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A Frustrated Rudy Fernandez Starts to Ponder

It has been an injury-plaguedincredibly inconsistent season for Rudy Fernandez, a season that has seen his jumper regularly abandon him, his confidence and energy fluctuate and his soulmate/basketball life partner Sergio Rodriguez escape to a fast-breaking, free-wheeling offense that, for now, offers limitless career resuscitating hope.

In many ways, last year's season for the Blazers was something of a dream: 54 wins, solid health and consistency, and a nice mix of great play in close games and high-octane blowouts of lesser opponents to ensure that everyone stayed reasonably happy.  Throw in the national attention of a slam dunk contest appearance, throngs of fans cheering his every movement, the excitement of an entirely new country, and the added bonus of a close friend to ride wingman on and off the court and the 2008-2009 season set the bar pretty high for Rudy Fernandez.  

Certainly we shouldn't totally over-simplify and over-glamorize that season.  It wasn't pain-free. There was a difficult cultural and language adjustment period, times when his skills seemed to get lost in Nate McMillan's system and a hard foul that found him spending the night in a hospital.  

Compared to this season, though, those struggles (even the hospital visit) are trivial by comparison.  The injuries.  The physical pain of the injuries.  The mental pain of the injuries. The surgery. The carefully-laid plans thrown out the window.  The rotation changes. The lowering of team expectations. The hopelessness. 

And, for Rudy, this is the second time through a no-longer-new, no-longer-as-exciting, slightly-lonelier NBA experience.  Less fun, less magic and less minutes; more grind.  So it should come as no surprise that translations of two stories have found their way to Hoops Hype, stories that suggest Rudy isn't particularly comfortable or happy with his current role in Portland and is leaving open the possibility of returning to Spain next season.  

To EurosportRudy says that he is feeling great physically but that...

Pero ¿tú sabes lo que McMillan quiere de ti? Y de saberlo, ¿qué es?

(Pausa larga) Es lo de siempre. McMillan es un entrenador que tiene las cosas muy claras, que va a muerte con su filosofía. Y muchas veces yo no entro en ella. Yo intento amoldarme a lo que él dice y jugar como él quiere. Pero no noto esa confianza que en el primer año tenía.

Qué difícil parece tu posición en estos Blazers, ¿no?

Sí, es complicada. La verdad es que es difícil. Tengo por delante a un jugador que es una superestrella como Brandon Roy y está claro que hay que convivir con ello. Y difícil también porque durante este año he tenido menos minutos que el año pasado. Así que tengo que tratar de ser mentalmente fuerte para conseguir mis objetivos.

Google translation...

How are things with Nate McMillan?

(Long pause) It's business as usual. McMillan is a coach who has things very clear, going to death with his philosophy. And often I do not get it. I try to adjust to what he says and play the way he wants. But I do not feel that trust that was in the first year.     

Your role is difficult?

Yes, it's complicated. The truth is that it is difficult. I have in front of me a player who is a superstar like Brandon Roy and it is clear that we must live with it. And also because during this difficult year I have had fewer minutes than last year. So I have to try to be mentally strong to achieve my goals.

Rudy concludes by saying that he wouldn't rule out a return to Spain next season, "because the only thing I want is to play.  And I am able to give the same wherever I am."   And Marca dutifully reports that Real Madrid awaits a Rudy return with open arms, promising a larger salary, more minutes and 100 virgins.

Even though trading Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw last week lessened the roster logjam and seemed to indicate a commitment from the Blazers to Rudy, issues obviously remain.  Indeed, private grumbling over playing time from Blazers not named Rudy Fernandez continued this week.  All of a sudden, Brandon Roy came back and the minutes disappeared. McMillan's ace in the hole -- a deep playofff run as a reward for self-sacrifice -- is looking more like an 8 of clubs.  This team is clinging right now, not charging.  That could change if Roy's hamstring continues to improve but right now the swag has mostly evaporated.  When swag evaporates, frustration surfaces.  That's just one of Newton's Laws.

But it's bigger than just minutes in Rudy's case. This borders on an identity crisis. The indomitable force of Nate McMillan's system coupled with the immovable object of Brandon Roy's franchise status leaves Rudy Fernandez in a purgatory-like puddle of uncertainty about how, where, when and why he fits in big picture.  

Sometime in the past month, I woke up in the middle of the night panicked because I had just written that McMIllan's options were to start Steve Blake or Martell Webster if Brandon Roy and Jerryd Bayless couldn't play the two.  In a cold sweat I asked myself, "What if Nate McMillan just started Rudy, his best remaining pure two guard, and I look ridiculous for not even mentioning the possibility?"  I then started laughing and went back to sleep.  "That would never happen," I told myself then. (This really happened.)

I can laugh about Nate McMillan's pigeon-holing of players and then sleep easily because I'm not one of his players.  But if I was Rudy Fernandez, Olympics star and national icon, and I was watching Jerryd Bayless or Steve Blake or Martell Webster start at the two spot (and play pretty inconsistently too) and I was left to remain in my role as the offense/energy off the bench guy, my thought process would be pretty simple: this is my ceiling on this team with this coach.  If I can't start and play full starter's minutes when the superstar in front of me on the depth chart is injured and the rest of the roster is stretched due to injuries at practically every position, then I will never start and get to play the minutes that I want to play.  

If you remember back to before the season started, Kevin Pritchard told me quite clearly that increasing Rudy's role was a priority this season.  Rudy might bring the ball up the court, the coaching staff hinted.  There was some early offensive focus given to Rudy, plays called specifically for him to run around and through screens to free himself for open looks.  Was it a token attempt? Was it genuine? Either way, whether due to his back injury or something else, Rudy wasn't able to capitalize and those looks and touches became less frequent pretty quickly.

In recent weeks, fully healthy now, Rudy has played desperate.  Flopping as much to cover for wild shots as to draw fouls.  Missing wide open jumpers.  Forcing bad pass after bad pass, connecting just enough to justify to himself that he should continue to look to make the home run play.  His offensive efficiency rests at .91 Points Per Possession: 50th percentile.  

Perhaps, also, reality is starting to set in.  Rudy is a fine player but will never be an NBA All Star. Like Sergio Rodriguez before him, he does certain things very well and he does other things not at all. His lack of progress is due as much to a lack of personal skill development (no left hand, limited dribble-drive moves, no mid-range game, not great at finishing in traffic) as it is role-related.  The fact that he has been spending time working on perfecting a contested floater -- a flashy, inefficient and rare shot that he's shown no knack for being able to create, let alone make --suggests that he is perhaps not being honest with himself when it comes to truly realizing success in the NBA.  Instead, he's busy improving his greatest strength: playing to the crowd.  

In the unlikely event that Rudy Fernandez does choose the nuclear option this summer, finds a way out of his contract and returns to Spain, I wouldn't blame him in the slightest.  Surely thousands of fans in Portland-- not to mention many within the organization, particularly at the top rungs --would be incredibly disappointed.  

But you have to wonder whether Nate McMillan would lose that much sleep over it.  Should he?

-- Ben Golliver | | Twitter