One of the hot issues early in the season has been the small forward rotation. Since we’ll hit the one-eighth mark of the season after the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Warriors, we should check in and get the early reports and prognosis.
Nicolas Batum has held on to his starting position after the first ten games of the season. He is only averaging 15.5 minutes per game, however, and those minutes have begun to decline slightly if this week is any indication. Batum has shown himself to be an agile defender, keeping his feet moving and his body in front of his opponent better than either of the other Blazer small forwards. He continues to struggle containing bigger, tougher players, which at his weight is a lot of NBA threes. He also struggles with his defensive reads at times. He evidenced a nose for rebounding early in the season but he hasn’t grabbed more than 2 boards since the
The verdict on Batum so far is that he’s doing well--perhaps amazingly well considering what was expected of him coming into the season--but he’s on shaky ground as far as continued minutes. He’s already losing time to players who are performing better or who Nate trusts more (Travis or the collective three-guard lineup). He’ll play seven minutes at the start of each half and then get buried in the shuffle. That’s only going to get worse when Martell Webster returns. It would be a shame to bury Nic completely but he’ll really have to distinguish himself to stand out enough to get noticed.
As is typical, Travis Outlaw’s early season has been a mixed bag. He’s turned in a couple of sublime performances (18 points against the L*kers on opening night, 14 points and 13 rebounds versus Houston, 20 against Orlando) and a couple of ridiculous ones (shooting 4-14 and totaling 11 points and 6 rebounds in this past weekend’s games, for instance). Quarter-to-quarter Travis’ energy and presence fluctuate. Offensively that goes with the territory, not just for Travis but for small forwards on this team. They’re not going to get a steady diet of shots. The more disturbing trends has been the fluctuation in defensive intensity and rebounding effort. Sometimes Outlaw looks all-world on defense. The tail end of the
Travis’ other great improvement has been his catch-and-shoot three-point bombing. He’s near 55% for the season and no longer needs to get a rhythm dribble to make that shot. His overall percentage has suffered, however. He’s barely over 40% overall and is having little or no success getting past defenders and into the lane for good looks. Free throws have been a major asset for Travis when he can draw them, but they haven’t come consistently either.
The verdict on Travis so far is growth in some areas, same old stuff in others. When he’s playing well he looks far more professional, productive, and in tune with the team than he ever has. It just doesn’t happen for him every night though. In order to get minutes he’s been playing some back-up power forward as well, which still seems like a more comfortable position for him. He didn’t mesh with the starting unit when he got the opportunity early on, though he has started to play seamless fourth-quarter minutes with many of those same guys. Travis will certainly continue to get his minutes on this team unless or until he’s traded. It remains to be seen if he can fill them reliably.
Obviously we haven’t seen anything of Martell Webster yet this year. Hazarding a guess, I’d say it won’t be long after he returns before he’s re-inserted into the starting lineup. His defense was starting to come around last season. He can also hit the long ball with regularity. Plus he has more NBA experience and experience with Coach McMillan and his teammates than Batum. The onus will be on him to perform and retain those minutes, however. If Martell stumbles or can’t handle the complementary role (grammarians will note that this is completely different than the thing you get with your Continental Breakfast at the hotel) Nate will have no problem going back to the lineup as it is now. The huge question will be what if Martell really excels. The Blazers might be willing to let Batum cook for another season before awarding him permanent minutes but what of Outlaw? What of the three-guard lineup? While certainly not the most important position and issue, Martell playing well would certainly create the biggest dogfight for playing time on the team.
How this is all going to shake out is anybody’s guess. Right now it sits firmly in the hands of Webster and Outlaw. If they play well there’s probably nothing Batum can do about it. If they slip up (and history tells us that’s likely) then the minutes are his to take. None of the three right now are a completely sure bet. But the Blazers will probably allow the 4th and 6th year guys they’ve been developing get a shot before the rookie.