Months ahead will bring second-guessing for injured Trail Blazers
Every team in the NBA shivered at the bad news seeping out of Portland this week. It started with team leader Brandon Roy being sidelined by a painfully swollen left knee that threatens his future. Then another microfracture surgery (this time on the left knee) was scheduled for center Greg Oden, the stricken No. 1 pick who will complete four NBA seasons having played no more than 82 games.
When the Blazers won the 2007 lottery, they looked to be on the verge of building a title contender around Roy, who was on track for three straight All-Star appearances; Oden, who was viewed by some as his era's version of Bill Russell; and LaMarcus Aldridge, the power forward who would thrive as a secondary option in their midst.
Despite their worries, the Blazers are 8-5 after an 86-83 home victory against the Nuggets on Thursday, and are looking forward to the expected Nov. 26 return of 7-foot-1 center Joel Przybilla, who will fill out a strong big-man rotation alongside two 6-11 players in Aldridge and Marcus Camby. With Denver and Phoenix both appearing to recede, the Blazers should be aiming at a third straight playoff appearance, even if Roy's minutes and athleticism are limited for the remainder of the season.
But what of their long-term prospects? Can they hope to someday contend for a championship around Roy, who at 26 has already undergone two surgeries on each knee?
I guarantee that over the weeks ahead there will be second-guessing of former GM Kevin Pritchard's willingness to take chances on drafting players with health issues. In 2008-09, I spoke with a rival team president who forecast these issues for the Blazers.
"They've got three guys out there who are risks," the executive said. "Brandon Roy has a bad knee, [Jerryd] Bayless has a bad knee and Oden has a bad knee. Oden has one leg shorter than the other -- that's why he's having all of his problems -- and that's why our doctors blackflagged him."
Blackflagging him means there was no way you would be allowed to pick him?
"No way," the executive said. "Our doctors say they'll be surprised if he makes a long career. It's too bad. It's a shame. I know they're nervous [in the Blazers' front office] -- they're nervous about his hip and that his leg is shorter and that all of his problems are coming out of those things. If he goes down in the next few years, you'll know why."
Oden has gone down, indeed. Another team president swore that if he'd had the No. 1 pick -- his team was in that 2007 lottery -- he would have bypassed Oden in order to take Kevin Durant. But let's not take this too far: Most teams in the league would have picked Oden No. 1. And if he'd dropped to No. 2, it would have been almost impossible to bypass him, given his potential as a rare big man with the potential to control the paint defensively. Who would have chosen Al Horford ahead of Oden?
The comparisons of Oden with Portland's 1984 pick of injured center Sam Bowie don't hold up. The Blazers chose Bowie at No. 2 based on the circumstances of their roster -- they already had a couple of starring wings in Jim Paxson and Clyde Drexler, which persuaded them to bypass Michael Jordan, and they had a dire hole to fill at center. So they broke every law of common sense by picking the less talented player in order to fill a need.
That's not what happened when Portland chose Oden, who was viewed by most scouts as the most talented player in the draft. Some teams were worried about Oden's medical reports -- after that draft, I remember quoting an executive from yet another franchise who warned of Oden's health issues, forcing former GM Kevin Pritchard to defend the Blazers' medical analysis at a news conference -- but most of the experts rated Oden as the biggest talent available that year.
Similar warnings were issued about Roy's knees, which dissuaded several teams from pursuing him in the 2006 draft. But I'm not going to second-guess Pritchard for that pick either. At that time, the team was enormously unpopular in Portland -- it was known as the "Jail Blazers," don't forget -- and the choice of Roy changed the environment entirely. His public displays of integrity over the four years of his rookie contract rescued and restored that franchise to prominence.
You can question the ensuing decision to ignore the history of knee trouble in signing Roy to a five-year, $82 million contract that will pay him $19.3 million as a 30-year-old in 2014-15. But the indispensable role he played in saving the franchise validates the decision to spend a No. 6 pick on him.
Now Blazers first-year GM Rich Cho must plan a response to each injury. There has been speculation that the Blazers won't exercise a qualifying offer that would pay Oden $8.8 million next season, a move that would make him an unrestricted free agent. But my hunch is that the Blazers will choose by the June 30 deadline to make that offer, which will turn Oden into a restricted free agent and give Portland the right to match any offer he receives.
There are many reasons to not give up on Oden. He was playing well before he suffered a patella fracture of his left knee last season, and how would the Blazers like to see him recover his health and flourish with another team? He's only 22, after all, and medical reports indicate that he recovered well from the 2007 microfracture surgery on his right knee.
An anticipated lockout next season could reduce the salary the Blazers would owe to Oden. Holding on to their option could also enable them to acquire something in a sign-and-trade for him. That's why it would be a mistake to let him walk for nothing, unless the medical analysis over the months ahead is so grim that it leaves them with no better option.
The Blazers' doctors say Roy doesn't require knee surgery based on a recent MRI. Perhaps they can find a regimen of training and medication to soothe his knee and help him to return. Roy has lost his burst of athleticism as his shooting has plummeted to 40.9 percent this season, but he has nonetheless been averaging a redeemable 18.1 points. Some pitchers in baseball are able to compensate when their fastball drops from the 90s into the 80s, and Roy is someone who can throw many different pitches. Kobe Bryant has called him the most difficult opponent to guard because his game is flawless, and as long as he can play without pain, he may be able to find alternate ways to contribute, even if he isn't the overpowering, multiple threat of earlier years.
The truth is that the Blazers were never going to win a championship with Roy as their No. 1 player. They were always going to need one or two additional stars of superior talent to challenge the likes of the Lakers and Celtics. That mission to improve the roster hasn't changed; in the meantime, they'll learn over the next few months whether Roy's knee injury can be managed, enabling him to contribute as a complementary -- rather than as a leading -- star. The dreaded alternative is a roster overhaul, but it's much too early to jump to that drastic conclusion.
Michael Beasley has averaged 32.6 points in his last five games, ever since (as chronicled by the
Can Love continue to produce the average of 16 rebounds he has maintained over the last five games? No one has averaged that many since Dennis Rodman's 16.1 in 1996-97. Can Beasley keep pouring in 30 or more points per game? He averaged 14.3 points over his first two seasons, in Miami.
Both are exceptionally hot at the moment, but maintenance and consistency are the hardest traits for young players to acquire. If Love can maintain a 17-and-12 average, and Beasley can produce, say, 22 points per game over the course of the season while proving to be a go-to scorer in tight games, then Minnesota may be on its way to building something. This hot streak doesn't define Love and Beasley so much as it hints at what they can become.
Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling actually has reason to want to stop the checks to his underperforming players. Baron Davis has played 10 minutes since Halloween while his teammates have combined to lose eight in a row to drop to 1-12. Chris Kaman's absence until December with a sprained ankle offers another excuse, but the Clippers still have Eric Gordon averaging 23.2 points off his FIBA World Championship gold-medalist showing last summer, and Rookie of the Year candidate Blake Griffin is averaging a mighty double-double. The Clips' early schedule was murderous, but in the last week they've lost to Detroit, New Jersey, Minnesota and Indiana. But then again, that's what makes them the Clippers.
It's hard to know what Carmelo Anthony should do. He can play out the year without agreeing to sign an extension with anyone, but when the next collective bargaining agreement is installed, the Knicks and other teams may not have the cap space to sign him under the new rules. No one knows what that future might bring.
If the Knicks or another coveted team trades for him, Anthony will probably be left with little surrounding talent in his new locker room.
He can focus on making the most of this season with Denver, but the Nuggets don't look capable of contending. If he doesn't get anything out of this season and a lockout wipes out most or all of 2011-12, he'll look back on these prime years as a black hole.
So what is the right answer? Whatever he chooses to do -- even if he chooses to do nothing but play -- threatens him with a punishment of some kind.
"The first time I did it, it was my freshman year in high school. It was the 'in' thing to do -- some of my friends had bald heads -- so when I did it my mom was upset. She didn't like it. She said, 'You don't look right.'
"But I stuck with it because I just felt faster. I need to shave because I don't look good with hair, and I just feel slower when I have it.
"When I was in New Jersey, anytime there was a big game I always shaved my head and somebody started noticing and commenting on it. I think [assistant coach] Pat Sullivan is the one who started that. Whenever I would come out to shoot early, he would always look to see if I cut my hair. He was crazy. If I'd cut it, he would yell out, 'Uh oh, he's locked in, he's ready!' We ended up winning some of those games, so they felt that when I cut my hair that we had a good chance of winning that night.
"Ask Rod Thorn [the Philadelphia president and former Nets president when Kidd played there] about it. Rod and Ed [Stefanski, the Philadelphia GM and former Nets GM] came to Dallas the other day and we went to dinner. Rod said, 'Are you shaving tomorrow?' I said, 'No, I won't shave.' He said, 'Good, all right, we might have a chance.'
"The way I'm looking at it is it's too early to be locking in. If I started doing that now -- I don't want to be tired come the playoffs. I don't want to use them all up. But I might have to start shaving here shortly because of all of my gray hair. It's stress from my teammates missing shots.
"My hair grows quick. I shave it probably once a week with the electric clipper -- I'm not man enough to use a razor. When I wake up from my nap, I normally would shave my head, and then have lunch and head over to the arena. I don't need a mirror because I can do it without looking, I've been doing it for so long. I know it takes under 12 minutes to get it all, so I put that into my pregame routine. I try to do it on the road so I don't have to clean up the mess.
"The problem area is the sides in the back [an inch or two above the ear[, that's where you have to go up there two or three times to make sure you've got it all done. When I was with Jersey, we were going over to the arena in Charlotte and one of the guys said, 'You missed a spot.' All they had was the Bic razor, so I was like, 'Oh man, I never used the Bic and I didn't want to get razor bumps.' But when I got to the arena, I cleaned it up that way. It wasn't one of my best starts that game, and I went over to the bench and said, 'That damn Bic.' That one spot was smoother than it should have been. But then I started making a couple of shots and we started to get it going."
The stereotypical European is a finesse player who doesn't defend and feels most comfortable at the three-point line. "I don't understand," said Nicolas Batum of France, the Trail Blazers' starting small forward. "There are many guys who are tough and who play defense, like Mike Pietrus from France and [Russian forward Andrei] Kirilenko."
Now in his third year with Portland, Batum is a 6-foot-8 Frenchman who is emerging as a stereotype buster. The Blazers deploy his long arms and athleticism to defend everyone from Kevin Durant to LeBron James to Kobe Bryant.
"He has the ability and the potential to be very dominant," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "What we're trying to do is change his mindset from being this nice guy who is respectful, and have him become the guy who they think about when they come to town. So when Portland comes into Oklahoma City, they're like, 'Shoot, I've got to go up against Nicolas Batum.' It's like when you say [Ron] Artest or [Scottie] Pippen or [Dennis] Rodman -- you knew you were going to have your work cut out for you if you were a scorer against those guys, and I think definitely he can become that type of a player."
The half-formed impressions of European basketball don't apply to Batum, who as a teenager sought to attend INSEP -- the French sports academy based in Paris -- but wasn't admitted. Instead, he signed as a 16-year-old with the professional club Le Mans, where he practiced twice a day against fully formed adult professionals, including former NBA players.
"I dominate when I was young, but when I started being professional, it was different because I couldn't dominate like I used to," Batum said. "And I start to don't believe in myself, so the coach pushed me every day at practice and I started to grow up.
"At that time, I'm kind of a lazy guy and my coach in France got behind me. I have to get there one hour before practice and stay an hour after practice. That was good and I thank him for that, because I think one of the reasons I am here is because of him. We learn to play that way because the Euroleague is tough."
It is easy to draw the wrong first impression of Batum based on his gentle personality.
"We see French people as these romantics -- you know, the wine and cheese and the glamour, and he's soft-spoken with the French accent," McMillan said. "But I think mentally, guys like him are a little tougher, and that's the difference between international ball and the players in America now. Over here, it's AAU ball -- they don't get the basics, and if they're really good, they're going to stay maybe one year in college, and most teams are handing these guys the ball so they don't learn the basics of how to play the game."
How many young AAU-raised stars would accept becoming an afterthought on offense in order to focus on the defensive end?
"That's why we play as a team in Europe -- we only care about the numbers on the scoreboard," Batum said. "That's what I learned before I came over here, and when I came over, I didn't change my mind. I play for the scoreboard, not for my numbers. I try to play defense first."
Now the Blazers are asking Batum to be more aggressive offensively, because he has three-point range and the athleticism to beat defenders off the dribble. He has responded by averaging 13.9 points.
"I know if I play defense and the other four guys are watching me play defense and they see me do everything on defense," he said, "then they're going to try to give me the ball on offense."
Here's a look at No. 2 picks who should have been No. 1. I'm only featuring No. 2 selections who turned into exceptional players, ranked in order of their excellence.
Top overall picks Robinson, Aguirre and Walker had excellent careers, but in each case, the No. 2 pick turned out to be superior.
Three of the greatest No. 2 picks were Jerry West (who was picked behind Oscar Robertson in 1960), Wes Unseld (behind Elvin Hayes in 1968) and Alonzo Mourning (behind Shaquille O'Neal in 1992), but in each case it would be hard to argue that the wrong choices were made.