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Are we underestimating how historic Mitchell Robinson’s second year offensive production was?

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Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Well, here we are again. Staring at the latest set of blueprints for culture, accountability, and another New York Knicks rebuild. One increasingly urgent place to start is to ask some questions about Mitchell Robinson that we should — general Knicks flux notwithstanding — be some way to answering by now, two organizationally turbulent years into his NBA career.

Robinson, at 22 years old, is a raw but breathtakingly boisterous athlete, and is one of the more promising of the Knicks’ young players. New team president Leon Rose and his revamped front office don’t have long to evaluate the young big man, given the possibility of a juicy contract extension negotiation looming after next season, in the summer of 2021.

Given Robinson’s theoretical offensive ceiling being one of the primary unknowns in trying to project his future, it’s worth asking; are we underestimating how historically efficient his second-year offensive production was?

Mitch is known primarily — and justifiably — for his primordial defensive promise. He has all the tools of an elite rim-protecting defensive anchor. This nicely tallies with what teams league-wide still — despite the proliferation of 3-point shooting — prioritize on defense: protecting the paint.

A major issue when evaluating the Knicks’ fledgling 7-foot phenom is his projected lack of shooting going forward. Crucial to this evaluation is properly contextualizing the offense he already provides absent the development of a jump shot that may (see: summer workout evidence) or may not (see: NBA game evidence) materialize.

Robinson made 253 of his 341 field goal attempts this season, good for a monstrous 74.2% from the field, which is now the best single-season FG% of all time, nudging out Wilt Chamberlain’s previous record of 72.7% for a season. Technically though, Mitch might not make the record books, falling short of the 300 made field goal minimum threshold usually applied in a conventional 82-game regular season. Mitch played 61 games in a COVID-19 shortened season. It remains to be seen whether he’ll get the official all-time efficiency nod.

It would be a mistake to allow this technicality to dilute the achievement, though, which seen from any angle and through any lens is a pretty incredible demonstration of efficiency in the year 2020, where efficiency-based basketball fundamentalism is at an all-time high. Records held by Wilt Chamberlain tend to be fairly sacrosanct, remaining mostly unchallenged, and most definitely unbroken.

To be clear, and to get ahead of a popular caveat — it’s a record constructed entirely of dunks. A whole lot of dunking. It is both the simplest and most efficient way to score two points in a game of basketball. The ability to dunk, measured against other basketball abilities, gets short shrift compared to more technical skills that are honed and earned with sweat, infinite reps and an appropriate narrative of developmental struggle. Somehow being big and jumping really high feels like cheating. But it doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Besides, it doesn’t matter that all Mitch did is dunk, because he may have dunked better than anyone has ever dunked before, and the more context we give it, the more impressive this season gets. A large chunk of Robinson’s half-court offense came in the pick-and-roll. According to NBA.com play type data, Mitch averaged 1.66 points per possession (PPP) as the roll man in the pick-and-roll this season, which led the league for players who had more than 30 such possessions. Mitch did this on a relatively small 116 possession sample, working out to 1.9 roll-man possessions per game.

This 1.66 PPP is a flat-out absurd number. It’s the foundation of his historically efficient season. The closest anyone has come to Robinson’s 1.66 PPP as a roll man in the last five seasons, with a minimum sample of 30 possessions, is DeAndre Jordan in 2016-17, with 1.52 PPP on 171 possessions.

That 0.14 point gap may not seem like much, but is actually a decimal chasm, especially considering the contrasting contexts the two big men were operating in. In the 2016-17 season Jordan was catching lobs from Chris Paul (465 possessions as pick-and-roll ball handler on 83rd percentile efficiency) with JJ Redick (202 spot-up possessions on 92nd percentile efficiency) spacing the floor. Whilst Mitch was catching lobs from Elfrid Payton (277 possessions as pick-and-roll ball handler on 28th percentile efficiency) with Julius Randle (265 spot up possessions on 28th percentile efficiency) spacing the floor.

These two NBA ecosystems are cosmic opposites. The 16-17 Los Angeles Clippers were a lob-happy utopia. The 19-20 New York Knicks a claustrophobic dystopia. Yet, despite opposing offensive contexts, Mitch still out-dunked DJ.

At this point, in the name of statistical exploration, and potential niche, play-type specific, most-efficient-of-all-time possibilities, I’m obligated to mine Synergy until I find a worthy rim-running adversary for Robinson. Roll call for the large human pick-and-roll pantheon:

How about peak-bounce Amare Stoudemire, on the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns, who won 62 games? Nope (1.42 PPP). Maybe prime Dwight Howard, on the 2009-10 Orlando Magic, who won 59 games? Nope (1.45 PPP). What about Chris “Birdman!” Anderson, on the 2013-14 Miami Heat, who won 54 games? Nope (1.62 PPP).

Unfortunately, I did find the adversary I was hoping didn’t exist, 2007-2009 Tyson Chandler. He was 25 years old in ’07-08, and did the business with 1.67 PPP on 107 possessions as a roll man, with a young Chris Paul unleashing perhaps his second-best offensive season ever (28.3 PER). And then again the next year, 1.68 PPP on 66 possessions, with CP3 logging probably his best-ever offensive season (30.0 PER) and almost winning MVP.

So we’ll have to settle for Mitch having the third-most efficient season for a big man finishing out of the pick and roll since 2004. In a way, adjusted for point-god variables, I’m even more impressed than pre-Synergy deep dive.

Of plays with a minimum 100 possession sample, Mitch rolling to the rim this season was the most efficient individual action logged by Synergy of any play type, of any player, in the last five seasons. More efficient than a LeBron James cut in 2017-18 (1.62 PPP), a Steph Curry spot up in 2015-16 (1.50 PPP) or a Giannis Antetokounmpo putback in 2017-18 (1.46 PPP).

None of these comparisons are meant to imply that Mitch’s offensive impact anywhere approaches those of the MVPs mentioned above, or to dismiss the differing efficiency/usage scales inherent in each play type, or to plant the seed that Mitch has slipped through the net of the NBA subconscious as some kind of cheat-code wrecking ball hiding in plain sight (although, that last one... maybe just a little bit?). They are only meant to provide general context for how absurd that 1.66 points per possession number is for a raw 22-year-old who actually struggled for stretches of the season.

In his rookie season Mitch averaged 1.46 PPP as a roll man on 106 possessions. So even an average over his first two years — 1.56 PPP over 222 possessions — remains a mark of white-hot aerial efficiency. It’s worth noting that Clint Capela — the most popular positional analog for Mitch — has averaged 1.18 PPP for his career, with his career-best mark, 1.34 PPP, coming in 2017-18, when he was catching lobs from not only James Harden, but, yep, you guessed it: the Lob God himself, Chris Paul.

Compared to similar players, in a specific offensive role, Mitch’s impact jumps off the page. Most of the players even approaching a similar level of stratospheric efficiency are All-Stars on championship contending teams, finishing plays that were orchestrated by MVPs and Hall-of-Famers. Even in an appropriately cautious statistical vacuum, this is relevant context for next year and beyond.

Organizational Knickerbocker lore insists on creating an environment of maximum facial bemusement among its fanbase. Excessive chin scratching. Prolonged open-mouthed gawping. Normalized in-game grimacing. The 2019-20 season was no different, as the former front office firstly failed to put together a roster that made sense, only for coaching to, in some sense, compound this poorly-thought-out construction by implementing an on-court style that rarely played to the few strengths the team did have.

That Mitch was only utilized as a finisher in the pick-and-roll 116 times this season, despite his historically devastating efficiency, only increases in absurdity in the context of the decisions to post up Bobby Portis 144 times, or give Julius Randle 204 isolation possessions when the sum efficiency of those two plays combined adds up to 1.58 points per two terrible possessions.

Heres a question: What’s the least efficient way to use one of the most efficient players and play types in the NBA? It might look something like standing in the dunker’s spot and watching Bobby Randle go to work.

Of course, it’s not entirely as simple as this. Foul trouble plagued Mitch’s playing time, which practically hampered the degree to which he could have been featured. It’s also inherently more difficult to leverage his lob threat without a dangerous enough point of attack pick-and-roll ball handler.

Regardless, there are justified fingers to be pointed and important lessons to be learned from this season, both from Mitch’s individual successes and the team’s failures. There is a roadmap to Robinson excelling as a non-shooting offensive center, but there is a specific team context that is a prerequisite to this weaponized version of apex Mitch. This season was emphatically not it, and he was still historically impactful in his offensive role.

The bar is indeed low for next season’s Knicks, who remain a reliable and relentless juggernaut of sub-optimal team-building until they prove otherwise. A worthy step one to avoid soiling the stylistic bed — again — is to properly and deliberately factor Mitchell Robinson’s unprecedented vertical spacing into the latest set of shiny rebuilding blueprints.