Wave upon wave upon wave upon WAVE of Brandon-Roy-based mail is crashing through my inbox. The tenor ranges from speculative to angst-ridden to downright depressed. What is wrong with him? Will he ever get better? Are the Blazers' hopes dashed? What will we do without our daily dose of Vitamin Roy?
A couple things seem evident:
- Despite his comforting words last night something is going on with him. He just doesn't look the same out there.
- That something isn't going away easily. He's not bouncing up and down from game to game.
The what, where, when, and why of the matter are still up in the air, however. The stock answer would be that only Roy knows what's going on. But based on his comments it's apparent not even he is 100% sure. In the absence of surety it's pretty hard to pin an exact cause, let alone a solution, on the issue. The best we can do is illuminate the possibilities.
1. It's possible that Roy has suffered a career-changing injury to his knee from which he'll never recover fully.
This is the possibility that scares people most. It's an open question too. Roy is slowed, if not outright limping. His vertical lift isn't smooth. He's either lost or isn't employing his ability to cut sharply. He's getting ice on his knee during game breaks.
Even if this is the case, however, not all is lost. Roy might not be capable of overt dominance like he showed in his first couple of seasons, but he's still a good player. Let's not forget that before the last two outings he was averaging 22 points per game on this same knee. He's not going to be able to drive, lift, and explode the way he once did but that has happened to many NBA scorers as they've aged. Once they figure out other ways to put the ball in the hoop and compensate for the change in defensive emphasis against them, many of those talented offensive players go on to successful, even high-scoring, careers. Besides, this team has always been built around the concept of Roy and the Blazers, not Roy and the Royettes. The team functions best as a team. LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum both have room to grow offensively, even without considering Greg Oden. If Roy has to play fewer minutes, that's exactly what Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez are on the roster for. Both of them would benefit from playing time, touches, and confidence.
Make no mistake, this would be a serious situation. It'd make the curve for success even steeper, and the progress slower as teammates adjusted. But this is not automatically a fatal flaw for Portland.
2. It's possible that Roy is still recovering, physically and mentally, from the same [kind of] injury that hobbled him last year.
Injuries affect people in strange ways. There's little doubt Roy is feeling it now. Will he feel the same in six months? Keep in mind that for all the maturity he's evidenced, Brandon Roy is still a young player in this league. One of the key lessons for any young athlete is dealing with mortality, imperfection, obstacles that don't move easily. You're trained to do it against opponents but when the opponent is your body, that's a new twist. It's easy to feel discouraged. Then you look at a Grant Hill and what he's been through and you figure there must be a way through it. Once you get through it, it turns out to be manageable, if not forgettable. Maybe there is something chronic about your injury but for the most part it becomes just this weird feeling you get used to, knowing your knee always pops a little when you jump. You either learn to ignore it or you jump a little less...but not as much less as when you were first getting over the hurdle. Despite the amount of time that has passed, Roy has played only a dozen games since his original injury. That's not automatically enough time to get past the mental hurdles required.
This also could be a serious situation, taking months to overcome or even requiring more time off for Brandon. But again, that wouldn't be the end of the world.
3. It's possible that something else is going on here in addition to whatever physical ailments Roy is suffering.
There's a physical component to this, but physical components can be magnified by other stimuli. If things aren't clicking for Roy in the offense, with his teammates, with his coach--and I'm not claiming any of these, but they're possibilities--the funk could get pretty deep. I doubt Roy would submarine his team intentionally. But anyone who's been in stressful working conditions knows that the stress makes giving your best output hard, if not impossible. If the team is evolving around him beyond his control or he's tired of the same voices or he's sick of a certain situation and his knee hurts, what's he getting better for?
This possibility is far more tricky. The good news is that recovery is a strong possibility, as the physical isn't all of the story. The bad news is that the problem may be hard to solve, if nothing else because attention isn't directed towards it. Even if it were forward, resolving such things mid-season is seldom easy and often disruptive.
4. It's possible that natural ups and downs are coloring the picture.
This isn't the first time Brandon has slumped at the beginning of a season (if you can call 20 ppg a slump). This isn't the first time we've wondered if something was up with him, only to have him erase those doubts. The situation seems more precarious, but that doesn't mean the pendulum won't swing positive ever again. If he's not exactly Rookie Brandon in February it's possible that he'll be good enough neither we nor he will care.
5. It's possible that this is hastening an evolution that would have happened anyway.
We've talked about the team's need to evolve away from a Roy-centric outlook, at least partially. Brandon's individual game was always going to evolve as well. Nearly every star gets a little more clever and a little less physically-oriented in their scoring process as they mature. One might not expect it at 26 but it wouldn't be out of line at 28 or 29. Brandon may be reaching that transition early. Frankly few observers predicted he'd be able to exercise the physical gifts he's already shown. Remember those folks who thought he'd be a completely ground-bound, basic scorer? They may turn out partially right, except probably not with the "basic" part. His destiny might be as a smart, opportunistic scorer who can pull the occasional move out of his trunk when needed. Lord knows he'd fit with Andre Miller better that way! That adjustment is more jarring when it's because of a knee tweak or fatigue than when it's made in due course but it can still be made.
In no sense can these developments be considered good. I'd prefer to have the old, carefree, cut-crazy Brandon Roy back. But the last few days don't spell an automatic end to Roy or the Blazers. In fact if something was wrong these developments can be seen as progress towards identifying and perhaps correcting it. The solution could be as simple as rest or just playing less and waiting it out. It could be as painful and complex as an adjustment to the team. It could be as daunting as Roy re-shaping his game to remain effective instead of mourning what used to be. My hunch is that it's a combination of all of these things and that the fix comes a little from Category A and a little from Category B. But even if Brandon were done for a game or done for the season--and neither would completely surprise me--I have a hard time believing he'd be done for his career. That doesn't seem like the Brandon we know and love.
Without knowing more about the situation, without knowing which of the three factors in play--physical, mental, environmental--weigh heaviest, there's no way to predict an outcome. We could be crying about this tomorrow. We could be laughing about it in April. I'm not sure Brandon himself could say right now which is more likely. The only recourse is to hold on tight and see. It sounds like that's what #7 is doing, anyway. Preceding him over the edge of the bridge seems like bad form.
Personally I'll be curious to see what happens this weekend with back-to-back games against good teams. We should know more about Brandon's immediate future by Saturday evening, if not before.