Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Position by Position--Small Forward

Anyone who thought at the beginning of the season that small forward was the one position we had covered could certainly be forgiven. After all, we had five of them, maybe six if you thought Webster leaned that way. As we speak two are gone, one is going, one's a shooting guard, and questions surround the last two. This position is now the most unstable of the five. Who'd have thought that back in September?

This should have been Darius Miles' season. With Zach coming back from surgery and everybody else either offensively limited or still in diapers, it looked like he had a chance to shine. He did manage a career high in scoring, but disappointed in every other way in his worst season outside the nightmare stay in Cleveland. (A tenure which he would like us to forget when he claims he's never had problems with coaches or his play before.) Most egregiously he turned the ball over a ton and played indifferent defense most of the time. When his head's in the right place, he's brilliant. He'll make amazing defensive plays and his offense looks near unstoppable. Few people in the league can get past people as gracefully and effortlessly as Miles and he even developed something of a mid-range jumper this year. But as we all know, his head's only in the right place one game out of five. Darius is like that cute girl in college who would call you every third week just to keep you on the hook, but was never interested in developing a serious relationship. At what point do you just move on?

The breaking point came with the Oregonian interview at the end of the season when he admitted that he had wanted out of Portland since summer...a revelation which surprised nobody who had watched him play. (Scroll down the page and see the quote from the Miles post below.) Still, his talent tantalizes. It's fool's gold. Last summer, before any of this started, I did some statistical research on the scorers in the league (since that's where Miles will make his mark if anywhere). It showed that early development is usually a good indicator of eventual success. Out of 34 guys who averaged 19+ ppg in 2004-2005, only two had failed to do it at least once by their fifth season in the league: Mike Bibby (who was a passer early on and was only called upon to score when Sacramento lost talent) and Rashard Lewis (who had at least gotten to 18 one year). 2004-05 was Miles' 5th season. The highest he had ever averaged was 12.8. And it's not like he wasn't called upon to contribute in L.A., Cleveland, or here. If you're gracious you might speculate he could develop into the next Rashard Lewis, but is that really worth waiting on? At some point "dazzling" has to be bolstered by "consistent". It's not happening with Miles.

Miles' injuries and laissez-faire approach opened the door for the other small forwards, and into that gap stepped Viktor Khryapa. His numbers are unspectacular (5.8 points, 4.4 rebs, 1.3 assists, 1.2 turnovers, and 3 fouls in 22 minutes.) He doesn't even have a thimbleful of Miles' grace. Yet he won over the fans, and apparently the coach, simply because he hustles so darn much. He keeps his body in front of his man most of the time, his help defense is developing, and he never, ever quits on a play even when everybody else has. He even managed a couple of Michael Cooper-esque blocks on the fast break this year. His offensive game is primitive. It's either an open stand-still jumper or a dunk. Despite the lack of glamour, he still managed to shoot a respectable 46% this year, and teammates are starting to gain confidence in him after a thousand early-season look-offs. He'll need to work on his shot if he wants to see more consistent minutes. (But I've seen a lot more poor shooters develop outside jumpers in the NBA than I've seen passive players learn to hustle and scrap.) Because of the second-half big man shortage, Khryapa saw a lot of time at power forward this year. He was mostly overmatched. He's probably good for spot duty there if we run a small lineup, but he's not even a backup at that position for major minutes. And his comparable lack of athleticism (despite the Blazer announcers selling him as an "athlete" all season) probably means he'll be a bench player at small forward long term. But he'll be extremely valuable nonetheless. Best guess is that he'll turn out to be like Ruben, just with a little less intensity and low-post game and a lot more height, rebounding, outside shooting, and sanity.

Travis Outlaw continues to show that he's equal parts project and prodigy. He continued to get a little more than a quarter's worth of play per game this year. He took more shots, but shot much poorer (near 50% down to 44%), likely due to his focus on the perimeter game. Everything else was more or less flatlined, which is not what you'd like to see from one of your great, young hopes. His brilliance is his leaping ability, which allows him to get separation for his shot like few in the league can. When he strokes that turn-around jumper he looks as unstoppable as McGrady. Unfortunately when he's off, he looks plenty stoppable. You get the impression that he'd miss the shot even if nobody was guarding him. And for a guy who's a finisher, he actually has pretty poor hands, which is a concern because that's hard to change. He's always active on the court...very seldom do you see him standing still. But too often he doesn't know where he's supposed to be. Suffice it to say that he can singlehandedly break down a defensive scheme, theirs or ours. You can see that the coaches believe in him. They're talking to him every time he sits down on the bench. But you can also see visible frustration on Nate's face when Travis doesn't get it. And Travis is still at the point where scoring 20 seems like the greatest accomplishment, without realizing that we can't afford you being out there if you don't do the other stuff too. Martell has already shown more rebounding desire than TO, and that's a bad sign.

Unless somebody else really wants him, you've got to keep him. There's obviously a lot there to work with. But with his style of play, Outlaw is eventually going to have to be a starter or nothing. He doesn't do enough Khryapa-like stuff to be a great bench guy and his talent potential is going to cost you a lot of money whether you play him or not. Whether he can contribute enough, and consistently enough, to rise up and take that spot is an open question. But with Viktor solid off the bench for years to come and a couple of high draft picks coming up, Travis better get a move on.

Comments below or to blazersub@yahoo.com. Discussions are welcome!



Blogger ignacio said...

I've been rooting hard for Travis forf the last two years. Sometimes I think He's about to turn the corner and develop and become, if not great then certainly very good.

He's not articulate in interviews, so it's difficult from the outside to get any real sense of how intelligent he is. Basketball may not be rocket science, and Magic Johnson may not have been Einstein, but the combination of reflexes and willpower is almost like boxing in the way "mind over matter" is a huge part of the equation.

Travis seems "sincere" and hardworking, for whatever that is worth, but he doesn't have the cockiness and obvious combativeness one sees in players who have grown up in big cities and dominated on the playground since they were young.

No doubt the coaches have an infinitely clearer idea of who he really is, just through talking with him all year. Even so they might be wrong.

It seems to me like Travis has experienced a lot of adversity, even humliation, here in Portland. Is he too dumb to learn the necessary lessons to eventually dominate for example Darius when Darius shows up on amnoother team? Personality-wise, is this possible?

I guess we'll see. If the Blazers draft Adam Morrison obviously that will mean Nate does not expect Travis ever to really grow up.

Lots of guys can jump awfully high (until, uh, that first knee operation. What happens after that? What happens when they no longer do replays of your dunks?)

11:12 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Yeah...Travis is one of the big question marks. Part of the problem: Three head coaches so far, plus how many assistant coaches assigned to him?

You knew he didn't get much coming in, and that was fine. But he's never developed that sense of where to be on the court or what to do. He's still thinking about nearly every single play that isn't a dunk or a turn-around. And the need to think takes away some of the advantage his athleticism gives him. Compounding the problem...about half of the time he still thinks wrong. It's really hard to find the right combination of getting the guy to think about what he's doing while at the same time encourgaging him not to play like he's thinking about what he's doing. Travis may turn out to be one of those guys you have to tell, "Just go and play your game." Whether that will be enough to help a winning team is up to debate. My guess is he could be traded somewhere where he's given free rein (and a lot of shots) and he would start scoring 16 a game right now. But whether that would translate into wins...I don't know.

If Zach does get traded, expect Travis to be one of the guys they look to score more.

10:46 PM  

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