Should Brandon Start?

Yesterday, it was announced that Brandon Roy would likely be starting in game six.  Most of Puddletown rejoiced.  The guys on The Game were almost twirling their fan towels in anticipation.

In general, this seems like an easy call.  Brandon, when healthy, is undoubtedly the team's best player.  If you are Nate, faced with an elimination game, and Brandon says he wants to start, it is easy to say "yes."  

My opinion is no doubt a minority view, but I have my doubts as to whether or not starting Roy is the smart move.

Follow me across the jump to hear my reasons and to discuss the issue.

I have concerns on both ends of the court, but my primary concern is on the defensive end.

On Defense:

If Brandon starts, the Blazers have three options for guarding Steve Nash:

1)  The Blazers can use Miller.  IMO, Miller is not a viable option.  He simply does not have the lateral quickness to stay in front of Nash.  Nash and Amar'e run one of the most effective pick and roll games in the NBA.  Nash had his best game of the series from a scoring standpoint in game one when Miller tried to guard him.  Nash was 10-18 with 9 assists and 25 points.  It was bad enough that the Blazers moved both Nic and Bayless onto Nash for much of the latter part of the game. Fortunately, Miller's big offensive game offset Nash's success and Phoenix shot and rebounded poorly allowing the Blazers to steal the victory.   We can't afford to have Miller on Nash for extended minutes.

2)  The Blazers can use Nic:  Nic has probably been the most effective defender on Nash.  He can't always stay in front of him, and he can't always fight through the picks quick enough, but no one really can.  Nash isn't a two time MVP and perennial all-star for nothing. Even at age 36, he lead the league in assists this year.  The problem with using Nic on Nash is three-fold in my mind.  

- First, using Nic on Nash means that Nic's offensive rebounding is totally negated because he has to get back.

- Second, unless Nic is being guarded by Nash, he is going to struggle to pick him up quickly enough to slow down the Phoenix break.  

- Third, and most importantly, Nic is playing hurt.  Putting him on Nash means he is going to spend the entire game trying to fight through Amar'e's very physical picks.  You know Stoudemire is going to target Nic's shoulder.  It is simply the way the game is played.  One good smack, and Nic is done.  I don't think the team can afford to take that risk for extended minutes.  I would rather see us save Nic on Nash for short minutes when we really need a stop.

3)  The Blazers can use Bayless:  Bayless has taken an increasing share of the minutes against Nash since game one.  I think the reason is pretty obvious, with Nic hurt, Bayless is our most viable option.  Miller struggles.  Roy is hurt.  Nic is hurt.  Rudy got lit up like a Christmas tree in Game 5.  After watching Rudy get burned on four of five possessions, Nate called time and put Bayless back in.

How effective Bayless has been is up for debate.  Dave has criticized Bayless' defense repeatedly.  Mike Rice has largely given Bayless compliments on his defense.  My own opinion has been that Bayless has done quite well.  In order to evaluate my own admittedly biased opinion, I took a look at Nash's stats.  Nash is slightly below his season averages in Points, Assists, FG %, and steals.  He is above his season average for TOs.   All of which suggests that Bayless is doing reasonably well.  

Clearly, Bayless and the Blazers have struggled with the pick and roll.  In order to help Bayless the Blazers have frequently been doubling Nash off the pick.  The problem has been that the Blazer big men, particularly LMA have been sort of half-hearted about the switch.  If you are going to double off the pick, you need to do so aggressively; you need to cut off Nash's angle to the basket and use your length to make it difficult for him to pass the ball to his big man on the roll.  Repeatedly, LMA has been caught in "no man's land" which allows Nash an easy pass to Stoudemire for the jam.  

Most folks insist that Bayless should fight through the pick.  Seems to me that is easier said than done.  Nash is extremely quick and Amar'e sets a mean pick. He is very skilled at sliding over just enough to make it extremely difficult for the opposing PG to get around him, and rarely gets called for a moving pick.  In fact, I have watched pick after pick in extremely slow motion on my DVR, and Amar'e is moving on most of them, but as best I can recall, he has only been called for a moving pick once in five games.

I think Bayless is our best option on Nash.  If we are going to start Roy, that means we either have to sit Bayless, or we have to sit Nic and slide Roy to the "3."  Either way, starting Roy in his current condition comes with a very real defensive price.

On Offense

On offense, starting Roy would seem to be a huge plus.  According to conventional wisdom it makes sense.  He is our best scorer, our second best playmaker, and his presence on the floor seems likely to require a lot of Phoenix's attention.  

The problem is that Brandon is coming off of surgery and has yet to prove he is anywhere near 100%.  So far, Brandon has shot 35% in his first two games and 25% from 3-pt range.  He has shown limited ability to get to the rim, and as a result Phoenix is jamming his jumper.  Unless Brandon shows dramatic improvement, his starting comes at a real price on the offensive end too.

If Brandon starts, either Jerryd or Nic has to sit.  Bayless and Batum have been two of our most effective players on both ends of the floor. In fact, Nic and Jerryd have been the teams most efficient offensive options ranking one and two, respectively, in True Shooting % among our guys who have played significant minutes.

Bayless:  13.8 pts, 3.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds in just 27.4 minutes.  In a per minute basis, Bayless has been our second best scorer, slightly behind LMA and slightly ahead of Miller.  Scaled up to 36 Minutes, his numbers would be 18.1 pts, 4.5 assists, and 3.2 rebounds.  Just how good Bayless has been becomes clear when you look at the advanced stats:  PER 16.7, TS% .558.  Bayless has the highest Offensive rating on team 119, and ranks highest in Win Shares/48, among our players who have played more than 50 minutes in the series.

Nic's numbers are slightly lower in most areas, but he has an even higher TS%, and everyone recognizes how important he is to our defense.

It amazes me how wide the gap between popular perception and actual performance has become for Bayless.  I have seen repeated posts speculating about off-season PG acquisitions, and heard repeated calls on 95.5 criticizing Bayless.  According to this popular view, Bayless can't shoot and is a lousy PG.  In fact, Bayless has the highest percentage from 3-pt range for the past two months.  Yes, you heard that right.  For the last 25 games, over the entire month of March and April, Bayless has shot just over 40% from 3pt range.  Over the same time frame, Nic has been at 39%, Rudy has been at 38% (although he has fallen off badly from March), Martell has been at 32%, and Roy has been at 26%. 

There is certainly room for discussion about Bayless effectiveness as back-up PG, but there is little doubt that Bayless has proven that he is a reasonably effective scorer and a rapidly improving spot up shooter.  Even as a distributor this post-season has certainly shown that he can be effective next to Miller.  Not only is he averaging 4.5 assists per 36 minutes of PT, he has done so while posting an excellent Assist/TO ratio of 3.4/1.  That is far better than Miller's 1.9/1.  Bayless' play with the first unit suggests that he would do a better job as a distributor if he were surrounded by better players.

I don't want to sidetrack any farther from my main topic.  There will be more time to evaluate Bayless, the second team, and the future of the PG position after the season is over.  

For now, the question is whether or not it makes sense to put Brandon back in the starting line-up when he has yet to show he is anywhere near being back to normal, and when the team is faced with the particular match-up problem that Nash presents.

I have tried to lay out my doubts.  I realize that there are good arguments on the other side.  Let's have a good discussion leading up to tonight's game. 

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