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Rudygate Reaction

You all have had a chance to discuss it but I'm getting multiple requests for a response to the Rudy Fernandez quotes from Spain yesterday, implying that he's not happy with his situation and would consider returning to his homeland.  So here you go.

First of all, if you're surprised by this you're probably also surprised that Brett Michaels isn't actually going to marry the chick who won Rock of Love 8 (or whatever they're up to).  With the year Rudy was having I'd be shocked if he got through the season without this kind of thing happening.  I've mentioned that long before yesterday, I believe.  These guys are superstars in their home countries.  For the most part the only media folks that want to talk to them consistently come from their native land.  But those folks want to talk to them a lot.  And they all have the same questions:  Rudy, why aren't you playing more?  Rudy, when will you be an NBA superstar like you were here?  Rudy, are you happy?  Rudy, when are you coming home?  It's one thing when your season is going decently, even if it's not everything you expected.  You can be coy and play the game.  But when your year has gone to pot so far, what are you supposed to say?  "Why yes, I am planning on becoming a superstar soon.  Yes, it will be with this team because I am happy here.  I know I'm averaging fewer minutes and points than last year but this is all part of the plan.  You'll see!"  Even with the best of intentions you can't give that interview with a straight face.  When you're struggling you wouldn't be human if you didn't mention that you felt stuck playing behind Roy, that you wish you could do more, that it's not easy to deal with.  This is not the same as your garden-variety NBA player going to the national (or local) media to demand a trade.  It's more like your garden-variety NBA player getting interviewed by his hometown paper, giving answers to people who worship him, letting them know that he's still alive, still a great player, and still planning to fulfill his dreams even though they don't see him as routinely.

Naturally there are two sides to the story.  Rudy hasn't been playing well enough to worry about minutes.  He has improved his defensive and rebounding presence this year, which is to the good, but the primary reason to have him on the floor remains offense.   His offensive confidence is low...shockingly so in some games.  He's passing up shots he used to hit in his sleep.  He's hesitating in situations where he used to act so quickly you couldn't track him.  He's not been Rudy since he returned from injury.  You can talk about coaching or teammates or astrology or whatever you wish but the fact remains this is the NBA.  You must perform.  You cannot give up that which makes you special (and marketable) or else you will not play.  In 10 minutes or 30 it's up to the player to produce.  If he can't, he cannot blame anyone but himself.  As Mike Barrett aptly stated in tonight's broadcast, if every performance reflected the one we saw in Toronto we wouldn't be having this conversation.  As much as people want to bag on Nate McMillan, players from Martell Webster to Travis Outlaw to Jarrett Jack to Sergio Rodriguez to Nicolas Batum to Jerryd Bayless have gotten the chance for more minutes as they've played better.  Some have prospered with those minutes, some have fallen on their faces, some have been up and down, but they do get their chance, as Rudy has (and certainly will again.)

On the other hand you can understand Rudy's frustration completely.  He plays a different style than most of his teammates.  He came from a system where he was able to fill multiple roles and explore his potential to contribute.  The NBA is far more specialized.  For all of their skill the vast majority of players make a living doing one or two things extremely well.  At least on this team (and to be fair on many) those one or two things don't include covering as much of the court on both ends as Rudy tries to.  The Blazers don't play his type of offense.  He has to find his niches here and he's struggled to do so.  The Blazers haven't made it easy, either.  Rudy himself identifies a key problem:  he's playing behind an All-NBA player who averages 37 minutes per game. He can switch positions as he did tonight but then another young, hungry player (in this case both Batum and Webster) get under-played, creating the same problem in somebody else's home paper.  Whatever Rudy had in mind coming to the league it didn't involved picking up scrap minutes off the bench.  He's going to want to start, if not become a star.  If there's not opportunity to do that on this team then it's not his ideal situation.  It's perfectly accurate to say this isn't fair to him, at least from his perspective.  He shouldn't be content with the way things are right now.

You have the potential for a toxic spiral here:  less-than-ideal situation, underperforming player.  How do you fix it?  We saw the short-term answer tonight.  Just hit your shots.  Nobody at this point is expecting Rudy to be an All-Star.  He'll be valuable if he can simply hit that three-pointer for this team.  As long as he's doing that the passes, rebounds, and spectacular layups are much-appreciated gravy.  If he's not doing it the spiral is going to continue.  Some will ask why it can't be the other way...why the spiral can't be broken by Nate simply giving him more minutes to perform in.  We just explained it above.  More minutes for Rudy means fewer for someone else.  The coach cannot look his other players in the eye and say Batum or Webster or Miller or Bayless has to sit so Rudy can get back on track.  Not only is it royally unfair to those players, by putting players other than the ones performing best out there he's given the rest of the team an agenda besides winning.   Maybe you get away with that with a guy like Brandon or LaMarcus who's your star.  Maybe you even get away with it for a while with a veteran carrying a proven track record.  But a second-year guy like Rudy who's standing in a thicket of young guys just like him all trying to earn the same minutes?  You're going to kill the team doing that.  If the roster gets thinned out, that's different.  But right now it's pretty draconian.  Hit your shots and the playing time will come.

My guess is that this matter will be resolved exactly this way.  Rudy's not going to miss forever.  At some point we're going to see a consistent return of the old Rudy confidence coupled with some of the nice little things Rudy is doing this year.  At that point minutes will be found for him.

I believe a longer-term solution is coming down the pike as well.  Either Rudy is going to be part of a more orderly Blazer roster or Rudy will be traded to make the roster more orderly for someone else.  Which way that scale tips will depend on his performance, his long-term goals, and how many different positions he can fill on this team.  Rudy will be criminally easy to move in a trade package if it comes to that.  I don't think it would take too much of a nudge to make him more comfortable here either.  One possibility would be to relieve the Raptors of their rather expensive back-up point guard this summer.  Provided the Blazers' pocketbook could stand it and they had confidence in their frontcourt to make up for a whole host of backcourt defensive sins, running Calderon, Fernandez, and Batum mixed in with Roy would nearly automatically create more motion in the offense.  This is just an off-the-cuff example, of course, but it does illustrate that staying or leaving, the Fernandez issue is nowhere close to insoluble.

As far as Fernandez' ability to just pack up and leave, this is a murky area.  I am asking around for opinions and counsel and should be able to give a better report soon.  Here is my gut-level reaction (which may be wrong). 

Leagues have procedures for players under contract coming from Europe to the U.S.  This involves buyout terms set in a player's contract which, when met, free him from further obligation and allow him to make the switch.  No reciprocal buyout terms exist in NBA contracts to my knowledge.  However any player can retire from the league for any reason at any time (indentured servitude being illegal in this country).  To do so he only need file with the league.  According to Larry Coon's salary cap site he would go onto a Voluntarily Retired list, forego all the remaining salary on his contract, and would not be able to return to the NBA for one year.  Theoretically this means that Rudy could "retire" at any time, head home, and play for anyone he wants.  He could likely return to the NBA after a year as well, although there again you run into murky waters.  If a drafted player's rights are owned by a team and that player cannot reach an agreement with said team, instead signing in another professional league, the player's rights are retained by the drafting team for a year after the player quits playing overseas.  Would the same hold true of a player who "retired" in such a way?   If not, the NBA would likely fix that loophole.   It's also possible that this eventuality is already covered in the CBA but it hasn't been brought to light because the situation hasn't come up.

That said, you have to consider international law and the fraternity among professional sports leagues here.  Should the NBA for whatever reason decide that voluntary retirement was not a kosher way to get out of a contract for these purposes Rudy would pretty much be stuck, at least if he wanted to play basketball for a living.  They could sue in international court for breach of contract, with Rudy trying to walk out on a legally-executed deal in order to work for a competing agency.  European leagues would also be reticent to facilitate this kind of move.  The implications for players moving not only across the pond but from league to league in Europe are frightening.

My guess is that whatever outs may technically exist (or at least appear to exist) in the NBA-CBA language in reality the legal and fraternal issues would prove stronger.  This is why you don't see players jumping ship whenever convenient.  As I said, I'm sure more information will be forthcoming in the comment section and via e-mail.  If anyone sorts this out with authority I'll let you know.

My even stronger guess is that we're nowhere near this being a serious issue for Rudy at this point...that the noise is overwhelming reality.  The only time we'll have to worry about losing Rudy is when his contract expires or when we trade him.  Until then he's a Blazer.

--Dave (