Breaking Down the Udoka Invitation

The mailbox is full of questions regarding the Ime Udoka signing and its significance.  The responses range from mystified to excited to concerned.  So let's clear it up and break it down.

First of all, this is a training camp invite.  The contract is non-guaranteed, meaning the Blazers and Ime can part ways at any time the team chooses.  Technically it's not different than any of the other invitations the Blazers have issued.  Kevin Pritchard will be visiting a few guys between now and mid-October to let them know he appreciates them, respects them, and could they please clean out their locker now.  Ime may well be among those.

Second of all, this is a competition for what ends up being the 15th roster spot and no higher than the 13th spot in the rotation.  Only 12 guys suit up on a given night.  You're not exactly looking for a franchise-altering move here.  And this isn't one.  Ime averaged a respectable 15.4 minutes per game in 67 games for the Spurs last year but his production slipped significantly from his prior seasons.  His shooting, free throw shooting, and most importantly three-point shooting percentages tanked.  His defensive rating went down as soon as he left Portland.  (Edit:  Never mind that.  I was BRILLIANTLY going by the wrong data.  Aplogies to you and Ime. --Dave)  Basically he played half the minutes you remember from his tenure with the Blazers and didn't play them nearly as well.  He's wading onto a roster stocked with players at his position, meaning he either really, really loves his hometown and is willing to risk an opportunity to stay in the league and any salary raise he could get playing more minutes elsewhere for a long-shot chance here OR he didn't get any decent offers.  This should color expectations somewhat.  He really is in the lower roster now if he makes the team and his chances of rising above that are slim.

I can already hear the choruses of, "That's what people said LAST time he signed with the Blazers!!!" so let me cut you off at the pass.  This 2009-10 Blazer team is far different than the 2006-07 team that Ime contributed so much to.  Outlaw and Webster were younger and even less tempered than they are now.  Aldridge and Roy were rookies.  The old-timers on the team were Jamaal Magloire, Raef LaFrentz, Juan Dixon, Fred Jones and Dan Dickau and the main guy was Zach Randolph.  Udoka played the 4th most minutes of anybody on the team that year because there existed both opportunity and desperate need for his steadiness, his defense, and his three-point shooting.  Nobody was solidly in front of him at small forward.  Nobody in the starting lineup or really anywhere in the upper rotation knew how to sell out on defense or how to play hard while being a contributory player instead of a main focus.  Half the team was too young and the other half just didn't sport that kind of player.  The differences between the names listed above and a mature Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, Andre Miller and Steve Blake, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez should be obvious.

Ime is like that really nice pizza you had as a kid.  (Mine was the now-defunct Manhattan's Pizza...one in the Hollywood District and one up on Palatine Hill as I recall.)  It was delicious and you loved it for good reason.  But then you moved to Chicago or New York and started sampling pizza and while none of them held the place in your heart that the childhood favorite did, slowly you got attuned to a different style and quality.  Then you return home and you find that while your childhood pizza is still good, maybe your memory or experience gave it a fonder spot than it strictly merited.  You loved it as much for what it did for you and meant to you as its inherent quality.  The latter made it decent, the former made it special.  You still like it, but you wouldn't replace any of your new favorite pizzas with it.

So what does this training camp invitation mean?  There are three possibilities.  After chewing the fat with some people who usually know what they're talking about I'm going to list them in order from least likely to most.

There's a small, small chance this really is a significant event heralding the next Blazer move which is to trade away a small forward or two.  Perhaps Ime did have significant offers elsewhere but somebody telegraphed to him (or he cleverly intuited) that the Blazer offer was the one to take.  In this case Ime becomes a lower rotation player and the move makes wonderful, magical, and exciting sense.

There's a somewhat larger chance, but still not huge, that the Blazers don't have complete faith in Martell Webster's foot yet.  In that case the choices at backup small forward range from Outlaw to Fernandez to Roy, none of whom are completely suited for the job.  Ime would be an acceptable insurance policy in that instance, though one wonders what he gives you (besides experience) that Batum doesn't.

The overwhelmingly likely explanation is that this is just what it appears to be.  Ime worked out in Portland this summer.  He has positive history with people in this organization.  He didn't get any good offers to go elsewhere.  There's no harm in the Blazers bringing him into training camp under those circumstances nor is there harm in him accepting.  This is the right percentage move for both parties.  Udoka probably doesn't make the team but he might attract notice elsewhere.  If he does make the team he's waiting for an injury or a trade to play.

We'll have to see how it works out.  I have as much fondness for Udoka as the next guy and I'd not be sad to see him make the squad.  He's another one of those players that you'd never regret having on your team.  But I'm not expecting miraculous, or even steady, contributions even if that happens.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com

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