Whoever's playing with the set of Trailblazer voodoo dolls really needs to find something else to play with. Today came news of another significant injury. Rudy Fernandez had back surgery and will be out 4-6 weeks recuperating. Fernandez is the fourth major rotation player to succumb to serious injury so far this season. The Blazers have only nine active players on the roster and one of them (LaMarcus Aldridge) was sidelined just recently with swelling in his knee. Almost overnight, the conversation has shifted from whether the Blazers are a championship contender to whether they can even make the playoffs. John Hollinger's computer projections currently have the Blazers finishing 9th, one spot out of the playoffs.
Needless to say, the season isn't going quite the way most of us envisioned it would. That said, there really is a silver lining here if you squint hard enough.
Going into the season, the pressing question was how Nate McMillan was going to find enough minutes for everyone. And let's face it, there was no way he was going to be able to. There just aren't enough minutes in a game to get 11 or 12 guys meaningful minutes. And that's not just a problem from a team chemistry, keeping everyone happy perspective. Many of the players on the Blazer roster are assets of unknown value. Until a player gets meaningful minutes in real game situations, it's really hard to know what you've got. Had everyone stayed healthy, odds are that Jerryd Bayless and Dante Cunningham would have seen little, if any, playing time this year, particularly before the trading deadline in February, when the Blazers will have big decisions to make.
In light of the injuries to Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez, however, both Bayless and Cunningham appear poised to get significant minutes over the next month or two. And when Jeff Pendergraph joins the active roster (likely next month), he's likely to see playing time as well. Thus, we figure to get a real good look over the middle part of this season at some guys we otherwise would have had a very hard time evaluating. In the long run, that's good for the franchise. It's much better to make personnel decisions from a position of knowledge. It makes the Jermaine O'Neal scenario less likely (where a team doesn't realize it has a perennial all-star on its roster and trades him for scrubs). By the time Rudy Fernandez rejoins the rotation, we should have a much better sense of where Jerryd Bayless fits--if at all--in the team's future plans. Given that we currently have three point guards on the roster, one of whom has an expiring contract and the other of whom is a potentially valuable trade asset, that's an important thing to know.
Indeed, if you look at the players who are currently injured, they are all guys for whom we have a pretty good sense of what they bring to the table. We know what Outlaw brings. He's been on the team for years. With respect to Batum, Oden, and Fernandez, we may not yet know what their ceilings are as players, but they all played significant minutes last year and we have a pretty good sense of what they can do.
The same is not true of the guys who are healthy (or are likely to be soon). Among that group, we have two rookies (Cunningham, Pendergraph) and a second year player who got very little meaningful playing time as a rookie (Bayless). We also have a guy (Martell Webster) who missed all of last season with a foot injury and another guy (Andre Miller) who is new to the team. If we're going to be running a skeleton crew, these aren't bad guys to have on it. These are the guys whose futures are most up in the air, whose value is most difficult to determine. These guys are the question marks. And despite all the injuries, the fact remains that we have more guys on our roster than we can afford to keep long term and that, at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, we're going to need to package some of them up and make a move.
Among the ten players currently on (or soon to be on) the active roster, we can be pretty certain that Roy and Aldridge will be Blazers for years to come. But with respect to everyone else, the next few months will essentially be an extended audition. They're all going to get the chance to prove themselves and to prove that they deserve a spot on the roster long term. If nothing else, the next few months should be clarifying. And at least that's something.