Backpicks GOAT: #15 David Robinson

Key Stats and Trends

  • Dominant, all-time level box score and non-box score metrics
  • Regular season box stats overstate offense, but still excellent secondary piece
  • Huge peak/prime but lacks longevity compared to other greats

Scouting Report

After serving in the Navy, David Robinson entered the league as a polished 24-year old. He was explosively quick for a 7-foot-1 center and parlayed his physical package into a basic offensive repertoire that would stay with him throughout his career. His agility and strength allowed him to blow by opponents:

And much of his offense revolved around facing up and using that quickness, like this:

Per Robinson’s preference, those drives were to his right. When opponents respected his quickness, he created space with a jab step for his bread and butter face-up jumper:

This served him well as a finisher and high-low threat — he could catch-and-shoot successfully from beyond 15 feet — but his lack of deadly post moves sometimes limited him. In the following play, Robinson’s essentially “stuck,” forced into an awkward contested release:

This lack of a resilient set of moves sometimes limited him against stingier defenses (more on that later). He also habitually brought the ball down where little guys could swat it away, contributing to slightly elevated turnover rates compared to other great big men. He fumbled like this frequently — every 2 plays per 100 in my sampling:1

He tossed in the occasional rolling hook too, but the rest of his offense came from cleanup duty, where he used his athleticism as an offensive rebounder.

As a passer, his instincts were quite good. He was always a willing distributor, quickly flicking it out of double-teams and finding teammates on the opposite side of the court. Here he shows a feel for his strong interior passing:

He could also find inconspicuous openings as he surveyed the court from the high post:

However, he rarely threw elite passes and was sometimes a touch slow in his reads, mixing in the occasional bad pass or softball that killed a power play. In sampling Robinson, I graded 2.5 “good” passes per 100 — a strong rate — but also 1.5 per 100 that were “problematic” (slow, missed the mark, deflected, etc.). That’s the profile of a good-but-not-great passer.

Defensively, Robinson was a monster. He exploded off of the floor, challenging shots on short order like this:

He possessed strong awareness and could cover huge swaths of hardwood. Below, he provides excellent help on the entry and still recovers back to his man:

He hand-grenaded a number of possessions like this and was agile enough to contain perimeter players, then still rotate back to the rim. Below are two more complete Robinson defensive possessions: In the first clip, isolation wizard James Worthy doesn’t dare challenge him, yet he still alters both attempts at the hoop and ensnares the board. In the second, he’s ready to help in the post, then shows pick-and-roll range before recovering to blow up the play:

Robinson was a relatively low error defender (just over 1 error per 100 in my sampling), but suffered his share of delayed rotations. His length and quickness often bailed him out, but nonetheless he had a number of mildly tardy reactions when he wasn’t totally locked in to what the offense was planning. This is nitpicking though, as he was often in ideal position; notice how his textbook shade to the ball-side sets him up to slide to the rim, where he quickly reacts to the entry pass:

Robinson’s post defense was generally strong, using length and quickness to shut down most opponents. He tended to overplay the middle, taking away left-shoulder moves against righties. Notice how he’s all over this hook shot (typical of Robinson), and in the second clip, Shaq settles for a tough shot after feeling Robinson body-up toward the middle:

But these tendencies could be exploited in select instances. He was quick to leave his feet, which worked well against most mortals, but brutes could push him off his mark because Robinson lacked a low center of gravity. He was vulnerable to counters, which created a perfect storm in ’95 against Hakeem, who was one of the most counter-heavy post players in history. Below, Robinson overplays the middle and is thrown off balance slightly by a huskier Elden Campbell, freeing up a clean turnaround:

These defensive holes were small and subtle, but collectively they prevented Robinson from looking like the best defender of the 3-point era. His block rates were elite, topping out at 7.4 percent — the 34th best rate since blocks were kept in 1974 — with multiple years around 6 percent. (He shares the record for seasons over 5 percent with Marcus Camby and Hakeem Olajuwon.) His defensive rebounding added to his value on that end, with three of his first four seasons in the 90th percentile.

Robinson’s game was so consistent throughout his career that it bordered on monotonous. He was always willing to pass on an open shot, but seemed to do this more when playing alongside Tim Duncan, strategically scaling back his own offense. His athleticism waned around the turn of the century, but even then, he was surprisingly nimble until 2002, when his back became an issue and his movement stiffened before retiring in 2003.

Impact Evaluation

Robinson left the statistical imprint of a goliath, dominating both box score and plus-minus metrics. He was arguably the best post-merger rookie ever, and like Larry Bird, the centerpiece of an enormous improvement. He anchored dominant defenses for years, and then his team fell apart without him in 1997. And he left strong value-signals after returning from injury in 1998.

Robinson joined the Spurs for the 1990 season as part of a complete roster overhaul, and San Antonio catapulted from irrelevance to the playoffs behind the Admiral, Maurice Cheeks (and later Rod Strickland), Terry Cummings and fellow rookie Sean Elliot.2 While comparing the ’89 and ’90 Spurs is comparing apples to oranges, the Spurs defensive ascension is noteworthy since Robinson was their only rim protector. San Antonio moved from league average in ’89 to nearly 4 points ahead of the league (-3.9 rDRtg) in 1990 where they would remain for Larry Brown’s tenure as coach.

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss Brown. He’s on the shortlist of greatest defensive coaches, dating back to the ABA, where he coached the top defense in the league in Denver, who then finished atop the NBA after the merger in ’77. When Brown left in 1980, the Nuggets lost nearly 3 points of defensive efficiency (to 2.3 points below average) with a nearly identical core. He then joined the Nets in 1982, and with an overhauled roster, New Jersey rose from a below average defense to elite, posting -4.6 and -5.8 relative efficiencies in Brown’s two years, before dropping back 3 points after he departed.

This pattern continued when he returned from coaching in college: When Brown arrived in Indiana (1994), a more defensively inclined roster improved 4 points on D (to a -2.1 rDRtg). When he took over in Philadelphia in ’98, the Sixers also jumped 4 points on defense (with upgraded personnel), and then another 5 points in his second season (to a -4.6 rDRtg). In 2009, Charlotte improved by 4 points in rDRtg and in Detroit in 2004, the Pistons improved with Brown’s arrival and then, after trading for Rasheed Wallace, were arguably the greatest defense in league history, posting an unheard of -10.9 rDRtg in their 45 games with Sheed.

Brown’s arrival in San Antonio was no different, coinciding with a 5-point improvement in defensive efficiency (to about league average in 1989). In 1991, with the same core, the Spurs jumped to a 56-win pace when healthy (5.4 SRS), an improvement from the previous season’s 50-win clip (3.6 SRS). But Brown was sort-of-fired midway through the ’92 season, replaced by Bob Bass. With Bass at the helm and Robinson in the lineup, San Antonio posted an rDRtg of -2.9, down slightly from Brown’s two-hand-a-half years with Robinson.

The Admiral missed 17 games in 1992 with Bass coaching — a small sample — but he left a clue to his defensive impact. The Spurs were nearly 8 points worse in rDRtg without Robinson, forced into a small lineup without a suitable replacement.3 From 1993-95, San Antonio’s defensive ratings hovered between 1 and 3 points better than average on the back of Robinson.

In 1994, Robinson’s scoring expanded to historic levels, hitting 29.4 points per 75, by far his best rate, and the 40th-best mark in NBA history. It’s difficult to tell on film if he improved, or if he was simply more aggressive (and San Antonio ran more through him with Elliot and Strickland gone). Robinson’s scoring rates remained in the 98th historical percentile through 1998 with relative efficiency (rTS) 4 to 6 percent better than league average.

However, per the scouting report, his scoring game wasn’t robust and his postseason metrics are better indicators of his offensive prowess. He is one of a few notable players who seemed to struggle with stronger defenses, and his straightforward offensive approach likely contributed to his falloff in the postseason. Here are Robinson’s Big 3 offensive dimensions — scoring, creation and efficiency — scaled in the regular season among all-time big men:

His scoring volume during his peak seasons was second among the group, only a point per 75 possessions below Shaq. In the playoffs, however, Robinson’s efficiency collapsed, dragging down his scoring. Here’s what the same chart looks like using postseason numbers from those years:

The sample size isn’t great — 29 games for Robinson — but the trend stands out across his entire career. Robinson was still quite good, but his regular season numbers overstated his scoring skill. This Costanzian shrinkage occurred both early in his career and later alongside Tim Duncan (although Robinson maintained a more respectable efficiency with Duncan).

This phenomenon played out in 2000, when Robinson logged 12 games without Timmy. The Admiral cranked up his scoring rates to pre-Duncan levels, averaging 27 points per 75 on around +4 percent rTS. Robinson’s free throws spiked in those games, an indicator of increased aggression. But in four postseason games sans Duncan, he again looked like his mid-’90s self, losing some of that volume as his efficiency plummeted to -5.6 rTS in a four-game series against Phoenix.

After a year of co-captaining the ship in 1998, Robinson gracefully handed the offensive baton to Duncan in ’99 and settled into a secondary role. His minutes were selectively reduced — although he still played a massive role through 2000, as indicated by his playoff minutes residing in the upper 30s per game — and his twin-tower backline with Duncan unleashed one of the stingiest defenses in history. From 1998-2001, the Spurs posted the best stretch of playoff defense since the 1960s, with a postseason rDRtg of -6.9. Their regular season five-year run from ’98-02 was the second-best five-year period between 1970 and 2005:4

Robinson remained a defensive presence in his final few seasons, although in restricted minutes. In the 2002 playoffs, an injured Admiral averaged only 20 minutes per game, and in his final season in 2003, 23 minutes per night, down from 26 per game in the regular season. Still, he only suffered a slight decline in defensive rebounding and block percentages, and his scaled adjusted plus-minus (APM) values from those years are among the top-100 defensive scores ever recorded; his 2001 season is 27th of all-time, his 2002 season is 97th and his 2003 season is 35th. The limited minutes take some of the shine off those numbers, but they are impressive for a specialized role.

There’s more though. Robinson was also a lockdown individual defender, rarely exploited in isolation (per the scouting report). From 1990-96, he played 101 games against All-Star centers5 and held them 1.1 points below their per 36 scoring average and a whopping 5 percentage points below their true shooting efficiency. While those numbers fall just short of the all-time shutdown artists, they are still superb.6

On a list like this, Robinson’s hamstrung by a lack of longevity. While he finished in the top-10 in MVP voting 11 years apart, he also missed the ’92 and ’97 playoffs and squandered more value with an injury in the 2002 postseason. To boot, he entered the league late after serving in the Naval academy.

However, his total body of work is exceptional. His defensive indicators were massive, and Robinson is one of the kings of plus-minus data. Five of his scaled APM seasons are in the 98th percentile or better, peaking in 1995 with one of the best years on record. His five-year average from that data set would rank eighth (at +6.8) if his injured 1997 were excluded (instead of the +5.8 on his player card at the top of this profile). Similarly, he has the strongest game-level plus-minus in NBA history, making a legitimate claim as the most “valuable” player ever.

It took me a while to come around on Robinson, but mapping his film to the spreadsheet says a lot. His good passing not only helped teammates, but helped him mesh with others well. His scoring style wasn’t suited for the load that he tried to carry in the mid-’90s, but his finishing, offensive rebounding and face-up shooting fit well with more ball-dominant teammates (like Duncan). And of course, his all-time defensive metrics rightfully portray him as one of the most valuable players on that end since the merger.

The result is a top-15 peak ever and eight strong MVP-level seasons. He tacked on two more All-NBA years on the backend of his career, enough to earn him considerable mileage on this list. Unless stifling defenders like him are (somehow) less valuable than plus-minus splits suggest, it’s hard for me to value Robinson’s peak much lower than this. On the other hand, while it’s clear on tape that he’s no offensive savant, his statistical profile is so impressive that I wonder if he could be valued even higher. Either way, it’s difficult to move him out of this group of players from 12-17, so by virtue of his peak, he grabs the No. 15 spot.

  1. I tracked 600 Robinson possessions spanning his entire career, the majority from the ’90s.
  2. Cheeks had made three of the previous four All-Star games, Cummings was fresh off an All-Star season and Elliot would make the game in 1993. Curiously, Strickland never made an All-Star team but was selected to the 1998 All-NBA team.
  3. Even normalizing for opponent 3-point shooting and free throws still yields a 5-point difference. In my estimation, this lack of a second defensively competent pivot enhanced Robinson’s non-box numbers. It wasn’t until 1996, when Will Perdue and Charles Smith were acquired, that the Spurs even featured another 6-foot-10 piece in their rotation.
  4. “Unique” stretches are the best five-year periods without any overlapping seasons. For instance, the best stretch for the Spurs was from 1998-2002, thus the 1999-2003 stretch is excluded because it shares seasons with the ’98-02 period.
  5. Brad Daugherty (’91-93), Kevin Duckworth (’90-91), Patrick Ewing (’90-95), Alonzo Mourning (’94-96), Dikembe Mutombo (’92, ’95-96), Shaquille O’Neal ’93-96, Hakeem Olajuwon (’90-96) and Robert Parish (’90-91).
  6. For comparison, Mutombo, one of the great defenders in history, held All-Stars down by 0.7 points and 3.4 percent efficiency from ’92-98.