We're now three-quarters of the way through the season and it's time to re-visit one of the key questions hanging over our heads since last summer: how are the young, "bubble" players going to fare this season?
By "young" I mean not Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla. By "bubble" I mean not Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge. In fact to keep it simple, we'll narrow it down to four: Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Jarrett Jack, and Sergio Rodriguez.
We said at the beginning of the season that this was the make-or-break year for Travis which would likely determine whether he was a Blazer for the next few years or on the trading block. More than any of these for, Travis seems to have made it.
You have to judge a young player first on his strengths and Travis' is offense, particularly the ability to score. His points per game average is 4 points higher than last season, representing a 43% increase. His minutes per game are also up 4, only an 18% increase. His points-per-minute production is right around .5, which is by far the highest of his career (and it's not even close). His overall shooting percentage is up from last season. His three-point percentage has skyrocketed, though he still only takes a little over 1 per game. His free throw attempts are up but his percentage is down--the only blot on his record. Across the board he is doing an amazing (for Travis) job of shooting and scoring.
Travis' rebounding has not ballooned in the same fashion as his offense. He's slightly up in rebounds per game and if you project his minutes to around 35 he would ends up somewhere between 6-7 per game. That's not shabby for a small forward. It's not good for a major-minute power forward, at least the way this team needs boards.
Travis doesn't turn the ball over enough to worry about nor does he block shots with regularity or pass the ball much. Considering how slowly the various facets of his game have progressed the relatively low turnover number is a surprise but it's never been a real issue for him.
Travis' defensive progress has been middling. He doesn't get burned on a regular basis anymore, which is a huge step up. He is prone to defensive mistakes when put under pressure. He is far, far better when he uses his athleticism to come across the lane and help out than when he's stuck on a defender alone.
As far as intangibles, Travis brings is surest isolation-scoring hand the team has. His clutch play has also been well-chronicled. These compensate for the occasional head-slapping gaffe.
Overall the Blazers score slightly better, shoot slightly better, defend slightly worse, and rebound worse when Travis is on the floor. They also draw more foul attempts when he is playing.
Verdict: Travis has made remarkable strides in the areas that matter most. He doesn't quite have a guaranteed career path ahead of him yet but he's bought at least another season or two of time.
This was not Martell Webster's make-or-break season but this was going to be his first year being given important minutes in a key role for this team.
Martell is even more of an offensive player than Travis. Like Travis his points, shooting percentage, and three-point percentage have increased with more playing time...all good signs. His gains have not been as dramatic, but they are measurable. He's getting right around 33% more minutes this season and has registered a 44% increase in scoring. His point-per-minute rate is .36, which is higher than the .32 he registered last year but lower than the .38 from his rookie season. (By comparison Brandon Roy is around a .52.) While still not shooting a high enough percentage (41%) or scoring enough points (overall or per-minute) to make a mark as an NBA-level offensive player progress is progress.
Martell's rebounding has increased proportionally with his minutes, which leaves him at a barely-adequate level for a forward, decent for an off-guard. Like Travis, Martell's assists and turnovers are negligible, though obviously his shot-blocking is not as strong.
Martell's defense has improved since he entered the league. He's not getting destroyed on a regular basis anymore. You don't see as many comments about his incredible lack of lateral movement. However he's nobody's idea of the next Bruce Bowen. At best he's a non-factor. At times he can still be a liability.
Martell's most significant intangible has been his inconsistency. He set the joint on fire his first month and has been random ever since. In February he played between 21-39 minutes every game. His point totals progressed like this:
9, 17, 8, 7, 18, 11, 3, 18, 7, 3, 12, 12, 15, 9
And before you ask, no...the big-minute games did not always correlate to the big-point games. This might explain why Martell's minutes have started to diminish as we begin our stretch run. At this point it's hard to count on him. You might get a torrential flood of points or he might run as dry as the desert.
The team's offensive production and field-goal percentage are both lower when Martell is on the floor. In fact the team has score a net 189 points fewer when Webster is on the floor than when he's off it. They average 8.3 points fewer per hundred possessions when Martell plays. That's disastrous news for a player with his job description. Fouls drawn are also down. Rebounding and defense are slightly up.
Verdict: This wasn't as much as we wanted to see out of Martell. At this point the team's progress has far outstripped his individual growth, which means the team will need more in the future than he's giving. This will probably be a summer of soul-searching for both Martell and the Blazers. Next year he needs to come with a ready-made game that helps the team or they may have to curtail his minutes sharply or jettison him altogether.
The job description for Jarrett Jack has been slightly more complex than those of Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw. Even when people thought him a point guard his main asset was still scoring. That is probably his greatest strength. At his size he must be able to pass, handle, defend, and play smart as well.
Unlike the two previous players Jarrett has actually seen his overall minutes reduced this season. His scoring has declined in almost exact proportion to his minutes. He averages about .36 points per minute...not a horrible number as long as he holds up the other parts of his game. His overall percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage have all declined, though his field goal percentage remains fairly good (43%) and his free-throw percentage excellent (86%).
Jarrett's overall rebounds, and thus rebounds per minute, have risen.
The key factors if Jarrett has point guard aspirations are assists and turnovers. Jarrett's assists per game have declined by 1.3, accompanied by a modest decrease in assists per minute. This is not wholly unexpected as he is no longer the starting point guard and half the time doesn't play the point. Jarrett's turnovers per minute have increased. He turns the ball over at the same rate he did last season though he plays around 17% fewer minutes. His assist/turnover ratio, slightly above 2.2 last season, is down to 1.7 this year. That's obviously the wrong direction to be heading.
Jarrett's defense is nothing to write home about most nights. He's got a solid body but is matched up against quick point guards or athletic shooting guards, both of whom make life difficult for him. He is marginally better at playing the pick and roll than he was earlier in his career. He's still in trouble matched up one-on-one.
The team scores somewhat worse, rebounds somewhat worse, and defends slightly worse when Jarrett is on the floor. Fouls drawn, free throws attempted, and free throws made are up. Turnovers committed go against the Blazers when Jarrett plays.
Verdict: Jarrett is from the same draft class as Martell Webster and is having similar problems defining himself. Some of this can be attributed to continually shifting roles...a difficulty which Martell cannot claim. Jarrett has been given more responsibility in the last couple of games and appears to be handling it well. These last 21 games could be crucial for him. Martell at least has an extremely rare combination of gifts--reasonable athleticism with fantastic shooting form. Jarrett has a lot of potential gifts but many could be duplicated, perhaps by people already on the team. If Jarrett does remain with us through the summer he will have to come out strong and prepared next year, reversing the downward trend in his production. He's unlikely to get much more major-minute time to prove himself.
Like Jarrett Jack, Sergio has a multi-pronged responsibility list. He's not a combo guard, however. His mission starts and ends with the point guard position. His defense is obviously not his strong point so offense will be the main criterion on which he is judged.
Any way you slice it this has not been a good year for Sergio. He's seen a 28% reduction in his playing time. His overall field goal percentage has plummeted by 69 points (.423 to .354). His three-point percentage is down and his free throw percentage is in the toilet. His scoring has decreased proportionally with his playing time as have his turnovers...no harm there. His assists, however, are nearly halved. Part of it is that we're getting none of the running opportunities which boosted Sergio's stats last year. Another part is that Sergio is not consistently good at setting up the halfcourt offense. Sergio's assist-to-turnover ratio has decreased from 2.8 to 2.0 this season, a greater proportional decrease than even Jarrett's.
Sergio is not a good defender away from the ball. He still doesn't recognize offenses or his place in the defensive scheme. His on-ball defensive performances range from adequate to bad, depending on who he is facing.
Sergio's intangibles are hard to measure for the same reason Martell's are: he's inconsistent. He'll shoot 50-60% some nights and then shoot 0-14% with the same number of minutes a week later. He's had a couple fantastic outings on nights when he's gotten double-digit minutes and then a lot of outings where he has frittered those minutes away. He doesn't seem to be inspiring the team in the same way this year as he did last. He brings some good stuff mixed with a fair amount of confusion.
The Blazers score 7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Sergio on the floor. Assisted field goals are up but field goal percentage, defense, rebounding, and free throws given up are all down. We commit more turnovers when he is on the floor as well.
Verdict: We may not have a great chance to make the playoffs but Nate is coaching like we are driving towards it, which means tightening the rotation and playing the guys you trust most to produce. On that basis it's pretty easy to see where Sergio is the odd man out. I suspect if and when we get mathematically eliminated from the post-season you'll see Sergio's minutes come back, perhaps with a few added on. Sergio really needs to work hard this summer on rounding out the other parts of his game besides passing and dribbling. He's only in his second year, however. He has time.
You can peruse all kind of arcane stats yourself at 82Games.com