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The curious case of Glenn Robinson III’s defensive struggles

Defense, even more so than his poor shooting, is keeping GR3 off the court.

Brooklyn Nets v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

I love to be proven right. For lack of better reasoning, it’s partly why I’m in the basketball blogging game. When the prediction Gods look fondly upon my hoops-related takes, I’m the first to gleefully remind everyone and anyone who will listen that, yes, in fact, “I told you so.”

The misses? Well, I’ve got those too. Many misses, if we’re being perfectly honest. Oddly, I’m not as quick to point those out, but they assuredly exist. For example, these three golden prophecies were hijacked out of my Luke Kennard preview from early-October. It starts off well, but immediately takes a turn for the worst:

The three Detroit Pistons players that will unexpectedly, but routinely, raise eyebrows around the league during the upcoming season are as follows: Blake Griffin, Glenn Robinson III, and Luke Kennard.

After a healthy offseason, Griffin, comically underrated on the national scene, is ready to bounce back and rejoin his rightful spot at the lunch table of elite NBA players.

Detroit nabbed Robinson in early July for a measly four million dollars per year. Before Halloween 2018 hits, GMs around the league will be kicking themselves after realizing a mistake was made when they overlooked, or outright dismissed, the springy and slick Robinson.

Luke Kennard’s off-the-bounce drives, marksman shooting, grown-up off-ball movement and on-ball playmaking will be snarkly disregarded at first, but, eventually, the six-foot-five lefty will evolve into one of the NBA’s darlings. The aw shucks public persona certainly helps in becoming a trendy favorite of the league.

Thumbs up for Blake Griffin. Thumbs down for Glenn Robinson III. Thumbs, due to injury, TBD for Luke Kennard.

That GR3 miscalculation really stings. The effortless athleticism and good-enough shooting shown by Robinson on his Pacers-era film provided a crystal clear blueprint in my big head.

If it were only that easy.

I’ve been underwhelmed and overly disappointed with Robinson’s Detroit tenure. That begs the question: Are my defeated GR3 predictions due to unreasonably high expectations? Or is Robinson vastly under-performing?

It’s probably a healthy chunk of both, but I keep coming back to his poor team defense as the crux of Robinson’s playing time plight.

The two most-used Pistons’ lineups, with the only difference being Stanley Johnson and Glenn Robinson switching chairs, provide stark contrast on both sides of the ball. Most notably, the 109.5 defensive rating by the Robinson lineup is over ten points worse than the Johnson package.

At 98.1, the Johnson group would, easily, rank as the best defensive unit in the league while Robinson’s group would be mixing it up with the Orlandos and Sacramentos of the defense world.

A difference that hefty is almost too hard to fathom. So, what gives?

Basketball-related mental gaffes happen all the time, even at the professional level. Especially on the professional level. If you really wanted to, you could find fault with someone doing something wrong on darn-near every possession. The good defensive teams either recover better (faster), or outright limit those whoopsy-daisy possessions at a higher clip at both the team and individual level. Poor or lazy decision-making isn’t unique to the Pistons, or basketball in general.

In regards to Robinson, though, it’s the high volume of defensive mental hiccups condensed into such small pockets of playing time that is so worrisome. His constant defensive lapses are a clear and present danger to Pistons’ lineup stability, and are the main ingredient to his inconsistent production recipe.

Robinson’s shudder-inducing, and league leading, rate of 0.87 DDTPP pretty much says it all. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Doing Dumb Things/Per Possession, or DDTPP, is an advanced stat I conveniently made up five minutes ago that perfectly encapsulates the root cause of Robinson’s problems. You don’t have to be John Hollinger to realize anything close to 1.00 DDTPP is firmly in Avery Bradley territory, and we all know how that sad Pistons’ story ended.

Now, I’m self-aware enough to know that the DDTPP’s algorithm needs to be fine-tuned, and maybe we can even workshop the name a bit, but there’s a there there. And to help paint a clearer picture, let’s head to the film room.

During a recent home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Robinson logged a season-high of 31 minutes and 46 seconds of playing time, providing ample examples of his Hall-of-Shame-worthy DDTPP play. Remember, Robinson’s downfall isn’t due to any specific blunder, rather, it’s the sheer totality of them.

All good-to-great defenders time their jump (to contest a shot) to take place fractions of a second after the shooter leaves his feet. The key word being “after”. As the primary defender, there are only a few exceptions in which you don’t want to be the second jumper. Robinson, like most young guys, has trouble with this concept with both on-ball defense:

And rotational/recovery closeouts:

It’s the execution, not the effort, that’s being questioned. You cannot bite on the pump, and you cannot let a three-point shooter simply side step a running-off-the-line attempt. Keep your feet, Glenn.

Paul George is a mighty fine player and there is no shame to getting beat by George. Getting beat by the same move, however, should be noted.

Below, Robinson loses George on a shifty right-to-left crossover, but he recovers well to defend the shot:

Ultimately, George got where he wanted to go, though.

A few minutes later, Robinson’s PNR coverage includes shading George’s left hand, but that pesky right-to-left crossover shows up again:

This time, George easily finishes. Getting beat on the side of the ball you’re supposed to be taking away is big no-no.

Yadda, yadda, yadda, a few possessions later, George reaches his target spot again, even after a great first effort of GR3:

By touching deep paint, George is able to draw additional defenders allowing for an easy kick out.

Again, Paul George is nothing short of spectacular, but the league is deep with George-like clones and this nightmare matchup is an almost every night occurrence. If Robinson fancies himself a starter, these are the types of players he must deal with.

At its highest level, basketball is played at a blurry-fast rate, meaning a defender’s responsibilities are constantly changing.

Below, as Robinson does his best to defend a posting-up Steven Adams, Zaza Pachulia smartly kicks out. Gone is Robinson’s defensive post-up checklist, and in are the sinking duties that derive from (now) being the low-man on the weak-side. Russell Westbrook’s lighting fast drive to the hoop is cut off by Zaza, which should re-ignite those sinking obligations, but Adams, with no one in front of him, scores a layup:

That was a long-winded, and probably somewhat confusing, description of a typical DDTPP.

Robinson, checking Patrick Patterson, must transition from defending an off-ball screen to being the “big” defender in an OKC PNR:

Attached at Paul George’s hip, Glenn Robinson effectively screens on-ball defender, Reggie Jackson:

Without being in the huddle, can I definitively conclude those are all Robinson’s fault? Of course not, but he is the constant variable.

Finally, only because I think you get the point, recognizing and reacting to primary scoring threats take precedence over most everything during transition defense.

With Andre Drummond trailing the play, rim-running Steven Adams becomes scoring threat number one yet he waltzes right past the ball-watching Robinson:

Only a bobbled catch prevents the initial bucket:

As the deepest man on a retreating defense, Robinson has the entire court in front of him. With that sort of depth, he should’ve been playing center field to properly challenge both wing lanes on the first pass.

Defense is hard, but so is winning.

What did we learn today?

  • Robinson’s erratic playing time can be traced back to poor possession-by-possession defensive play.
  • Always be the second jumper when defending jump shots.
  • DDTPP is a million dollar idea that might need a few tweaks.
  • We didn’t even touch his shooting woes.

I enjoy being right, but to date, I was dead wrong about Glenn Robinson’s impact on this team. My only hope is that I’m wrong about “being wrong,” which would make me right!