probably wants to give Marquis Teague, its first-rounder from 2012, a longer look next season. That doesn't leave much room for Robinson.
Robinson's agent, Aaron Goodwin, says his client's first priority is to re-sign with the Bulls, but he'd be open to hearing from the Knicks as well. The Knicks might like to inject a boost of athleticism into their point guard ranks, but they're under the same salary crunch as the Bulls. New York's bloated payroll would make the mid-level exception the team's only mechanism for signing Robinson, and the Knicks may have to use it to keep some of their own free agents. A sign-and-trade is out, since taxpaying teams can't acquire players in a sign-and-trade under new collective barganing agreement restrictions this summer.
The taxpayer's mid-level amount is probably a fit for Robinson, but he's most likely to end up on a team with fewer financial headaches than the Knicks. He could also work on a club that can use part of its standard $5.15MM mid-level on him. He showed his value to contenders this past season, and winning teams probably won't shy away from him as much as they did when he was a forgotten man in 2010/11 with the Thunder, who waived him on the eve of the following season. He's still a spark plug offensively, capable of the spectacular, and after this year, a team's primary worry would be his off-nights on that end, as opposed to his defense. I expect a contending team with plenty of other offensive weapons that can offset his shortcomings to bring Robinson aboard.