One of the great mysteries outside of injuries in the Blazers’ 2009-10 season has been Rudy Fernandez, he who is wrapped in a dark, isolated illusion, punctuated by a one fallacy after another.
Gibberish? Nay. Let’s run down the funny words.
Mystery: Nobody, and I mean nobody, can properly and convincingly explain what has caused Rudy’s dropoff in production. John Hollinger took a stab at it today, and wound up using similar statements, “strange”, “for whatever reason” and “odd”. Here’s a sample of that Insider-Only article:
To an extent, Blazers insiders will tell you that their offense makes it difficult for Fernandez to put up big numbers, and it hides some of his contributions. He’s usually not a primary ball handler, and often his main responsibility is to run a curl to set up a post-up for Aldridge before retreating to the opposite corner. When he does get touches, most often they’re for an immediate post entry to Aldridge — a tricky type of play that he executes as well as or better than anyone else on the team.
That said, the general sentiment before Game 2 was that Fernandez should attack the basket a bit more and not settle to be a jump shooter. This was particularly true given that the Suns were guarding him with Nash, one of their most vulnerable defenders, as he gives up 3 inches to Fernandez and can’t hope to match him in the air. For Fernandez to finish without a field goal in that matchup borders on embarrassing.
See any answers there? Hollinger knows his hoops, and if he had better explanations, he would provide them. Instead, he relies on a variety of opinions and explanations of what Rudy is doing wrong, but not why. The reasoning runs the gamut from lack of confidence, oversized ego, overestimated talent, back issues and a poor fit in Portland’s offense. It’s guesswork, made all the more frustrating by his apparent natural instincts for the game.
Illusion: Most people seem to have an image of Rudy in their head that doesn’t quite match with the reality of this season — myself included. We see him as a playmaker, someone who you can hand the ball and ask him to create opportunities for himself or others. We see him as a shotmaker, someone who has the natural gift for making shots in all varieties of awkward situations, whether his body his traveling away from the hoop or there are two defenders sliding over to contest. We’ve seen him as a back up point guard at times, and as a pure shooter, someone to provide with an arsenal of screens. We see him as a burst of energy, someone who can give a team a lift just by being on the court. Thanks to much-highlighted dunks before this season, we saw him as a finisher.
But all this we see in our heads, when was the last time you saw it with your eyes more than once or twice in a game, or in a week? Do you remember him dunking, or do you remember him missing a floater that’s about as graceful as a sleepwalking dog? Do you remember him beating guys off the dribble, or aimlessly pounding the ball on the perimeter, unable to get past Sasha Vujacic. When was the last time you felt confident Rudy would make something happen?
Fallacy: Combine our expectations with an inability to provide concrete rationale, and it becomes easy just to say, “He’s better than this. He can do the things we think he can do, he’s just not doing them, whether it’s his fault or not.”
Surely he can’t be this terrible — see, I’m doing it as well — but how much better is he. Let’s see how far his numbers have fallen:
So, according to these numbers from Basketball-Reference.com, Rudy actually improved slightly in assists and steals percentages. His major dropoff was in other offensive categories — just above league average with a 15.5 PER in his rookie season, he’s now decidedly below the average offensive (I don’t use PER to discuss defense) player. His true-shooting percentage dropped 40 points, and could have been more had he not improved his free-throw shooting to 86.7 percent. Then there’s the straight field-goal percentage, a horrific 37.8 percent, hardly buoyed by a 30-point drop in three-point shooting (36.8 percent).
Many people want to say it’s a problem of aggression, and this is supported by 4.3 of his 6.8 shots per game being threes, and his at-rim attempts falling from 1.3 to 0.7. But we’ve seen him try to get to the rim, failing either at the first step of getting past the first defender, or at the second step of using the defense’s reaction to either finish or find the open man with an effective pass. Then we make the “he doesn’t get the opportunities argument, supported by the low usage rate, but according to Synergy, he’s only scored on 33 percent of his 65 isolation opportunities. Does that inspire confidence in you, the hypothetical coach?
“But he needs better to be put in better position to succeed. He needs pick-and-rolls, he needs better screens,” one could argue. Off screens he’s been alright, scoring 0.89 points per possession — Roy, by comparison, was at 1.06 — shooting 33 percent with Rudy or the team scoring at least one point 35.5 percent of the time.
Wait, did someone say, “FINISH HIM”? Well, in 65 pick-and-roll plays this season as the ball handler, Rudy has turned the ball over 25 percent of the time, shooting 27.5 percent, scoring 0.59 points per possession. How often has Rudy drawn a shooting foul in those situations? 4.8 percent of the time. How often do the Blazers, as a team, score at least a point (including free throws) when Rudy runs pick-and-rolls? 28.6 percent of the time. It’s not fair to compare Rudy to Roy, but just as a reference number, the Blazers score on 47.9 of Roy’s pick-and-rolls. Boom, headshot.
The Bright Side: I almost put those words in yellow text, but it’s really hard to see yellow text on a white internet background. It’s also hard to see Rudy’s bright side after this season. Coincidence?
There are places Rudy has performed well. Though Synergy only has him down for 13 (!) cuts this season, the team scored on almost 70 percent of those. And we know from last season, when Sergio Rodriguez was tossing lobs, that Rudy can be an effective cutter. In fact, in a system like Utah or Boston’s, one predicated on passing and movement, Rudy might find some easier baskets.
And the, “He needs a fast system” argument carries some weight as well. In 60 transition possessions for Rudy this season — just under one per game — he shot over 50 percent and score 1.03 points per possession. But get this: only three of the top teams in terms of pace made the playoffs, Utah, Denver and Phoenix. All those teams run an effective half-court offense. With Rudy’s other peripherals, would he garner any more playing time in those systems?
Maybe getting a few more dunks and easy buckets a week would give Rudy more confidence, if that is indeed the issue? But would that make his ballhandling, or his first step, better? It’s possible, but tough to say.
Then we come back to the back. While the last few paragraphs have told you why Rudy could succeed with other teams, the hope for Blazer fans should be just that Rudy’s back is worse than anyone has let on, and that an offseason — perhaps sitting out the World Championships — would set him right. Against, this is possible, but we don’t have much tangible evidence to provide support.
Where does that leave us now? With a replacement for an All-Star that is only 1.4 wins (basketballprospectus.com) above the value of a replacement-level player. One who the Blazers, more likely than not, will need to have a big game in the next couple days for them to even have a chance at winning their first-round series with the Phoenix Suns. And despite the illusions we all have of Rudy in our heads, there’s very little reason to expect a big game from him. He just hasn’t gotten the universal “it” done enough, if hardly at all this season, except in a select group of situations.
So, cling to the hope the illusion provides. Look at the mystery with a glass-half full mentality. But know the context of those things. Dump the fallacy, for now. Let’s stop nodding when we see Rudy described as an All-Star caliber player. Let’s hope that he gets right this summer, for his sake, and for the Blazers, who can either trade him or use him. Because nobody wants Rudy to fail. We, I, want him to succeed. But it’s on him to do more of the latter, and on us to stop pontificating the “why”, if all we’re looking for are excuses to validate an illusion.