The rallying cry surrounding the 2010-11 Portland Trail Blazers has been simple and oft-repeated: Just wait until we get healthy! The hope behind the assertion is that this league hasn't seen what the Trail Blazers can do yet because of the (hopefully past) injuries that assailed the team last year. Along with that hope comes a tacit admission that the Trail Blazers themselves haven't seen what the Trail Blazers can do yet.
The number of times the projected best lineup of Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden both started and clicked flawlessly together last year was zero. The offense sputtered at the beginning of the season trying to integrate Oden. Just as momentum started to surge Oden went down. Then Roy went down as well and the field was left to Miller, Aldridge, and Jerryd Bayless only later joined by a returning Batum, healthy Rudy Fernandez, and newly-acquired Marcus Camby. Each combination did well enough in isolation, not only holding down the fort but making enough progress to top 50 wins and gain a playoff berth. The assumption has been that a bunch of different lineups clicking well enough would merge into one, dominant super-lineup. Even with pieces missing that hasn't been in evidence.
Miller is one of the main figures at the center of this evolving conundrum. He's a good player. Some consider him a great player. Even his detractors would put him somewhere close to that border. Talent and skill have not been an issue in Portland or anywhere else he's played. The question dogging him since the moment he arrived in the Rose City is fit.
As has been discussed ad nauseum, backcourt mate Brandon Roy might as well be a middle-aged woman shopping for jeans when it comes to point guards. The ones that fit at the top don't fit at the bottom. The ones that look good in front are a wreck from behind. The requirements for a perfectly-tailored, designer-brand pair are so specific that they'd wouldn't be affordable even if you could find them. Eventually you either make the best of an imperfect look or go scrounging in the closet for some sweats. Miller is the Blazers' attempt at the former. So far success is in the eye of the beholder.
On the heels of Roy's post-practice comments seeming to indicate that he should be the focus of the offense, the issue has been dissected yet again from multiple angles. Over at CBS Sports our own Ben Golliver looked at last year's play and this year's competition. He offered that Roy could not go it alone and intimated that Miller's performance would be a litmus test for the success of Roy's teammates. Equally impressive was this Fanpost from B.E. reader atomiccafe, breaking down Miller's aptitude compared to those of his NBA peers. His conclusion? Miller may be not be the best fit skill-wise but the Blazers will have a hard time finding better. These fields, particularly the skill-fit issue, have been well-plowed and I won't belabor them. (You can read them anywhere and we've addressed them before.) But the response to the discussion makes clear that a couple of other arguments remain less-tested and unsettled. I'd like to approach the matter from two angles under hot debate right now: role and what it means to be a "team".
One of the concluding sentences of atomicafe's Fanpost reads:
So the question is, would you rather have a very limited player who can shoot, or a much higher quality offensive player who can't as your second option?
The trade-off suggested from the Blazers' point of view is giving up desirable skills in order to obtain a greater role. This is exactly the benefit Miller brings. He's a point guard with an offensive bent. From his rookie season he's traded on his scoring prowess. It's a part of his game that he's not been willing to dampen, at least not for long. With Miller you do get a bona fide scoring option, which is part of his attraction.
The problem from a role perspective is quickly evident considering the events we highlighted in Paragraph One: the Blazers are expecting their entire lineup healthy this season. Last year's injuries left Andre happily ensconced as the second option in most games, sometimes the first. Roy permanently kicks him out of the latter spot. Aldridge clearly trumps him as the second scorer. The great hope inherent in those returning players is that Oden will become a force down low and Batum will develop as an all-around scoring threat. Oden's game would ideally allow him to be the third scoring option outright and someone who touches the ball even on plays where he doesn't take the shot. That bumps Miller to no greater than fourth on the list. And the guy yet behind him has been receiving attention and accolades around the league for his potential.
Andre Miller did a fantastic job of bailing the Blazers out of a disastrous season last year. Portland spun triple cherries getting a player who could fill that second scoring role. As the team evolves that same quality is going to spin up lemon-single bar-cow pie. It's not a winning combination because they're trading needed skills for an advantage that they no longer need--that may be a detriment considering the lineup--when they're healthy. At this point the Blazers may be better off with that player with targeted skills who isn't their second option in the offense. At the very least you have to say that Miller's role versus his desires and ability is unsettled. It has been since he arrived, really.
What It Means to Be a Team
The harshest flashes of anger in response to Roy's comments about his own offensive role came from people who decried the loss of team emphasis in his individualistic-sounding comments. This is misplaced. Whether Roy can lead the Blazers to a title remains to be seen. Either way, he's a proven scorer, an All-NBA-level talent, and clearly the best player the Blazers have. Barring a trade for another team's disgruntled superstar (perhaps allowing us to debate Roy v. Wade) he'll remain the hub of the offense and the team as long as he wears the uniform. As such, his responsibility is to claim the spotlight and direct the show while everyone else falls in line.
NBA teams are not, and never have been, egalitarian entities. The 1976-77 Trail Blazers are heralded to this day as one of the most self-giving squads in history, defeating the star-laden 76'ers by dint of said teamwork. It's true that on any given play a shot could come from anywhere depending on where the defense fell apart. But there was a clear pecking order on that team. Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas were first, followed by Lionel Hollins. The other players were cast members from Gilligan's Island, absolutely necessary for the stars to play off of but locked into their roles. Bob Gross and Lloyd Neal and Dave Twardzik are remembered for all of eternity in these parts precisely because they deferred to the Big Three. Had they tried to take over one of those spots Bill Walton would have asked what they were smoking. Then Luke would have killed them. If that didn't solve the problem they would have been traded or the Blazers wouldn't have gone as far as they did.
Portland's other great teams, led by Clyde Drexler, had an even clearer order. Drexler was The Man, period. Porter was his amazing sidekick. Everybody else, no matter how talented, formed their games around Clyde. I remember commentators saying repeatedly that Jerome Kersey easily could have been a 20-point scorer were he not a part of this team. In a game I saw in person (I forget the opponent now) both Drexler and center Kevin Duckworth were unopposed on the break and Duck had the ball. Duck looked over at Clyde and clear as day asked if he could be the one to take the ball to the hole this time...not demanded or assumed, asked. Clyde nodded and only then did Duck go in for the dunk. With a small flick of the wrist the ball would have been in Drexler's hands immediately, neither questions nor moping permitted.
These were both amazing teams in every sense of the word. But "team" did not mean everyone had equal say, equal attempts, or even the full role to which their talents entitled them. Those teams prospered precisely because the players surrounding the stars conformed their games to the star's needs. Once that happened then the star could comfortably work in the other guys and take advantage of their talents. But if his hands weren't on the wheel nobody was getting anywhere. Elegantly worded in interviews or not, Brandon Roy is correct in expressing his desire for control and primacy in the offense. Any kind of struggle that threatens to prevent that harms this team and goes against the definition of team itself, at least as far as the NBA runs. If Miller and Roy aren't on the same page--and circumstantial evidence and backstage rumblings both indicate they may not be no matter how much they doth protest--then the situation must be addressed.
Returning to Ben's words, it is on Andre Miller to show his value to this team (emphasis on this team, which is in a different spot that last year's). He is neither a core member nor a possible bright spot in Portland's future. He is a hired gun. He is in the last guaranteed year of his contract. His talent is not in question. His benefit in this situation is. Unless his performance and the team's become seamless his role, at least as the team defines it, will remain unfilled despite his ability.
At this point the only sureties are that the end of this story has yet to be written and that the journey between here and there will be interesting.