Success of Roy's comeback will be determined by more than health
At first blush, the stakes on the Minnesota Timberwolves' signing of Brandon Roy are pretty cut-and-dried. If the 6-foot-6 shooting guard can come even remotely close to duplicating his vintage years with the Portland Trail Blazers -- from his Rookie of the Year season in 2006-07 through 2009-10 -- then he will become one of the most consequential acquisitions of the 2012 offseason, making his two-year $10.4 million contract look like an absolute steal.
On the other hand, after several increasingly debilitating knee surgeries that robbed him of his cartilage and grace, Roy is always one unkind step away from oblivion. Even if, as he claims, his wheels have been miraculously rejuvenated by the platelet-rich plasma therapy he underwent in June six months after retiring from the NBA, for him, the basketball court will forever be laden with land mines. Whether as result of the consequences of the game's constant wear and tear or, more dramatically, the wrong pivot at the wrong time, there is a decent chance that the Roy experiment will blow up in the franchise's face.
But with Roy emerging from last week's intensive training camp sessions to cautiously rave reviews, it is time to consider the vast terrain between those boom and doom scenarios. How much, and in what ways, do the Wolves want to rely on Roy this season? And how well can a proud, celebrated former All-Star and go-to guy adapt to and accept a different, likely downsized, role on a new team?
Fans in Portland are thoroughly acquainted with the vagaries of the Roy melodrama. They saw the physical diminishment of a swingman with a Hall of Fame package of virtues: strong and crafty enough to create his own shot yet with the court vision and attitude to excel as a playmaker and elevate his game in crunch time. But in his final season with the Blazers, in 2010-11, Roy was frequently a shell of that player. To choose but one example, he lacked the ability to get to the rim, which in turn affected his signature move, the short pull-up jumper off the drive. After making well over 40 percent from 3-9 feet in the previous four seasons, he sank just 32.3 percent in 2010-11, according to
Meanwhile, Roy found it difficult to accept his changing role in the pecking order. As far back as 2009-10, he openly feuded with then-newly acquired point guard Andre Miller over control of the half-court offense. Even as he was recovering from surgeries on both knees in 2011, he chafed at the 24-minute limit imposed on his playing time. After last season's lockout, then-coach Nate McMillan and team management emerged from a meeting with Roy announcing he would be a starter in 2011-12, a vindication of sorts for Roy, who then retired only days later.
Sitting courtside at the Wolves' training camp last week, Roy described that flurry of activity between the end of the lockout and his retirement as "a strange process." At the meeting with McMillan and management, he said he expressed his desire not to be held to any time limits. But then he met with the team doctor who reviewed the MRIs on Roy's knees and compassionately but bluntly urged him to retire. Roy's wife worried that he would be physically unable to play with his sons as they were growing up. And given this discouraging medical report, Roy wondered if the time limitation on his play would be re-imposed, or, worse, if the Blazers would, or even should, exercise the amnesty clause on his contract and cut him loose. (Which they did shortly after his retirement.)
"So I said I was done. But after about a month and a half, you know" -- and here Roy establishes eye contact to nail down the point -- "it just didn't feel like I was done," he said. "It felt like I made the decision to please other people."
Roy insists he was already feeling well enough to return before the June procedure, which involved recycling his blood with five injections in each knee. But afterward, he says his first reaction was, "Wow, this can't be real, my knees feel great," and that in the ensuing months without setbacks he has learned to trust that this is more than a temporary rejuvenation.
As a hedge against delusions of optimism, however, he sought the opinion of a coach he trusted -- Bill Bayno, who was on the Blazers' staff when he was in Portland but had since been hired away by the Timberwolves. Bayno was out in Los Angeles, where Roy had had the surgery, working out forwards Derrick Williams and the soon-to-be-departed Anthony Randolph for Minnesota, and offered to watch Roy in action. It so happened that Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn was monitoring the workout and Roy permitted him to hang around.
"Brandon went hard and just looked great," Bayno said.
Kahn was impressed enough to charge ahead and beat out five other teams, signing Roy to a two-year deal (the second year is reportedly guaranteed to Roy but the Wolves can get some relief if he is physically unable to perform) in early July. Three weeks later, sitting in a conference room at the headquarters of the Taylor Corporation, Wolves owner Glen Taylor candidly told me that he and Wolves coach Rick Adelman were leery about the signing: "Rick keeps saying to me, 'I don't know if he can play!' And I tell him, 'Rick, I don't know if he can play either!' So the Brandon Roy thing is a risk."
Undaunted, Roy showed up for informal preseason workouts in Minneapolis before anyone else on the roster, and thus far, has steadily silenced the skeptics. Asked to compare the current Roy to the All-Star from 2009, Bayno said, "He's close. The only thing he is not doing compared to his peak is he had a 40-inch vertical that he would pull out when he really needed it before. That's gone. He's not quite as explosive but his ability to gain separation is there -- he had a step-back move today that was vintage Brandon."
Throughout his first season coaching the Wolves last year, Adelman made no secret of his frustration over the team's lack of ball-handlers on the wing. Compared to the underachieving former lottery pick Wes Johnson (since traded to Phoenix) and the woefully undersized Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea, even the broken-down Roy from Portland might be an improvement. (The team has also added Russian Olympian Alexey Shved and, in a trade with Houston, swingman Chase Budinger.)
Perhaps it is not surprising then that Adelman is now gung-ho on Roy. After the team returned from a week of training camp last weekend, he left little doubt that a healthy Roy will get plenty of touches.
"I know I can put him in spots that will change what we're doing," Adelman said. "We are going to be adding things with the ball in his hands."
He added that he could see situations where Roy is the one bringing up the ball. And his breakdown on how Roy would fit in with Ricky Rubio once the wunderkind point guard returns from knee surgery indicates how thoroughly Roy has been integrated into his plans.
"I think the biggest thing with whoever plays with Brandon is you have to able to make shots," Adelman said. "He creates a lot of problems for the other team and if he kicks it to somebody like Ricky, he needs to make shots. But [Ricky] can also attack. I think we could have some nice balance but that could be a situation that takes some time because he [Rubio] is not going to be there [at the beginning of the season]."
Best-case scenario, Roy will slide in as the third cog in a pecking order behind star power forward Kevin Love and a fully recovered Rubio, with emerging center Nikola Pekovic a candidate to bump Roy further down the ladder. For a player who has either been "the man" for his NBA team or caused problems when he wasn't, Roy will have to demonstrate that he is resilient mentally as well as physically.
Last week, I asked Roy if he could handle physical setbacks that may limit his ability to the level of his play in his final year in Portland and still remain a team player.
"I don't think it will come to that, but if it does, yes, I can live with that," he said. "I think that was harder to do in Portland. I got built up so high, that anything less than what I was doing, it felt like I was being put out on a string. If we'd lose and I didn't do something, then it was because of Brandon."
He mentioned his last great game, when he exploded for 18 points in the fourth quarter to beat Dallas in the 2011 playoffs.
"We were already down 20 when they put me back in the game," he said. "I missed my first shot as people were yelling, 'Get Roy out!' I took it to heart from the fans. I just think they could never see me as anything other than that player I was."
Roy has said and done all the right things with the Wolves. On Love, he said he is "not only expecting him to be a leader -- we need him to be a leader. I think it's important that your best players are your leaders." A few days later, he added, "After sitting out a year, I am at peace just wanting to help the team. If that means guarding the other guy or not being a focal point always offensively, I think I've matured enough to accept that."
But in talking about how he can help the locker room, Roy offered another glimpse into why he was so valuable in his prime and why, after all the surgeries, he is still around.
"I think losing is habit and I think winning is a habit," Roy said. "I have winning habits and I think those things are contagious. Even in my short career I have been fortunate enough to be an All-Star, All-NBA and a fourth-quarter guy, so I am not just coming in talking it. But I go to somebody like D-Will [Derrick Williams] and say, 'You are a talented guy but you have to show it every night. That's how you get that top All-NBA player ranking; you don't do it when you want to. Every practice and every situation you go into, you dominate; every situation, every situation.' When I went to the East Coast I was like, I'm going to prove to the people on the East Coast that I am as good as they say. That is my mentality."
The health of his knees is obviously Roy's biggest potential obstacle to a successful comeback. But the second biggest potential obstacle will be his ability to channel and hone that enormously proud competitive fire.