Brandon Roy's max contract means that he has fully ascended: no longer is Brandon simply a great basketball player, he is now recognized as a truly elite player. Like it or not, expectations scale alongside that salary increase.
NBA observers, including Brandon Roy himself, would agree that he is still a cut below the league's best two guard: Kobe Bryant. From here on out, each passing year should narrow that gap. Bryant's advancing age and Roy's continued development will pull those two closer and closer until eventually, at some point in the next 5 years or so (barring injury), there will be a succession.
The question for today: how, exactly, does the best, most complete player on the Blazers improve his game? What aspects of Brandon's game even need work?
I've assembled the following list of five improvements that I would like to see from Brandon Roy in 2009-2010. Please feel free to add your own in the comments.
1. Easier Shots
This topic has been all the rage since Andre Miller's signing. Can these two guards play together when both supposedly need the ball in their hands? Will their games be compatible? Will Miller improve Roy's game by helping Roy get easier shots?
First we should point out that the shots Brandon does take, relatively speaking compared to shots other players take, are pretty dang easy. He is an offensive efficiency dynamo. Thanks to a glimpse at a Synergy Sports' Brandon Roy profile (that I can't reproduce or link to because I would be instantly killed by an unknown assassin in the middle of the night), I learned the following things about Roy's game: His overall scoring effectiveness is rated as "Excellent"; He rates "Good" shooting off the dribble, "Very Good" going left and "Very good" going right; he is "Very Good" in iso situations; he is "Very Good" in handling pick and rolls (except when he is doubled and the ball is taken out of his hands). We also know that he's a pretty solid free throw shooter too.
Seriously, this guy is a machine.
Synergy does find one major area in his offensive game that needs improvement. Brandon shot 45.6% on unguarded jumpers last year; he was ridiculously accurate without a hand in his face. When guarded, however, his jump-shooting percentage fell to 32.2%, considered "average." Don't get me wrong: I'd rather have Brandon Roy shooting contested jumpers than anyone else on the team simply by virtue of his being Brandon Roy. Lord knows, some of his contested jumpers made for the best highlights from last season. But there is room for improvement there.
I see two obvious ways for Brandon to get easier shots and I think Andre Miller can help with both.
Miller's major offensive skills -- breaking down defenses better than Steve Blake and having a better feel for moving the rock -- should ensure that Brandon finds himself forcing shots less than he had to last year. The most obvious situation that called for contested jumpers last season occurred when the Blazers found themselves working against the shot clock. In those situations, the team regularly turned the ball over to Brandon and simply let him work. This was often successful but, Synergy's stats would argue, not as successful as he usually is.
Second, and this may surprise you, Synergy sees Brandon as "excellent" in transition. Transition baskets are the simplest way for guards to get easy buckets in the NBA; rewatch game films of the 1990s Bulls and you will see leakout dunk after leakout dunk. It is absurd.
But how is it possible that Brandon already rates as excellent in transition given his reputation as a slow-down player? Brandon generally finds himself trailing transition play. When the ball gets pulled out after an unsuccessful breakout, Brandon often finds himself the benefactor of a cross match-up: his man picked up Blake or Rudy or Batum or Travis when they broke out so Brandon gets matched up with their man as he follows the play. Brandon is very adept at recognizing and exploiting mismatches; he can either take bigger players off the dribble or bully smaller players for easy shots and/or free throws.
And in those rare cases in which Brandon does get out in front of transition play, he has proven to be a ruthlessly efficient player finishing at the rim, with both hands, and extremely effective in drawing contact off the bounce.
Given Miller's proven abilities to push tempo and remain comfortable in the open court, Brandon should find himself in transition situations more than ever next season. Whether it's finishing off lob passes or trailing the play and converting off mismatches, I expect (and hope) to see Roy's tempo, not just the team's tempo, pick up this season. Couple that with more open looks and less last-second deep jumpers thanks to Dre's veteran savvy and it's reasonable to expect an even more efficient offensive campaign from Roy.
2. Dictate 1st Quarters
Not many players in the NBA owned the fourth quarter like Brandon Roy did last year, so it was befuddling to see how relatively little influence he had over many of the Blazers' first quarters.
It's no secret that the Blazers look to get LaMarcus Aldridge involved early. This season, I expect to see more of the same and to see increased early looks for a developing Greg Oden. Getting those guys off early opens the floor for Portland's shooters. But there's a right way and a wrong way to establish an inside presence: the right way includes Brandon Roy as an active offensive threat, the wrong way sees B. Roy floating aimlessly.
Last season, dictating early offense relied too often on one factor: whether LaMarcus came out of the gate shooting well. If he was hot, everything ran very smoothly. If he was off on his first few jumpers, the Blazers often fell behind early, sometimes way behind, even at home. During the worst of these stretches, Brandon was a passive observer. While the Blazers demonstrated a remarkable ability to play from behind, the best players -- Jordan, Kobe... the kind of player that Brandon has the potential to become -- have the ability to get their teammates going early without sacrificing control over the game's flow.
What I'd like to see next season is Brandon taking more initiative right out of the gate: rather than letting the game come to him, I'd like the game in his hands firmly from the outset. That doesn't necessarily mean less looks for the bigs early in games; it does mean that I'd like to see fewer first quarter possessions when the ball is never in his hands.
3. Grow Greg Oden
This season Brandon Roy should evolve into a more forceful influence in all aspects of Greg Oden's life. Roy's abilities as a quiet, "lead by example" locker room presence have been well-documented. Indeed, I wrote a piece in Sports Northwest magazine about his humble approach to inspiring and leading his teammates.
That era should be over.
In the NBA, whether he likes it or not, money talks and $82 million yells really loudly.
Brandon Roy has a lot to offer to Greg Oden -- as a player, as a person, as someone that interacts with the media and is always in the spotlight, as someone who feels the same pressures and responsibilities, as a friend.
While the media is obviously not privy to much of the two players' relationship, it was rare to see much of a connection between them last season. During dozens of hours of practice, locker room sessions and the like, I struggle to remember a time when the two genuinely clicked. It goes without saying that Brandon carefully backed Greg when he was struggling and he has often spoken about how important of a player Greg will become for the team.
But Blazers fans should want to see Brandon proactively helping to make Greg's potential a reality. Brandon has all the cachet he needs to make that happen: the long-term deal, the personality, the individual awards, the compassion. If anyone understands what Greg is going through and possesses the people skills, street smarts and street cred to connect with him, it's Brandon Roy.
Whether it's looking for Greg off the pick and roll, advising him how to better interact with the local media, or simply inviting him to dinner (it went a long way with LaMarcus, right?), Brandon holds the keys to helping Greg get comfortable this season.
The time for the hands-off, "let Greg figure it out," approach is over; the time for Brandon to pull him toward serious development is now.
4. Be Smarter When Arguing Calls
Brandon Roy is by far the best athlete I've had the pleasure of watching play in person over a long period of time. So there's something particularly irking about watching a guy who plays the game the right way, plays hard, and is a clutch winner needlessly give points away to the opponent while whining, to no avail, over a non-call.
I get that referee manipulation is part of the modern NBA and that reputation goes a long way in determining who gets calls. I just wish Brandon's influence upon the officials was subtle like his crossover rather than brutal like his dunks. There were multiple times last season when he was actively ignored by officials, his protests falling on deaf ears as the refs beat him back down the court as he stood near the baseline shaking his head or slowly pulling himself off the floor.
While Nate McMillan has encouraged Brandon to fight for calls, and fewer players in the league are better at yelling when slapped while attacking the paint, it's hard to watch a player of his caliber remove himself from plays. Surrounded by impressionable, young players and referees who will only become more deferential to his rising star status, Brandon should recognize that getting back on defense proves a larger, better point than dragging his feet requesting a whistle.
Yes, this is very nitpicky.
5. Accept More Challenges On Defense
Despite all the buzzer beaters and the career-ending dunk on Poor Samb, I'm not sure there was a play during 2008-2009 that gave me a clearer look at the potential of Brandon Roy than the sequence in the Rose Garden the previous season when he strapped up Joe Johnson during the final 90 seconds of a close game. Frustrating Johnson with both quick feet and chest-to-chest physical defense, Roy showed he has the physical tools to be an elite on-ball defender against the league's best perimeter players. It was, to many observers, a breathtaking performance.
Because of the load he carried last year on offense, we didn't see this effort repeated on a nightly basis in 2008-2009. The addition of the defensively-gifted and versatile Nic Batum helped take the defensive pressure off Brandon but one wonders if things went a bit too far that direction. Although Brandon was often able to rest on defense, many possessions found him hiding on the weakside, a relative non-factor. Indeed, if Brandon excelled on the defensive end last season, it was off the ball, anticipating passes or cuts and then using his high basketball intelligence to create turnovers or force difficult shots.
But for a player of Roy's skillset, more should be expected. The degree to which players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen influenced the game on the offensive end was matched only by the degree to which they dictated terms defensively as well. Rule changes make it difficult for Brandon to be as physical as those two often were but they don't prevent him from telling his teammates and coaching staff that he wants the responsibility of guarding the other team's best player, particularly in the fourth quarter. We saw that at times last year and I'd like to see that become a given in big games.
The emotional boost his teammates received from Roy's dominance of Johnson was tangible almost an hour after the game; that boost and the bond it creates is capable of turning a quality team into NBA champions.
And that remains, as we were reminded this week, Brandon Roy's ultimate goal as a basketball player.
-- Ben (email@example.com)