When Brandon Roy became inactive in December 2010 due to ongoing pain and stiffness in his knees, the city of Portland held its collective breath. As the face of their franchise, every fan was hoping that he would return to full strength and lead the team to their breakthrough season.
However, when it was announced that Roy would undergo double-arthroscopic knee surgery due to the lack of cartilage caused by a previous injury, the fear of the Blazer nation was confirmed.
Roy returned roughly a month after the surgery in a February 23rd game against the Lakers, where he notched a mere five points and one rebound in 16 minutes on the floor. Though his next game against the Nuggets was vintage Brandon Roy, it became increasingly evident over time that something was just not the same as before.
Roy is a really fundamentally sound player whose game isn't predicated entirely upon speed and explosiveness like a Derrick Rose, but he does rely on strategic bursts of quickness to get by defenders. He seemed to have really lost a step since the surgery, which left him with "bone-on-bone", cartilage-less knees. No longer was Roy the extremely athletic two-guard he had been for his first 5 years in the league.
In addition, Roy's extended absence forced the dynamic of the Blazers to change completely. LaMarcus Aldridge became the team's de facto leader, Aldridge kept Portland afloat at a time when the team could've easily floundered. In fact, every member of the team really elevated their individual game, with the adversity they faced causing them to adopt a true team-first mentality.
Roy was returning to a different Portland team than the one he had left and at times it was incredibly evident out on the floor.
The new Blazers' offense emphasized ball movement and getting every player involved in scoring. Though Roy is an excellent passer, he relies heavily on isolation plays to score. At times Roy's dependency on playing one-on-one caused the Blazers offense to go stagnant and he didn't always mesh with his teammates on the floor.
Still, there were glimpses of the Brandon Roy of old. In late season games against the Heat and Mavericks Roy looked like his old self again. His exceptional basketball IQ shined and though he lacked some of his penetration abilities, Roy proved he could still make plays and knock down shots when he was called upon.
All of this culminated in one of the most incredible playoff performances of all time. The Blazers found themselves in a 23 point hole against the Mavs in the opening round of the playoffs. With their backs against the wall and the thought of a 3-1 series deficit growing more likely, Roy took over the game in the fourth quarter as he'd done so many times before. Roy finished with 24 points on 69% shooting (18 in the fourth) as the Blazers rallied to one of the most emotional comebacks in Portland basketball history.
Now, with the Blazers' season over, the question must be asked; "Will Brandon Roy ever be the player he was? And if not, what is his role with Portland going forward?"
The surgeon who operated on Roy stated that at best he has another year or two playing similarly limited minutes off the bench and may not even be able to make it an entire season. The doctor also recommended limiting Roy to around 65-75 games a season and keeping his practice regiment as light as possible.
Clearly these are not the limitations of a star player and even if all these criteria are met Roy probably will not last the remaining years of his contract, which runs through the 2014-2015 season with a team option on the final year.
Lately, rumors have swirled about Roy being asked to retire by the team or being traded in order to relieve the Blazers of the remaining salary he is due from the 5 year, $82 million extension he signed in 2009.
Still, despite all of these factors working against him, Roy can be a key contributor to Portland, albeit in a very different role than the one he is used to.
First of all, Roy will need to spend the summer improving his health and restructuring his game in order to come back and really help the team.
The value of rest and proper rehabilitation can not be overstated, especially for knee injuries. Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal for instance, another player who underwent arthroscopic surgery in his left knee. Though O'Neal's injury was not quite as severe as Roy's, it was a major operation and it was unclear in what shape he would return.
O'Neal spent a month post-operation in rehab, working primarily to strengthen the muscles surrounding his knee and his legs overall. Though he isn't the immovable paint presence he was during his glory days with the Pacers, O'Neal was able to help anchor the interior for Boston and had some impressive moments in the team's series with the Knicks.
While Brandon Roy's injury is obviously more serious, a well-structured rehab regiment could do wonders for his health and overall confidence.
Roy spent a great deal of time essentially serving as Andre Miller's back up, initiating the team's half court offense and serving as a playmaker while on the floor. Roy has always been a talented passer and if he works over the summer he could really become an excellent facilitator, which would greatly strengthen the Blazers' sometimes ineffective offensive execution.
Playing more point would also put less of a strain on Roy's knees, as he wouldn't have to do nearly as much slashing and banging as he does as an off guard.
Perhaps he could really adapt to a sixth man style role, coming off the bench to carry the scoring burden like a Jason Terry or Jamaal Crawford. Roy is a humble, hardworking young man and while he has said he's hoping to be part of the starting lineup next year, helping the team win is undoubtedly the first priority.
Roy's situation is quite similar to that of the Suns' Grant Hill, who burst into the league as one of the best and most versatile young players ever until a series of ankle injuries robbed him of his trademark quickness and forced him to significantly alter his style of play.
Hill became a smarter player and though he lost some athleticism, he greatly improved his ability to read the opposing defense to find openings and his shooting range.
Roy will need to find other facets of his game to improve given the nature of his injury, whether it be his man-to-man defense, playmaking for teammates or his ability to play the passing lane and come up with loose balls in order to make up for the abilities his injury has robbed him of.
If he can do this and improve his overall game to compensate for a lack of consistent scoring then he should still be a part of Portland's future.
In all likelihood, Roy will never be the franchise player and perennial All-Star he seemed destined to be. But don't count out Brandon Roy just yet, because as he proved in the playoffs, The Natural's still got something left in the tank.