Logjam in Rip City: Let the Battle for Playing Time Begin in Portland
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Earlier in the summer, Portland Trailblazers' guard and fan favorite Rudy Fernandez expressed his discontent at the volume of minutes he was being given in Portland and demanded a trade. Although several suitors became involved in the Fernandez sweepstakes, and Fernandez was nearly dealt to the Knicks, Rich Cho, the Trailblazers' new general manager decided against trading him.
Now that the Trailblazers’ management have called his bluff, Fernandez has stated that he is more than willing to put the offseason’s misunderstanding behind him and is excited to contribute to this new Blazer’s squad.
However, Fernandez’s epiphany may have created more problems than it is has solved.
The most notable offseason acquisition by the Trailblazers was the signing of Wesley Matthews, who is coming off a strong rookie season as the starting shooting guard for the Utah Jazz. Matthews was signed to a five-year, $34 million deal, and it’s pretty clear that a player receiving that kind of salary from the Blazers is part of the long-term plan.
With star Brandon Roy undoubtedly maintaining the role of starting shooting guard for the Blazers, and defensive specialist Nicolas Batum starting at small forward, it would appear that Matthews will take on the role of primary backup to Roy and Batum. Which, unfortunately, is the exact role that Fernandez has inhabited for the past two seasons.
Fernandez and Matthews averaged 8.1 and 9.4 points per game, respectively, in similar minutes, and have both proven themselves to be excellent three-point shooters and athletic finishers. While Matthews is a superior on-ball defender and has a skill set custom built for coach Nate McMillan’s system, Fernandez is a more electrifying scorer and has experience in the Blazer’s offense.
Both players are clearly deserving of minutes, so the obvious solution would be to allow them to split the backup minutes of Roy and Batum. Right?
The Blazers have arguably the deepest bench in the league, and Fernandez and Matthews are not the only players used to getting minutes backing up Roy and Batum. Combo guard Jerryd Bayless will be entering his third year in the league, and after an impressive second season in which he averaged 8.5 points in under 18 minutes per game, he will be striving for minutes backing up both Roy and point guard Andre Miller.
Although the departure of small forwards Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster has helped clear up space, rookies Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt have arrived to fill the void left by their departures. But with so many quality players fighting for a spot in Nate McMillan’s rotation, chances are the rookies won’t get as much time to develop this season as they deserve.
The Blazers are incredibly deep heading into training camp, and that is in no way a bad thing. After an injury-laden season in 2009-10, in which the Blazers were forced to move deeper into the bench to make up for the losses of key players like Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and Nicolas Batum, they are now left with not only their regular rotation but new players who feel they are deserving of minutes. But with only so many minutes available, chances are only a few of the Blazers' many wing players will get in-game opportunities.
Not only are the Blazers extremely deep at the guard and small forward positions, they also have several quality big men. Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla are still recovering from their various knee injuries, but the Blazers will get along just fine without them in the mean time.
Veteran shot blocker Marcus Camby should continue to control the paint this season, while developing second-year players Jeff Pendergraph and Dante Cunningham will be playing hard to earn a spot in the rotation. LaMarcus Aldridge should continue to improve as the Blazers' secondary scoring option, and Luke Babbitt is capable of playing the role of stretch four.
With the exception of the center position, Portland's starting lineup would seem fairly fixed at this point, and should once again comprise of Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge, with either Camby or Oden patrolling the middle, though due to the uncertainty surrounding the center position, I will just ignore it for now.
Chances are Roy and Aldridge will each get around 35 minutes per game, with Miller getting around 32 and the developing Batum hopefully getting around 30 as well. That leaves around 16 backup minutes at point guard, 28-32 at the wing positions, and around 13 behind Aldridge.
So what would be an acceptable second rotation?
The ideal, most experienced second unit would likely consist of Bayless, Fernandez, Matthews, Cunningham, and either Pryzbilla or Camby. However, the first three would not get the playing time they deserve playing alongside each other, as chances are none of them would get more than 18 minutes per game, and the rookies would be hard pressed to find any playing time at all.
Consequently, coach Nate McMillan may have to trade or cut the playing time of either Fernandez or Bayless. Matthews' large contract makes it apparent that he will be given good playing time, so the player that will end up on the short end of the stick will almost certainly be either Fernandez or Bayless.
Fernandez's poor attitude over the summer, along with his apparent willingness to sit out the final two seasons of his contract, would seem to make him the ideal choice. Bayless came up big during the playoffs while filling in for the injured Brandon Roy, averaging 13.5 points per game to Fernandez' 6.8. However, Fernandez is more versatile and seems to have greater potential, as he was heralded in his rookie season as the next Manu Ginobili.
Despite GM Rich Cho's desire to keep Fernandez around, trading him may still be the best option. Although depth is far from a bad thing, the number of wing players on the Blazers deserving of playing time could create chemistry issues and disgruntled players. Cho was looking for an early first-round pick in exchange for Fernandez, and if he can find one it would likely work out better for both the Spaniard and the team's chemistry.
Unless Fernandez is willing to take on the role of sharpshooter in limited minutes for the Blazers, Portland may not be the best home for him. Whatever happens, expect the Blazers' guards to be in tight competition for minutes next season, and help make the league fear Rip City.
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