April 25, 2011
This last weekend was a busy one for the NBA, with all manner of upsets and close games dominating the headlines. The clear highlight, though, was Brandon Roy's dominant 18-point fourth quarter to carry the Blazers to a series-tying win over the Mavericks on Saturday. It was an inspiring performance by a player whose knee problems have turned him from one of the brightest young stars in the league to a shadow of his former self. On Saturday, Roy was undoubtedly the best player on the court.
Lost in the hubbub surrounding Roy's stellar quarter, though, was that he played only 24 minutes in the game. That's the sort of playing time better suited for a top reserve than a star, and it helps put the game's accomplishments into better perspective. Roy did not regain his star form over the course of a game; he had perhaps the best quarter of his career while playing relatively limited minutes elsewhere. What this proves, more than anything, is that Roy is not necessarily positioned to become his team's most important player again. He just showed that he can take over a game on occasion.
The problem here is that Roy, as befits a man whose profession requires absurd confidence to succeed, has been generally unwilling to admit that he's entered a new stage of his career. At various times, Roy has claimed that his difficulties are mental rather than physical, which makes little sense based on the fact he no longer has knee cartilage. The Blazers may very well have identified that Roy cannot expect to become a star, but they likely can't make that plan clear to him without hurting his pride. It's a delicate balance to strike, and for the past year or so Portland has been stuck in a state of limbo in which Roy hasn't regularly played like his old self yet has done well enough to make his future role unclear. They have neither committed to Roy holding a primary spot in the rotation moving forward nor decided what the team would look like with him in a minor role.
Saturday's performance both clarified and muddled this situation. On one hand, Roy proved that he can sometimes be the best player on the court. However, he may now see himself as a star when the reality of the game -- again, he played only 24 minutes -- suggest he's better suited to a role off the bench. Monday night's Game 5 will help clear up how the Blazers view the situation. Will Nate McMillan increase Roy's playing time in the hope that he's turned a corner? Or will he hold his minutes steady and make clear that Roy is now the team's top scoring option off the bench?
The first option is clearly the more hopeful one, although it could also serve to keep Portland in the same state of franchise limbo it's been in for more than a year now. Roy isn't going to immediately manifest himself as a star again, and his knee problems suggest that even a few consecutive games of terrific play may be short-lived. Fans can afford to throw realism aside and get lost in the excitement of one amazing moment. Front offices and coaching staffs aren't so lucky.
If it's not clear yet, I think the Blazers should move forward with Roy as a key scorer off the bench. This decision may seem like a demotion, and in some ways it is. Yet if Roy's fourth quarter on Saturday told us anything about him, it's that he can still be the best player on the court for portions of a game. Manu Ginobili(notes) has spent much of his career playing around 30 minutes off the bench and still maintains his role as the Spurs' closer late in games. What's to say that Roy can't play a similar role for the Blazers and become a perennial contender for Sixth Man of the Year?
If Roy plays that role capably, he can keep a place in the spotlight while also hewing to more realistic goals. It's not ideal, but it's a decent solution in a league that usually isn't very kind to fantasies.