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Taking Stock Part III--Mid-Rotation Players

Today we continue the belated All-Star break look at the roster, checking out the major rotation players.

Steve Blake

Major Stats:  30.4 min/game, 11.3 ppg, 4.7 apg,  3.0 asst/to ratio, 43.4% 3pt shooting, 85.7% ft shooting

Steve Blake continues to be a revelation, not because of his greatness but because of his flexibility.  He's like that girl who looks OK and is nice and friendly enough, but people kind of overlook her.  Then one day she snags the hunky jock and they go out for months and months.  Finally one of his friends gets up the guts to ask him, "Dude, what's up with you and her?  I mean she's nice and all, but..." 

Whisper Whisper 

"You're kidding.  No, really.  Tell me you're kidding."

Whipser  Whisper 

"WHAT?  I mean I've thought about that,"

Whipser Whisper

"How many times again?"

Whisper Whisper

"Is that even possible?"

Whisper Whisper Whisper

"Duuuuude.  I mean, really. Dude!  How can...Dude!  I never would have thought that...well she doesn't look like...I mean everybody likes her and all but...DUDE!!!"

Then all of a sudden she walks down the hall and even though she looks just the same the guy's friend can't take his eyes off of her.

That's pretty much Steve Blake.  Everybody on the outside wonders why in the world this guy is the Blazer point guard.  What about Bayless?  What about Sergio?  What about trading for a big name?  There are plenty of cheerleaders out there you could be dating, you know.  The Blazers are just smiling.  Whisper Whisper. 

Whatever this team has needed Blake to do, he's pretty much done.  Last year it was providing a steady hand at the helm, keeping the offense running like a good point guard does.  Check.  This year he's been asked to step out of that point guard role, essentially becoming Brandon Roy's wingman, doing the dirty work that Roy doesn't want to trouble with, and otherwise setting up and hitting threes.  Over 43% three-point shooting, maintaining a 3-to-1 assist/turnover ratio, filling up 30 minutes per game without disrupting the flow in any way and still making meaningful contributions...check.  At this point if you told me Steve was going to play back-up power forward next year I'd probably believe it.

Steve Blake works an incredibly rare combination of personality traits.  He has the unselfishness to adapt to varying roles and blend into the team framework almost invisibly but also the ego and competitive desire to excel at what he does and to avoid losing his spot to other players.  Think of all the players who have exited Portland's system in the last couple of years not because they lacked talent but because they couldn't get Blake's chemistry trick down.

Blake's benefits to the team have been obvious.  His three-point shooting has spread the floor for everybody.  You can see the difference between past years, when the Blazers had one or two distance shooters on the perimeter, and this year when everybody is a threat to hit.  In previous years when the ball swung around the perimeter opponents could cheat off of the passers, knowing that the only guy who was really going to shoot from out there was the end man, standing in the weak side corner.  Now they can't cheat because the guards up top will play sniper all day long.  Unsurprisingly the Blazers score more points with Blake on the court than on the bench even though both of his back-ups are more heralded for their offensive strengths (either setting up shots or finishing them).  Blake has even developed a very slight bit of a dribble-drive game.  He never finishes at the rim but he's hit the stop and pop (sometimes with a twist) more this year than ever.  Again this is attributable in part to the court being spread and defenders having to respect his outside shot.

Despite this, the familiar critiques of Blake still hold.  He's not the answer on defense.  He's not horrible, he's just not the guy to take the pressure off of Brandon Roy.  He's not a finisher and he's not a great running point guard.  He's your typical utility infielder.  Every team needs one but you're never sure if you're happy with him as a starter.  Early on the Blazers needed Blake, but as they've settled in their winning percentage is basically the same with or without him playing.

The final conclusion on Blake hasn't arrived yet.  His steady play will likely be important as the Blazers make their stretch run.  As much as anything his performance in the next 30 games may show his future role with this team.  The coaching staff will appreciate his reliability.  The question is whether he can cross the line from valuable to indispensible. 

What We Need to See in the Next 30 Games:   Just go out there and be Steve.

Travis Outlaw

Major Stats:  12.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 44.1% fg percentage, 40.5% 3pt percentage

Unless Travis has a production swell in the final third of the season this will be the first year in his career that his scoring and rebounding production have not increased with his playing time.  His shooting percentages are actually up from the field and from distance (though his free throw shooting has fallen off by 45 points) but he's averaging and hitting fewer shots and thus generating fewer points.  Part of this is attributable to him splitting time at the small forward position with Martell Webster's injury.  Blazer small forwards don't handle the ball much.  Life as the emergency bail-out for the corner three doesn't hold much promise for Outlaw. 

But even this excuse exposes a reality of life for Travis:  he's getting more jammed up for position, minutes, and shots as this roster evolves.  If he really is a power forward at heart there doesn't appear to be a future for him beyond what he has already:  13 points, the occasional fourth-quarter flurry, and a bunch of people wondering why a guy who seems so athletic can't put a complete game (let alone a complete season) together.  Notice also that nearly every trade proposed in this deadline speculation-fest--be it for a scoring small forward, a high-powered point guard (presumably taking over the third option role on the team), or a superstar power forward--effectively dooms Travis to obsolescence.  Most nights if Travis isn't scoring he isn't contributing.  Anybody who eats up 35 small forward minutes or 10 more shots per game on this team is effectively picking Travis' pocket unless the team adopts a complete running style that generates those extra attempts out of whole cloth. 

The reality is, Travis doesn't seem to be able to adapt his game beyond different flavors of scoring.  He's developed a nice three-point shot and a left-handed dribble over the last couple of seasons which were huge steps for him in terms of capitalizing on his ability.  But 81% of his shots are still jumpers with only 6% being dunks and 1% tip-ins.  That's not great for an aspiring small forward who capitalizes on offense.

Worse still, the team scores far more efficiently when Travis is on the bench than when he's on the court.  The net difference is 6 points less per 100 possessions.  Rebounding also suffers when he's on the court although effective field goal percentage allowed is actually better.

Long story short, we're learning that Travis is one of many players in the Blazers' middle rotation who could probably succeed wildly in this league if the team would simply bend the game to feature their strengths.  The problem for Travis is that he has at least three people ahead of him in line and people behind him have more adaptable games than he and are thus capable of playing with those top three players.

Travis is showing himself to be a hot bench scorer who can come in and win games for you with his unguardable one-on-one moves.  The problem is that the future of the Blazers hopefully includes a more solid team framework, better defense, and thus less need for a steady diet of fourth-quarter cavalry charges to save the day.

What We Need to See in the Next 30 Games:  With Travis you just say, "Score, baby!" and watch the magic.  That'll do for now.

Rudy Fernandez

Major Stats:  26.2 mpg, 10.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.2 apg, 41.6% fg percentage, 38.9% 3pt percentage, 88.8% ft percentage

So far this season we've learned that Rudy Fernandez is versatile, fearless, stylish, a good shooter, and a great team player on offense.  He's completely blend-able, a great trait to have on this team.  It's not for nothing that the crowd starts to buzz every time he touches the ball...and more frequently now when they see him make that baseline cut towards the basket without the ball.  Rudy has taught us what off-ball movement looks like again.  He's also capable in almost any offensive situation.  He can shoot on a dime and pass almost as quickly.  He can score from multiple places on the court.  It just doesn't matter with Rudy.

With one exception.

He's just not comfortable with the ball in his hands in isolation.  If you see Rudy dribbling and nobody else moving the shot is going to miss, period.  He doesn't have the escapability of the prime-time American-trained guards (just as they don't have his versatility for the most part).  Once he puts the ball on the floor, defenders have him.

How serious of a shortcoming is this?  Right now it's hampering him.  Portland's offense is halfcourt-based and the keystone to that offense is the shooting guard position.  Brandon Roy, as a threat to drive and score, captures the attention of the entire opposing defense when he starts his move.  Everybody else gets more open as a result.  Rudy doesn't have that same effect.  He's limited right now to being the catch-and-shoot guy who also occasionally passes.  That said, the Blazers' offense right now isn't fully developed.  Portland will eventually run more.  I believe you'll also see more motion even in the halfcourt offense.  At that point Rudy becomes a danger again, even off the dribble.  As soon as the rest of the team learns to move around him you'll see his shooting percentage and his assists go up.

This does bring up another issue which has no easy solution.  From what we've seen so far Rudy is a shooting guard in the NBA, period.  He doesn't have the ball-handling chops to play point.  He doesn't have the size to play small forward.  He's perfect for three-guard lineups but unless Portland makes that more a part of their arsenal he's eventually going to outgrow his minutes.

Rudy is what you'd call a team defender rather than an excellent individual guy.  He prospers when he can play the passing lanes and help in rotation.  He's gradually getting better at recognizing those rotations.  Portland's defense is statistically better with him on the court but he's also playing against opposing second units.

Rudy might never be an All-Star in this league but he'll probably be one of those guys who generates points and wins...the third or fourth guy that you name on the team but also the guy that seems to break your back after the main players have pounded on you.  Rudy is the leading candidate to win the "It's not fair that they also have _______" award.  More experience and more experienced teammates should cement his spot on this team.

What We Need to See in the Next 30 Games:  A return of the aggressive Rudy we saw earlier in the season.  Defenses have solved him a little but he also has enough tricks up his sleeve to damage them anyway.  The three-point shot is the key this year.  That shot makes him a back-breaker.

Joel Przybilla

Major Stats:  21.9 mpg, 7.8 rpg, 68.0% shooting

We're learning this season how tough Joel Przybilla really is.  On nights when everything is going right he doesn't get nearly as much playing time.  But when opposing teams are abusing us, when we need to wrest control of the boards away from the enemy, when Greg Oden is going south and collecting fouls like they were merit badges, Joel gets the call.  Most guys would be cheesed off about that role.  Joel seems to take pride in it.  And he does it well.  He leads the team in defensive rebounds, overall rebounds, and rebounds per minute.  He bodies up or moves around on defense as the situation calls for.  Even his offense, such as it is, is on track.  Nobody has benefitted more from the floor opening up than Joel, who can now catch cleanly and dunk instead of wrestling for the ball in traffic and putting up a contested shot.

Most of all, Joel provides some of that no-nonsense toughness that this team lacks.  He's the guy who's going to stare down the opponent.  He's the guy who's going to throw elbows instead of taking them.  He's the guy who's going to spend the whole game frowning until the streamers drop.  There's a lesson in that.

One opposing broadcast team recently called Joel Przybilla the best back-up center in the league.  They're not far wrong.

It's worth noting that Joel's success comes because this job description is tailor-made for him.  He's not pressured into positions in which he's uncomfortable or has to extend beyond himself.  The Blazers finally have enough firepower to absorb a non-scorer for stretches of the game.  They don't have enough rebounding, particularly in the second unit, to do without him.  Joel is that guaranteed-yield CD that makes you comfortable investing the rest of your money in the volatile stocks.  As long as the Blazers need him, he'll be there.

What We Need to See in the Next 30 Games:   More of the same.

I have noted that the "What We Need to See" department reads nearly the same for all four players today.  I guess there's a reason this is one of the best benches in basketball.  These are the main guys on it and they're doing fine.

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--Dave (