This week we continue our walk through the most disappointing Blazers acquisitions of all time, spurred on by a recent question about where Greg Oden would rank on that list.
I enjoyed all the comments and debate last week (really the point of any list). A couple of things which might be misunderstood. "Disappointing" does not necessarily mean that this is a list of Portland's worst players or even particularly bad players. Disappointment is as much a function of expectations and environment as individual skill or accomplishment. As such this list says as much about the fan base, media coverage, and/or needs of the team as it does about the players on it. It's more disappointing to have someone who was expected to do very well turn out average than it is to have someone of whom nothing was expected turn out bad. Also "disappointing" does not necessarily equate to bad character. We're not talking about the most despised Blazers here. Instead we're looking for a spark that caught people's attention that never caught fire in the way hoped for. A few of the more maligned Blazers probably won't make this list, either because they performed well throughout their careers or because their missteps had nothing to do with what was thought of them at the time of their acquisition. "All-Time Most Hated Blazers" is a completely different list...one which I'd find too depressing to do at this point.
Given that, I don't see this list as a downer. It's more of an interesting look at the history of the team and career arcs of Blazers who might have been something special but just ended up not.
That brings us to our #12 spot and one Rudy Fernandez. Rudy came to the team at the center of the perfect storm, in just the right environment to raise expectations. The internet journalism phenomenon had reached full bloom by 2007 when Fernandez was drafted in the 24th position by the Phoenix Suns and traded to Portland. The new breed of NBA fan was smart, connected, and always on the lookout for the hidden gem. European players had long been sexy but recent international successes had made them even more so. Video streaming made European games and highlights more accessible than ever. Fernandez being dubbed the "Best Player in Europe" made hearts sing. When the Blazers got him for cash and a smile, whispers began of the potential big steal in the offing.
Those whispers became full-on shouts when Rudy's Spanish national team won the silver medal against the United States in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Fernandez played significant minutes and threw down a memorable dunk on Dwight Howard in the final game, enough to send Portland fans into a frenzy. Several aspects of his game evoked questions, defense in particular. But the hype machine was cranked to 11 and there was no stopping it. The Blazers had a potential multi-position player in their grasp, electrifying, the perfect bench guy at the least and maybe a star to add to the embarrassment of Roy-Aldridge-Oden riches.
When Fernandez actually joined the Blazers in the fall of 2008 he earned instant playing time. 25.6 minutes per game may not seem like a ton but for a rookie on a Nate McMillan coached team it was a veritable avalanche. Lottery pick Jerryd Bayless and center Channing Frye didn't earn that much combined. Fernandez' weaknesses came to the fore: poor defensive positioning, mediocre individual defensive skills, not as great of an all-around contributor as hoped, a little bit lost on the dribble. But boy, could the guy shoot! Rudy averaged 40% from the arc on 5 threes attempted per game in his rookie season. A couple of strong games in a playoff series versus the Houston Rockets spoke well of his future. If Fernandez could just get used to the NBA team concept he'd become a potent weapon for the Blazers.
Injuries plagued Rudy's sophomore year in the league, contributing to a slow ramp up. He had spots of brilliance but mostly fell flat. Ironically as his team play was becoming better his shooting got worse. As defenders rode his jock and dared him to drive his three-point shooting dipped from 40% to below 37% and his overall field goal percentage fell from 42.5% beneath 38%. The meta-game came easier but his bread and butter was deserting him. That story continued in his third season when, now looking more like a viable NBA player than ever, his shot went bush league. 32% from the arc wasn't just a far cry from his rookie year percentage, he needed a telegraph to span the distance. His minutes stayed solid, his opportunities came frequently due to injuries at his position, but a poor dribble drive and failing jumper robbed him of significant impact.
As this happened the former media darling became almost a pariah among Portland fans. Fernandez' agent had frequently complained about his client not being featured in Portland, coupled with threats to take his game back to Spain where he was still considered a star. From business and personal standpoints this made perfect sense. Fernandez had given up money to come to the NBA, paying off an onerous buyout clause from his own wallet and taking a smaller contract and fewer sponsorship dollars to boot. Secondary roles and battles for attention weren't part of the game plan. From a public relations standpoint whining from a player already falling beneath expectations was a disaster. Portland fans began to turn on Rudy in droves, particularly towards the end of his third season when he couldn't even get on the porch, let alone step through the wide-open door, trying to replace the perpetually-gimpy Brandon Roy.
By 2011, when Fernandez was traded to Dallas as part of a convoluted move for point guard Raymond Felton, the prevailing chorus from Portland was "good riddance". Rudy was never a bad player. The barely-earned confidence in his stardom had simply been misplaced. But the difference between the near ticker-tape level of his arrival in 2008 and his somewhat ignominious departure in 2011 was enough to earn him the #12 spot on our list.
Share your reflections of Rudy Fernandez' tenure with the Blazers and agree/disagree with his placement in the comment section.
If you missed them, check out #13 James Robinson, #14 Scottie Pippen, and #15 Walter Berry as well.