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Trout Mail

One of the great pleasures of doing this blog thing is the e-mail I receive from readers.  A reader named Matt wanted to talk about Travis Outlaw a little this week and his submission was interesting enough to open up for general conversation.  It reads:

Blazers fans have, by and large, a love/hate relationship with Outlaw, and I'm trying to figure out why.  I mean, he came out of high school as a project without lofty expectations.  The only real qualities ascribed to him have been "athletic" and, um, "athletic."  But the expectations fans have had of him the last two years have been immense, compared to a lot of guys in his position.  I'm trying to understand why that's the case, when his most defining quality (athleticism) isn't one you can teach or really improve.

I'm also wondering what sets Outlaw apart from the average NBA player.  Most players take questionable jumpers, have holes in their defense and are inconsistent.  That's why they're average (which, for the sake of the argument, let's say Outlaw is).  Just because Player A averages 15 points and 5 boards doesn't mean he gets those same numbers each game.  One game, he might go for 20 and 7, and then next game, he'll get 10 and 3.  When Outlaw goes through these ebbs and flows, fans (myself included, on occasion) are quick to declare how raw, untalented or brainless he is.  But how is Outlaw any different, when most every player in the league goes through those up and downs?

Why do we place such weighty expectations on a late-first round pick?  When we as fans say we see "something special" in him, that "something special" is athleticism.  So is it because he doesn't display it by settling for outside jumpers more often than we'd like?  Because he doesn't pass?  Doesn't rebound as well as we think he should?  Gets tripped up in defensive rotations?

It's like we see Outlaw and think, "if only ..."  But can't you say that about a lot of guys?  What if Martell's shot was more consistent?  What if Aldridge was a better rebounder?  What if Jack had better court vision?  You can ask the same "What if?" about nearly every player in the league, but how does that make Travis any different from anyone else?  And why do we get so frustrated over the (expected) ups and downs that come with his game?

I hope I made sense with this.  It's just that I hear fans jumping to praise or slam Outlaw at everything he does, and I don't understand why the expectations on him are so different than how we view the other players, especially considering that Outlaw came into the league as raw as a lot of second-round picks.

I'll begin the responses to Matt's points.  I agree with a lot of what he says.  Every player drafted right out of high school comes with increased expectations because that implies an unusually high level of talent.  Even though Travis was picked mid-first-round everybody remembers Jermaine O'Neal, picked in the same general vicinity.  The relatively poor performance of the team has added to the heightened expectations.  We've needed a future to hope in because the present was pretty grim.  It was easy to imagine Travis turning into that future.  A few monstrous dunks were enough to set tongues a-wagging about his potential.  The fact that Travis came into the league as raw as a grazing cow didn't seem to matter.  When he didn't blossom immediately it was easy to feel a little cheated and bitter.  It was even easier when we saw a polished Brandon Roy come into town pre-packaged and ready-made to play.  Why couldn't that have been Travis, and exactly what was taking so long anyway?  Technically Travis has played as many years in pro ball as Brandon did in college...why the lack of development?

The point everybody misses is how hard it is to get real experience in the NBA if you're not playing.  Moreover it's hard to play out there when you don't know how.  This creates a spiral of incompetence that's hard to break.  Travis couldn't learn quickly without being out there but he couldn't be out there if he wasn't going to be productive and play within the team framework.  Thus minutes were limited and sporadic.  Conditioning issues and asthma made it worse.  The long, hard journey Travis has taken to get here has been under-appreciated by many fans.

There are also contrary points to all of the above.  This isn't a charity association or non-competitive Little League program.  At some point you have to produce.  Youth grants you some leeway but if you're drafted young you're supposed to have a little more talent and ability than guys who had to go to college to get into the league.  It's reasonable by the third year to expect some sort of production.  By the fifth year you better be worth some playing time.  You're on the cusp of your prime years by then and starting into your second contract.  Expectations are higher, and deservedly so.  The time has come to stop calling Travis a "late first-round pick" and start judging him as an NBA player.

Travis gets grief for doing stupid things sometimes because:

A.  The things he does are vexing.  He misses very basic plays and botches fundamentals that most folks learn in junior high.  That he sometimes gets it right makes it all the worse.  This is no Kiki Vandeweghe whose main contribution is overwhelming offense and who gets absolved of everything else because of it.  This is a guy who does it decently half the time and blows it the other half.  Despite what Matt says this is not typical of NBA least NBA players who get steady minutes.

B.  This is his fifth year in the league.  After five years of practice most people feel he should have the basics down.

The one clear change in Travis' expectations at this point in his career is the anticipation of more consistency.  You cannot play in the NBA, let alone win in the NBA, without it.  Players who score 20 one night and 5 the next (with 4 turnovers and 2 rebounds) lose games for their teams.  The spectacular game winners only come around once every few dozen nights.  The failure to box out kills you every night.

The Blazers will transition from a developing team to a winning team within the next year or so.  They cannot deal with unpredictable production from key cogs like Travis much longer.  Real NBA players give you X amount of production nearly every night and occasionally bust out with X+10 on their good nights.  They don't give you X +/- 20 depending on the night.  Look at the Spurs, the Suns, the Pistons, or any winning team.  They know what they're going to get from their guys.  They can depend on them.  The one thing Travis has always lacked, up to and including this year, is consistency.  For his sake and ours he needs to find it.  That is why people make a reasonably big deal out of his errors.  And that's completely fair.

One thing that will really help Travis--indeed has already been helping him somewhat this year--is if he shows enough game to acquire a set role.  If he proves he can be a scorer off the bench then his main expectation is to score.  As long as he does that well some other expectations might be postponed or go by the wayside.  Fans, coaches, and Travis himself would all have a set of criteria by which to evaluate him.  One of the main frustrations has been our inability to develop such criteria because of his lack of consistency from night to night.  Basically he has to show us enough of something, and do it often enough, that we can say, "This is his game and we hope he also develops this, this, and that someday."

Not only would this define Travis' place in the hierarchy of players and his role on the court, it would also make it easier to judge whether he'll be of value to the team in this new generation.  If he's mainly a one-on-one scorer we can judge whether we need that.  If we do, then we can build the rest of his unit around him, knowing his place.  Up to this point the graph of Travis' value has resembled an amorphous blob more than a progressing line.  We haven't known much except he has a ton of undefined, basically directionless, and occasionally hard-to-find talent.  How do you evaluate or build around that?

Good, bad, or indifferent we need to be able to pin Travis down to something.  That is what the praise and criticism are meant to define.  That's also why you hear more of it, and hear it more intensly, about Travis than you do about other players.  Again, deservedly so in many ways.

So what do you think about Travis' development and the way he's analyzed by fans and the media?  The last week or two have been very encouraging.  Do you expect him to keep it up?  Is he cementing a place on the team or will he remain in limbo?  Feel free to continue the conversation below.

--Dave (