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Rudy and Roy

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We've been talking so much about the potential logjams and playing time issues at point guard and small forward this summer that it's easy to forget the biggest potential roster issue the Blazers face: the co-existence of Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez. Roy is unquestionably the #1 player on this team. That's not an issue. But if you're listing the players with the best talent/potential combination Rudy doesn't fall much farther than fourth, and that's at worst. Many would have him third. Put the two at the same natural position and that's an issue. It didn't show up much last year because Roy is the king, Rudy was a rookie, and the coaching staff managed to jimmy enough minutes for both. Even so Rudy wasn't completely satisfied with his role. He's expected to be a better player this year too.

One obvious solution is for one or the other player to pick up another position. Of the two, Roy seems best suited to slide at this point. He already handles the ball on many sets. He's also got some strength in case he catches some spot duty at small forward. He acquitted himself fairly well at both positions, though he had trouble defending opposing point guards when he drew them. It's easy to envision Brandon becoming a utility-type player, thrown in there no matter who is alongside him and no matter where that forces him to play on offense or defense. But you have to ask whether you want to use your star that way and what effect it will have on his game long-term. Right now if you don't have Brandon firing on all cylinders the Blazers aren't the same team. Life is going to be far easier with him happy, comfortable, and secure. Not many prime-time players enjoy being shuffled around.

Rudy, on the other hand, struggled mightily last year playing any position but shooting guard. He's not got the size for small forward. He's not got the offensive game or handle for point guard. He's not a good defender at either spot. Most importantly he's not got enough experience to get wholly settled into one position, let alone two or three. Obviously the experience will come, but he's also going to have to be conscious of the need for learning multiple spot...adjusting his game rather than expecting the game to adjust to him. Even if he makes that step we still don't know if he has the gifts necessary.

You often hear team officials talk about people being "just guards" or "just basketball players", not wanting to pin them to a position. It sounds nice but teams don't often win without clearly defined roles. If you look at the teams that have been successful in the last couple decades you can pretty much pick out precisely who did what and which attributes they brought to the table. This league requires you to be good at multiple skills but it's not a league for generalists. This article quotes Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown explaining his recent roster makeover thusly:

The biggest thing when you're building a team and you don't necessarily have the depth of the more established teams, you've got to find guys that can play more than one position.

The other side of the coin is that when teams become successful it's generally because they have specifically targeted players doing the things they do best and only those things. Some players have many things they do well, some fewer, but they don't tend to switch around at the drop of a hat. You know who Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James are. You know what positions they play. You know how everyone else falls in place around them. The game bends to them, not the other way around. With few exception generalities and vagueness are the nails in the wall upon which losing or not-yet-there teams pin their hopes. Surety breeds victory. Real depth isn't a few people doing a lot of things decently, it's a lot of people doing a few things well.

One of the Bill Schonely-inspired taglines surrounding the Drexler-era Blazer teams was "versatile and interchangeable". The description was accurate to a point. Porter, Drexler, Kersey, Williams, Robinson, Ainge...all of them had the capability of playing multiple positions. But think back. How often did they? The answer? Outside of Ainge, almost never. At least not while the team was at its peak. Only on the downhill slide did the Blazers start experimenting with people filling multiple roles. The original impetus was Drexler's injury. The team really never recovered and never found the same success again. When that squad shone brightest everyone knew their role and played it to the hilt. They weren't inscrutable, they were unstoppable. Only when the house started to crumble did Cliff Robinson excel at three positions and Terry Porter become a shooting guard.

Even with their potential versatility it's a sure bet that both Rudy and Roy are going to do some things better than others, favoring one or another position. The Blazers have to make sure that both are playing to their strengths 100% of the time. The margin between winning and losing, especially when you're talking about the highest level of competition in this league, is far too thin to mess with anything else.

In short, both players may have diverse gifts and both may be capable of filling multiple roles but it's not a slam dunk that the Blazers will want them to in the long run.

When you start talking about multiple positions you also have to look at the surrounding landscape. Right now, at least, that's not a promising sight. The two logjams we've been debating all off-season are precisely at the two positions Roy and Rudy will need to play in order to pick up minutes. Nicolas Batum could well deserve more minutes this year. Martell Webster is coming back from injury and didn't play at all last season. Travis Outlaw is unlikely to be a great contributor unless he sees some minutes at small forward as well. The Blazers just signed Andre Miller at point guard, probably bumping Steve Blake to a reserve spot and pinching Jerryd Bayless as it is. If you add one of the shooting guards into either rotation somebody is simply not playing...ever. Another person is getting under-utilized. It's like a congressional mandate without funding. It sounds good when they pass it but who's going to pay for it?

Obviously it's possible to make room at either position, but there will eventually have to be changes to the roster if that's the norm. Expansion in one place will lead to contraction or amputation elsewhere.

I'm not sure if there's a good, clean solution to this potentially thorny issue at this point. We don't know enough about most of the players involved to make a firm judgment, let alone steer a course of action. The only reality we're sure of is that eight players are vying for playing time at three positions and there are solid arguments for each...none more so than for the two we're discussing here.

Even though there's no easily-charted path before us, that doesn't prevent a little speculation. This issue is not going to go away, nor is it likely to be resolved soon. How do you think it will pan out? There's a poll below but I'm also interested in hearing comments and analysis. How much of an issue is Rudy/Roy and where are these players headed? Chime in at will.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)