Nicolas Batum’s return to the Portland lineup in recent weeks has generated lots of excitement among Blazers fans and, oddly, nothing in the way of improvement in the team’s performance. Odder still, the only conclusion I can reach from this set of circumstances is that the Blazers should seriously consider trading Rudy Fernandez. It doesn't really matter all that much what they get in return.
What, you ask? How can Batum’s relative lack of impact spell the end of Rudy’s tenure in Portland? How can the Blazers trade Rudy, a player in whom they invested much time and energy to acquire, and who is probably the most popular Blazer after Brandon Roy?
Well, I’ll admit right from the start that it’s probably not going to happen. Those outside the Portland market may not know it, but in the Pacific Northwest Rudy is more or less the equivalent of a Jonas Brother or one of those dreamy vampires from Twilight.
Thirteen-year-old girls write Rudy’s name on their school folders. Thirty-year-old women wear "I Luv Rudy" night shirts to bed. When Fernandez shows up in the bar at Huber’s Restaurant, women buy him Spanish Coffees. When he’s on the street, he gets mobbed like George Harrison ca. 1964. Girls tear his clothes and pull his hair. I swear, if a group of female Blazer fans ever found themselves alone with Rudy in an elevator or a dark alley, they would hold him down, shave off his permanent two-days-growth beard, and save it as a keepsake.
Rudy has had a series of hot-as-a-supermodel girlfriends since coming over from Spain, each of whom has disappeared under mysterious circumstances while visiting him in Portland. I’m just saying.
If Kevin Pritchard is ever brave enough to trade Fernandez, he may have to hire a bodyguard to protect himself from the hordes of Rudy groupies.
That being said, it’s a trade the Blazers need to strongly consider, especially after a performance like last night’s debacle against the Thunder. At one point early in the fourth quarter, the Blazers were one for 16 from three-point range.
Rudy came in and jacked up yet another three pointer, making him zero for five on the night. Next possession, Rudy turned the ball over, and then followed that up by missing his sixth attempt at a three pointer. He finished 0-6 from the field, with all six attempts coming from beyond the arc. For an encore, he turned the ball over again. During this revealing little stretch, the Thunder went on a 13 to nothing run that basically decided the ball game. (Interestingly, this run took place without Kevin Durant in the lineup, continuing the pattern established over the last three years of the Thunder actually playing better when Durant is on the bench.)
Why was this performance so revealing? Well, let me back up a little bit.
Brandon Roy has missed 13 of the Blazers’ last 14 games with a bad hamstring. During that period, Portland has gone 5-8 without their All-Star shooting guard and have dropped from third to eighth in the Western Conference standings.
Roy’s was merely the most devastating in a run of injuries unlike anything ever seen before in a team that was predicted to contend for a title.
The Blazers have lost both starting center Greg Oden and backup Joel Przybilla for the rest of the season. Sixth man Travis Outlaw has been out most of the year. Rookies Jeff Pendergraph and Patty Mills both missed the opening months of the season with injuries. Last year’s starting small forward, Nicolas Batum, had shoulder surgery during training camp and missed November, December, and most of January. Rudy Fernandez had back surgery in early December and missed 19 games. And most recently, reserve guard Jerryd Bayless suffered a banged up wrist and a deep thigh bruise.
As a result, the Blazers had missed more games to injury by the end of January than they missed all of last season, which is amazing considering that Raef LaFrentz and Martell Webster alone missed a combined 163 games last year.
What’s more amazing is that Portland was still fighting for the top spot in the NorthWest Division as recently as three weeks ago. Then Roy went down, and Portland has struggled ever since.
Actually, let me correct that. They didn’t struggle too badly at first, going 3-2 in the first five games after Roy aggravated his hamstring, including a victory over Philadelphia in which Roy played 18 minutes before leaving for good at half-time. During the first four games in which Roy didn’t play at all, Martell Webster picked up the slack, averaging 22.25 points on 44.4 percent shooting, which is very respectable for a player who shoots a lot of three pointers. He led the team in scoring in two of those four games.
Now, Nicolas Batum is not the culprit here. Everyone in Portland and around the NBA recognizes that this young man has the tools to be a very special player. At age 20, his defensive prowess and long arms are already evoking memories of Scottie Pippen in his prime. This is not hyperbole. Batum might actually be the best player on the current roster five years from now.
It’s not Martell Webster’s fault, either. Throughout this season, Webster has demonstrated an ability to step up when called upon. He has hit clutch shots. He’s played exceptional defense. He absolutely thrived when Roy first went down with the hammy. He’s been inconsistent, yes, but that's not surprising under the circumstances. Before Batum returned, fans and media in Portland were thrilled with Martell’s play. He was getting big minutes, he was confident, and he knew his role. The more he was asked to do, the better he played.
One local sports-talk host declared that he couldn’t see a scenario in which Webster lost his starting spot when Batum returned. Martell was just playing too well. Then Batum came back, and a week later this same person was calling for Batum to start. What happened? (Well, other than the Portland sports media proving once again that they are the most fickle in all the land.)
With Batum in the lineup, Martell began playing fewer and fewer minutes, and even though he was still starting, his game suffered. After averaging 15.75 shot attempts in the first four games without Roy in the lineup, Webster has averaged just 8.7 since Batum returned. He’s shot just 37 percent. His scoring average dropped from 22.25 in the first four games without Roy to 10 ppg in the last nine.
This isn’t good. Webster has shown he can play and that he can contribute. He’s aggressive, he’s big, he’s strong, and he plays with heart. When his role is defined and he gets enough playing time, he produces. Early in the season, when he didn't have to share minutes with Rudy and Nic, Martell proved that he deserves playing time. In Portland, though, deserving it and getting it are two different things.
So if Batum needs to play and Webster deserves to play, where does that leave Rudy?
Well, it leaves him as trade bait.
Of course, everyone has expected that someday Rudy would have to be traded because he’s supposedly just too good to keep coming off the bench behind Brandon Roy. Long-time Blazer fans will remember Drazen Petrovic, the wonderful Croatian shooting guard who backed up Clyde Drexler in the 1990 season. When the Blazers acquired Danny Ainge the following summer, Petrovic found himself out of the rotation. He rightfully complained that he was too good a player to sit on the bench, and the Blazers traded him within months. He went on to become an All-Star in New Jersey and a posthumous Hall of Famer.
Rudy Fernandez is no Drazen Petrovic. He’s never going to take Brandon Roy’s job. He doesn’t have the upside of Nicolas Batum or even Jerryd Bayless. He’s been outplayed this year by Martell Webster.
Ironically, Fernandez may actually have to be traded because he’s just not good enough to fill in for Brandon Roy.
Remember, in the days following Roy’s injury, Martell stepped up big time. In those first four games without Roy, the Blazers outscored their opponents by a total of 37 points while Webster was in the lineup. During those same four games, Portland got outscored by 28 with Rudy on the floor.
There’s a reason for the discrepancy. Webster is big. He can defend. He’s a mismatch for many teams, especially when he swings to shooting guard. He plays with passion.
Rudy plays with passion some of the time. However, he’s not a great defender. For every great pass, unbelievable alley-oop or circus shot he makes, there’s an inexplicable shot clock violation or traveling call. He almost never drives to the basket anymore, especially since he hurt his back.
Since returning from his surgery, he has attempted 35 free throws in 15 games. Ten of those came in one game against Detroit. That means that in the other 14 games, he has a total of 25 free throw attempts, or 1.8 per game. During the same stretch, Jerryd Bayless, who has played fewer minutes than Rudy, has 51 free throw attempts for an average of 3.4 per game.
Rudy hasn’t proved that he is capable of stepping up when the Blazers need him. This goes back to last year’s playoff series with Houston, when Blazer fans all predicted that Rudy’s experience winning championships in International play would help the Blazers in the clutch. It didn’t.
This year, in Brandon Roy’s absence, no one on the roster has consistently stepped up with the game on the line. However, different players have done it at least some of the time. Jerryd Bayless has proved he is capable of coming through in crunch time. Martell Webster has hit big shots. Andre Miller and Steve Blake have each won games with big shots down the stretch. Even old man Howard has a game-winner under his belt.
Rudy has done nothing of the sort. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like he has bricked every big shot he’s taken this year. That is, at least, when he hasn’t turned it over first.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Rudy, but the fact remains: One of Portland’s wing players is going to have to go. If Portland keeps them all, none of them are going to develop to their potential.
With last night’s game, Rudy became my leading candidate.