No Blazer has had a more frustrating start to the season than Martell Webster. Last night's 18-point outburst aside, Martell's shining moments have been few and far between. What's going on? Here are some of my best guesses:
--Martell is young. This is patently obvious but it's the official party line so we'll take it first. I'd like to announce, however, that I am officially sick of the argument "Player X is only [insert number here] years old..." as an excuse for sub-standard play. Nobody said the guy was only "x" years old when we used a draft pick on him. Nobody said the guy was only "x" years old when we gave him his contract. Nobody said the guy was only "x" years old when they told him to get off the bench and report into the game. If you give a guy an NBA position and NBA money it's reasonable to expect NBA play from him, as indeed many very young men who play this game very well have borne out over the years. Even so there is a limiting factor on all NBA players and their level of play, and that is not age, but league experience. While it may be reasonable to expect NBA-level play out of some 20-year olds, it's not all that reasonable to expect it out of a rookie. And this is where I think we tend to overrate Martell. We have three rookies on this team getting a lot of attention right now and since Martell has been here much longer than they have (comparatively) it's easy to think of him as an old hand. He's not. In fact prior to this season he had only logged eight games of more than 30 minutes playing time in his career. He spent some of last season in the NBDL. Both before and after that he spent an enormous amount of time on the bench. The optimism surrounding his much-heralded late-season run caused Portland fans to evaluate his rookie season in much more generous terms than a 6.6 point, 2.1 rebound, 40% shooting year probably warranted. It also caused expectations for this year to soar. Whether those expectations will end up too high in the final analysis is up to debate. That he will need more time to meet them, or even make a serious run at them, is not. Getting older might not help, but getting more NBA experience under his belt might. We need to have patience with him as he does so.
--Martell is not used to the role he's being asked to assume. In high school he was the guy bound for the NBA...straight for the NBA. That means he was the star, the guy around whom the offense was centered, the guy taking all the shots. Here that's not so. For one thing he doesn't have the experience (like we just said). For another, his one-on-one skills are not strong enough for him to assume that role at this level. He's being asked to play a supporting role, and rightfully so. But he doesn't know how to do it. Nate McMillan referred to this the other day in an interview with Mike Tokito. Said Nate: "You look at Dixon, I don't call any plays for him, but he gets 12 attempts...you look at Martell, I'll call a couple plays for him, and he gets one or two attempts." If Martell's not shooting--no, being fed a steady diet of shots off of designed plays--he doesn't know how to contribute. He doesn't know how or when to demand the ball. He doesn't know how to find the creases in the defense and opportunities to get himself open. Half the time it doesn't even look like he's making himself available. He doesn't know how to carve out space in the offense that's not given to him, and in the NBA people aren't going to give you anything you haven't already proven you can handle and deserve. And when Martell doesn't have a strong role in the offense he doesn't have a strong role in the game, because at least at this point the rest of his game isn't developed enough to warrant him being out there. The less he shoots, the more he disappears. The more he disappears, the less he shoots. That's been his season so far. It may be that he will adapt to this role in time. On the other hand it may be that Martell simply functions best as the first (or at least very strong second) option in the offense. At that point we'd have to make a decision about whether his talent and promise are strong enough to build around (and design the offense around) or not.
--It's still early, but I think we should at least broach the subject of whether Zach and Martell are compatible in the same offense. This is not without precedence, as similar reasoning was used this summer to explain the trade of Sebastian Telfair, who was also very young. On the surface it would seem that Martell's outside game would be more compatible with Zach's post game than Bassy's running tendencies were. But both Telfair and Martell are score-first guards. Martell may very well need to be a primary option in the offense to flourish, and so far in Zach's career he's been options 1, 2, and part of 3, and that's not likely to change. Any offense Zach plays in will need to bend around him.
Look how Martell scores most of his points. It's either off of running curl screens or from people swinging the ball to the weak side for a three. Even in games where he's exhibiting decent passing, Zach never, ever hits anybody on the move unless that move is a direct and obvious dive to the basket. He just doesn't see those plays as clearly as he sees the basket, nor is that his role on the team. Also when Zach tries to swing weak side disaster ensues. Most of his passing turnovers are of this nature. He simply cannot get the ball there with a skip pass. Indeed, when he passes out of the post at all it's almost always because he expects the ball to be re-posted right back to him. In short, most any play involving Zach (at least the way the offense is running now) is not going to be a good one for Martell. And most of the plays in our offense obviously involve Zach.
Lest you think I am just blowing smoke here, Martell scored 13 points or more 10 times last season. In only 2 of those games did Zach Randolph also reach his season average. Most of Martell's big games came in April, when either Zach's minutes were curtailed or he was out altogether. One of the games in which they both flourished was April 1st vs. Utah. I was at that game personally. Zach scored 24, Martell 23. One of the first things I said to my friends was, "Did you notice that for most of the game it was either Zach scoring or Martell scoring, and at no time were they putting it in the bucket together?" One may also point to the game last night. Martell went off at the beginning of the game when Zach was relatively passive and not touching the ball much. When Zach took over the game, Martell all but vanished. And neither one of them did much else when they weren't scoring.
As I said, it's way too early to make any lasting calls, but it may be that part of Martell's struggle to do what he does best is that, either in scheme or talent, this offense is not conducive to him. It'll be interesting to watch what happens as the season progresses.