Travis Outlaw's Injury: What Now?

No rest for the wicked and/or weary.  The inbox is jammed again with people offering questions and suggestions about what to do now that Travis Outlaw is down for the next couple of months.  Is Juwan Howard the answer?  Should the Blazers have kept Ime Udoka or Jarron Collins?  Are we now to rain curses upon the Kings and Suns for snatching them up after we dumped them?  Should Portland make a trade to address this situation?  How badly will/does this mess things up?  Are the Blazers snakebit?

OK...stop.  Deep breath.  Go to your happy space.  8-3...8-3...  There.  Better?  Now, let's talk.

There's no doubt the Blazers will miss Travis.  Nicolas Batum's injury cost them their best individual defender.  Now couple that with losing their best offensive player off the bench, their clear 6th man, and the loss is significant.  Best defensive player, one of your best offensive players...no matter how your roster is built that's going to reverberate.  You might not see it on a nightly basis, but over time you're going to miss those players.

The Blazers are in a position to mitigate much of the potential loss of Outlaw's injury because they have one of the best reserve power forwards in the league waiting in the wings.  Perhaps you've heard of him.  His name is LaMarcus Aldridge.  Sure he's the starter, but he's a starter averaging a shade over 31 minutes per game right now.  He's young, he's fit, and despite the relatively slow start to the season he's awesome.  You could easily bump those minutes up to 40 for the next six weeks without crimping his style too much.  If you can't rely on Howard or Przybilla to fill 8 minutes per game between them then what are they doing on an NBA team?  Plus, what is Outlaw's job description?  If you said, "Score, baby!" you're onto at least two-thirds of it.  What would LaMarcus dearly love the chance to do more of?  If you said, "Score, baby!" then you've just quoted my first six girlfriends after we...uhhh...I mean you've just described Aldridge's Christmas Wish List.  He's averaging 12.3 attempts per game right now.  Give him two-thirds of Travis' shots and he's still only at 18.  Granted they score in different fashions but nobody said you were going to be able to dig up an exact Outlaw clone.  You probably have to run a few more set plays and you have to run them through LaMarcus, but that's a legitimate option for the Blazers.  The key here will be the centers keeping out of foul trouble, as the Blazers no longer have the luxury of filling with a scoring power forward if Aldridge has to slide to center.  As long as you can keep Oden or Przybilla on the floor LaMarcus is going to remain your best option at power forward no matter what time of the game it is.  No matter what the coaching staff says they're going to try, my guess is they're going to end up calling on LaMarcus in this situation and sticking with him.

The same argument could be made for Martell Webster covering whatever small portion of the small forward minutes Travis was taking.  Martell should get a little rub and more chances to drive to the hoop if he's so inclined.  But I think a hidden beneficiary of the injury could be Rudy Fernandez.  Rudy has come on strong in the last week in every area but scoring, where he's still basically an afterthought.  If the Blazers are forced to run a small lineup Rudy will probably get time in one of the wing positions.  The Blazers will also need somebody to initiate the offense.  Neither Fernandez nor Webster has proven great off the dribble but Rudy appears to have more options with the ball in his hands than Martell does right now.  Also if you tell Rudy to get aggressive he's probably going to respond.  Again it's not a one-for-one correlation to Travis but the overall effect could be similar.

I don't see a lot of other options that make sense right now.  I believe J. Howard can still contribute to this team but he hasn't shown a lot with the minutes he's been given so far.  He's probably not a reliable 15-minute-per-game guy.  You're not going to find guys on the free agent market who will make a difference either, especially when you consider they have to acclimate to the team.  Dante Cunningham probably isn't ready yet.  Making a trade specifically to address this situation seems the most unlikely option of all.  You don't make a permanent move to address a six-week situation.  Plus anyone you bring in will have that learning curve as well.  Most importantly, who are you going to send?  The most likely names are Outlaw himself, Webster, Blake, and Bayless.  Outlaw's injured.  Who are you going to get with Webster or Blake?  If you send the two of them together...BOOM goes the rotation.  That's practically the apocalypse right now, not because of their respective talents, rather the roles they're occupying.  You don't move Jerryd for a stopgap either...partially because he wouldn't bring back enough right now to warrant the risk of him being good later and partially because you'd create another roster hole if another injury occurred.  The only way a trade would make sense is if it were for a clear starting small forward or a strong combo-forward off the bench.  Either of those moves would have been planned long before this and would have nothing to do with this injury (except perhaps being ruined by it if Travis was part of the deal).

In the end the Outlaw and Batum injuries may cost us a couple games.  On the other hand maybe they provide opportunities for players to shine who otherwise may have been overshadowed.  Either way they aren't season-derailing events.  It ain't good but it ain't the end of the world either.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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