Our ongoing discussion of players and trades and such has begged yet another important question: which current Blazers are going to be most pivotal to the team two or three years from now? Besides the obvious pair, last year's list would certainly include Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake. How much will that change?
Here's a list of the four players most likely to be pivotal in 2011 and beyond, followed by a listing of the rest of the players and an explanation why they weren't included in the top four.
Frankly the first three aren't going to be a mystery, but we can spend a second with the whys and hows.
Brandon Roy is obviously the key to this team and will remain so. He's the leader, the heart and soul, and the most likely candidate to be a Blazer for life. But "pivotal" implies that something can swing either way. For Roy it's his physical health, which thankfully appears to be less of an issue than once feared. Can his feet and knees hold up to the stress? If so, we have no worries.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the main guy who takes the pressure off of Brandon offensively. He's the first option not only on the run but on many of Portland's halfcourt sets. Life would be easier for the team if he consistently broke the 20-point barrier despite the extra attention he garners. Having two near-impossible matchups would allow the team to concentrate on defense, shooting, and smarts at the other positions. LaMarcus would also help by upping his defensive rebounding just a tad, though with Greg Oden and a strong enough small forward rebounder it may not matter as much. If LaMarcus can't summon the will, energy, and discipline to become a huge offensive player then the Blazers will eventually be forced to carry another star-level scorer.
Greg Oden will be the biggest pivot of them all (excuse the pun). If he can stay healthy like everyone prays he will and can rebound and defend like everyone prays he can the Blazers become serious contenders. He probably doesn't have to score higher than the mid-teens to make that happen. Without Oden clogging the middle and grabbing 10+ boards per night this team becomes good, but probably falls short a la the Jazz or Suns of recent vintage.
Enough with the obvious. Of the remaining Blazers, who makes this list and why? Find out after the jump.
For my money it's Nicolas Batum. As long as the above-mentioned players are on track, Batum brings a potent set of potential skills to the table. He's a perimeter defender. He can hit the three. He can also drive and finish gracefully. He can rebound reasonably. What more do you need from a small forward accompanying those three primary players? You don't want a guy who needs 20 shots per game or will dribble out the shot clock. You need a great defender who can pick his spots with a couple ways to score. If he retains his confidence and gets more comfortable attacking the basket he could well be the secret ingredient that binds the starting lineup together, the guy that makes other teams say, "That's just not fair!" He may not turn out to be the best player among the remaining Blazers, but he could well turn out to be the most important. His pivot point is his confidence, however. He needs to be aggressive with his opportunities on both ends of the court even knowing he's not the main guy out there. If he remains passive, settling for being the occasional corner three-point guy for instance, he loses his promise.
And now for the rest of the team...
Jerryd Bayless narrowly missed being included in the top four. It's not for lack of talent, skill, or potential. He could well turn out to be everything the Blazers need in a point guard and more. He can defend. He can drive. He's physically imposing. Whatever natural point guard instinct he lacks (if any) could be made up for by his backcourt partner. If he develops an outside shot he'll be downright frightening. He missed making the top four a top five mostly for situational reasons. How well can he really play with Roy (which means playing without the ball in his hands as much as he'd like)? Also when push comes to shove I believe the Blazers could still win with a point guard of more modest means as long as that point guard possessed a couple critical skills: defense, perimeter shooting, and an appropriate sense of timing. The frontcourt needs more help than the backcourt, so Batum gets the nod by a hair over Bayless. The outside shot and learning to flourish even when plays don't start and end with him are Jerryd's pivot points.
Rudy Fernandez misses the most pivotal list because I'm not sure where he fits in or where he wants to fit in. His distance shooting will make him welcome in any offense. He also has a keen sense of how offense works and is great off the ball. That makes him a nice asset to pair with our other dribble-heavy guards. However position is an issue. He's not a small forward. It'd be amazing to see him develop point guard skills but until they're more evident you can't assume that's in the offing. He doesn't function well off the dribble, so that may be a big leap. Until then, the harsh reality is he'll be a reserve as long as he's a shooting guard and Brandon Roy is on this team. Another one is that the Blazers might be able to get three-point shooting from another source, especially with the halfcourt offense geared around Roy and Aldridge. Plus even 6th man might not be Rudy's desired impact on the league, especially if he's not compensated as highly as the starters or getting as many minutes. I can envision the team quite happy and successful with Rudy. I can also see it without, whether by their choice or his. That keeps him off the top list for now.
Joel Przybilla would make a great Blazer for the rest of his career. You'd be happy and feel secure having him back up Greg Oden as long as he can play. However a couple things stand in the way of him looking like a most-pivotal piece in 2011 and beyond. First, as we've mentioned thoroughly, he does play behind Oden. If Greg becomes the center this team needs Joel becomes less crucial. Second, though I didn't hear the broadcast myself apparently Mike Barrett speculated on Courtside Monday Night that Joel would test the waters and opt out of his contract after this season. He's scheduled to make $7.4 million if he doesn't opt out. If he chooses to forego that final year he and his agent must believe there's significantly more money in it for him. As you start to approach $10 million Joel gets a little less palatable as a guy playing 15 minutes behind Greg. I don't believe Joel needs to do anything to make himself more crucial. He just needs to stay and see how well Oden progresses.
Martell Webster could sneak onto the top four list if Nicolas Batum doesn't pan out. He'd be a good alternative in a different way. He doesn't have the defensive chops that Nicolas does but he's always good with the three-ball and he's not shy about taking the shot. He also has a great body. He needs to show the ability to put the ball on the floor when defended in order to become more valuable. Obviously his injury keeps us from over-relying on his Blazer future at this time. As with Rudy you also have to wonder if Martell would be content with less than a starting role for his career. He may have the talent to outshine Batum but he may not provide the total package that blends in with the players in the starting lineup.
Steve Blake doesn't get near enough credit for his unobtrusive three-point shooting and seamless blending with Brandon Roy this year. He's a natural fit with the superstar which is usually a key to longevity. His marksmanship opened up the floor for the drivers this year as well. But he's also among the most speculated about Portland players as far as trades. His contract expires this year. If he's retained it could well be as the second point guard. It's hard to envision him being considered among the most pivotal Blazers. Under-appreciated, yes. But flat out in the top four is a stretch.
Travis Outlaw's improved outside shooting took him another step towards reliability and respectability last year. He can get his own shot off the dribble even if that shot isn't as classically styled, which is one of his main contributions to the team now. But he's still somewhat unreliable, his defense is intermittent, and he's a man without a position. He's not done that well at small forward and there aren't all that many power forward minutes to be had on this team. As with Aldridge, his rebounding woes may become less of an issue as Greg Oden develops. Consistency and well-roundedness are his main obstacles. Without those evidenced at a high level it's difficult to predict he'll crack the most pivotal list in a couple years.
I'm sure most of you will want to shuffle the list, but as you do so remember we're not necessarily talking about the most talented, highest scoring, most important right now, or most beloved Blazers. The list describes who will be the most pivotal/crucial in 2-3 years. Have at it.