SBN Wisconsin HOF #5: Glenn Robinson

A couple weeks ago we asked you to vote for the top ten Bucks of all time. The first three nominees were Kareem Abdul-JabbarOscar Robertson, Sidney Moncrief, and Ray Allen with each of our nominations eligible for the forthcoming SBN Wisconsin Hall of Fame ballot that will also include nominees from Brew Crew BallAcme Packing CompanyBucky's 5th Quarter and Anonymous Eagle.

Let me start with an admission: I've been looking forward to this one.

Not because I think Glenn Robinson was the best Buck ever...don't worry, I'm still rational.  No, to be honest he probably wasn't even the best Buck of his era. And it's not because the Big Dog was particularly, smooth, stylish, eloquent or efficient. 

But the simple fact is that I grew up a Glenn Robinson guy.  And if you followed basketball as a kid, you probably had someone like that. 

It started in 1992, when my dad made the generous (if not well-timed) decision to get Bucks season tickets. In other words, I became a Bucks fan pretty much as the franchise bottomed out. And as an 11-year-old kid excited about basketball, I was really looking to latch onto a player who could be the Bucks' long-lost superstar.

And on an early summer day in 1994, I thought I had maybe found one. That day I watched the draft lottery at halftime of whatever playoff game was being shown, and sure enough, my Bucks came up #1.  I excitedly ran out onto our deck and yelled at my dad, who was busy working in the garden. Everybody knew what winning the lottery meant.  

"We're getting the Big Dog!"   

It seems strange to think that it's been nearly a decade since Glenn last wore a Bucks jersey, and even stranger to think that many current Bucks fans are too young to remember him (these realizations are an unfortunate reminder of me getting old).

Robinson's game was itself a bit of a throwback. He was at his most impressive from mid-range, where he was equally adept at scoring from turnarounds out of the post or catching and firing off screens. His trademark delivery--casually bringing the ball from the left side of his forehead--was less reliable from deep (34%), even with his first three seasons coming while the NBA had shorted the three point line. And while Robinson wasn't an athletic freak, he still threw down his share of highlight reel dunks. 

Positionally, he wasn't a pure wing player and often struggled handling the ball on the perimeter, which helps explain why turnovers were the only thing he ever led the league in (nearly four per game as a rookie). But he also didn't have prototypical size to be a power forward, the position where he excelled in college. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call him a tweener, but slightly bigger hands and a couple more inches of length on his 235-240 pound frame could have done wonders. 

And then there was his defense. Again, his physical profile hurt, as he lacked the footspeed to track most SFs but was too small for most bigs. He also played with other poor defenders, which didn't help. And I think part of it was also just the way he looked on the court. He had a trudging sort of run that always made him look...tired. I'm not saying he was a good defender, but let's just say he was not the kind of guy who would get the benefit of the doubt either. 

Looking back, the Bucks probably made a mistake in selecting Robinson ahead of both Jason Kidd and Grant Hill. OK, they definitely did. But you wouldn't have argued with the Bucks' decision if you saw Robinson make a mockery of the Big Ten in his two years at Purdue. Dropping 30 ppg and 10 rpg in a major conference? That's just silly. The only question seemed to be how much it would cost to sign the Purdue star, with rumors rampant that the Big Dog might be the first rookie to crack the $100 million threshold. Thankfully he didn't, and I can still picture the Journal headline on the day he signed: 10 years, $68 million.

Robinson led all first year players in scoring (21.9 ppg), yet hardly registered in the rookie of the year debate that saw Kidd and Hill end up sharing the award. The young tandem of Robinson and second year PF Vin Baker helped the Bucks win 14 more games than the previous season, but at 34-48 the Bucks were still caught in the NBA's no-man's land. 

Worse yet, the improvement that most expected the following season never arrived. Instead, the Bucks were nine wins worse than in Robinson's rookie year, and the Big Dog's game took a step sideways. Robinson upped his assists to nearly four per game, but he dipped to 20.2 ppg despite playing nearly 40 mpg, and his scoring efficiency remained middling: .534 TS% after .538 his rookie year.

Of course, no one at the time even knew what true shooting percentage was, but our pre-occupation with scoring didn't offer any delusions of superstardom either. Though not all of us chose to believe it yet, the truth was that Robinson was a very good but not quite great NBA scorer. And while Glenn's rebound rate was always quite good for a small forward, we couldn't help but wonder what happened to the double-digit rebounding PF from Purdue. In hindsight, it's the same thing that happened to Michael Beasley and Carmelo Anthony--they got to the NBA and simply weren't big enough anymore.

The silver lining to the dismal 95/96 season was a high lottery pick in the following draft, which the Bucks put to good use by trading down a spot for Ray Allen. With Celtics retread Chris Ford now the head coach, the Bucks made modest improvements to 33-49 thanks to the addition of Allen to the already potent forward combo of Baker (21.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and Big Dog (21.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.1 apg). 

The following season looked like it could represent a turning point. Robinson bumped his scoring up to 23.4 ppg and the Bucks were clawing their way back to respectability, splitting the first 58 games evenly at 29-29. But Robinson missed the season's final two months through injury and the big scoring numbers were also a bit of an illusion (not that my high school self knew it at the time). Robinson was second in the league in minutes per game (41.0!), too 20 shots per game, his TS% fell to an even more mediocre .522, and his win shares/48 remained similarly unimpressive (.065). 

It was obvious by his fifth season that Big Dog was never going to be the franchise player we hoped for, but the additions of Allen and later Sam Cassell finally provided the supporting cast needed to be competitive. George Karl's first season saw the Bucks finish above .500 for the first time since 90/91, though both Robinson and Allen saw their minutes and raw stats dip a bit in the process. Still, after nearly a decade of futility, Milwaukee had finally found a recipe for winning games.

The Bucks needed one more year of fine-tuning and first round playoff learning, but it paid off in 00/01. They won 52 games as Robinson was an all-star for the second straight year and set new career-highs in rebounding (10.6% RR), PER (20.1), and win shares (6.7) while slightly edging Allen for the team scoring lead (22.0 ppg). Even so, Robinson ranked just third on the team in both win shares and PER, while his TS% was once again a mediocre 52.5%. Then again, those efficiency metrics weren't even around at the time, which makes you wonder how differently he would be perceived in today's age of advanced stats. 

Even so, I'm not sure Robinson was fully appreciated during his time in Milwaukee. Like Andrew Bogut, he struggled with the burden of being a #1 overall pick, made all the more difficult given Hill and Kidd's success. He never quite lived up to the stratospheric expectations set by his stunning college career, and he was never as polished or eloquent as Allen off the court. So it wasn't surprising when he became something of a scapegoat following the disastrous 01/02 season, dealt to Atlanta for Toni Kukoc and the '03 pick which became T.J. Ford. 

It was strangely cathartic as well. Robinson's departure seemed to allow many fans to sit back and appreciate what he was, rather than merely grumbling about what he wasn't. The ovations he got in his returns to Milwaukee, both as a player and as a member of the Bucks' 40th anniversary team, seemed to say it all. And watching Robinson win a title with San Antonio in 2005--even as a fringe rotation player--made me smile ear to ear. It wasn't how I hoped to see him win a title, but I was happy he was able to leave with a ring and on his own terms.

No, the Big Dog did not turn out to be the superstar I had hoped for in the summer of 1994. And he also wasn't a charismatic sneaker salesman or floor general. But for eight years he was good enough to become the Bucks' second all-time leading scorer, a two-time all-star and one of the catalysts of the best Bucks team of the past twenty years. As a Glenn Robinson guy, that's good enough for me.

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