Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have noticed that November has not been kind to the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland has dropped games to division rivals Utah and Oklahoma City, and more than that the team has lost Greg Oden for the remainder of this season without him having logged so much as a single minute. The idea of rebuilding has been kicking around some circles over the past few days. Matt Moore from NBC Sports Pro Basketball Talk blog likely gets credit for introducing the topic not 10 days ago. Since then I’ve used rebuilding as a lead for my most recent game recap, and more than one idea has been floated among a few Portland bloggers as to how the Blazers should proceed if in fact it is time to consider blowing up the team and starting fresh.
I’m a firm believer in this squad of Blazers, but I’m also a firm believer in entertaining good ideas. So, having said that, I would like to take a minute to address this notion of Franchise Player, and how it pertains to the future of the NBA team currently making its home in the Rose City.
First order of business is to establish the current situation. When, in the summer of 2009, the Blazers offered Brandon Roy a four-year salary with a fifth-year player option for the league maximum, ensuring that Brandon would be a Blazer at least until the 2013-14 season, the team was officially elevating their most promising star to Franchise Player status. In truth, Brandon had been a de-facto Franchise Player from the day he arrived in Portland. His likeness has adorned every imaginable piece of Blazer related marketing material since the first time he put on a jersey, and at least following his first season he has been the player other teams trot out in their ads to try and hype their fan base for upcoming games against the Blazers.
Brandon’s Franchise status is a bit of an anomaly, coming as it did practically right after he was drafted. Portland was without a true Franchise Player for the better part of a generation, and the overhauling of the team’s image went nicely with a squeaky clean, four-year college player. That he happened to be born in the Northwest, win Rookie of the Year, and go on to be a three-time All-Star, well that was just gravy. It is now Brandon’s injury status that brings up the whole rebuilding process and the search for a new Franchise Player.
The coming months will be the true test of whether or not Brandon’s knees will allow him to continue along his career path, but because we’ve all got time off, and talk is cheap, let’s go ahead and imagine that Portland is in fact in need of a new Franchise Player.
Who are the candidates? Let’s begin with players the Blazers already have because as everybody knows promotion from within is always a more attractive plan than bringing in help from outside. For the sake of argument, logic, and time, many players on the current roster will not be included in this discussion. Players such as Armon Johnson and Dante Cunningham will both have long careers in the NBA; they each possess the tools and work ethic to succeed at the highest level of basketball. Franchise Players, though, they are not. Joel Przybilla and Marcus Camby are probably too old. Sean Marks, Patty Mills, Luke Babbitt, and Elliott Williams are not in consideration for obvious reasons. No offense to any of these players, Sean Marks should be a case study for how to survive in the hyper-competitive world of elite professional sports, but they are just not on the Franchise Player level.
That leaves us with LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Andre Miller. Rudy and Andre might be reaches a little, but I feel like five is a better number than three. It gives us more to talk about.
After internal promotion there is external acquisition. The Blazers could acquire a Franchise Player through a trade, a free agent signing, or the draft.
OK, moving on. What does a Franchise Player need to be able to do? First of all a Franchise Player needs to be able to play, and play well. Second, a Franchise Player needs to be able to represent a city and an organization. Third, a Franchise Player must have a good to great rapport with the fans. And lastly, a franchise player must be able to interact congenially with the media.
Let’s look at Brandon Roy because he is an excellent example. The aforementioned ROY and All-Star hardware, the 52-point game against the Phoenix Suns, the 10 steals against the Washington Wizards, and on and on and on. Playing: Check. Pulling the number-one lottery ball, making NBA Cares national commercials. Representing the city and the organization: Check. Two words “Game Four,” two more words, “Rocky Music.” Fan rapport: Check. Little to no negative press from anyone that cashes a paycheck signed by Mr. or Mrs. The Oregonian. Media congeniality: Check. That’s a Franchise Player.
Now to break down my chosen candidates by those four categories, beginning with:
Every guy that made the final cut can play. Some better than others, I would take LaMarcus Aldridge for pure offensive ability over Rudy Fernandez, but they can all put up on the offensive end. There isn’t one player that stands out head-and-shoulders above the field, but there are some things to look for. A Franchise Player should be mature offensively, but some room to improve isn’t always a bad thing. Would Brandon’s huge numbers in 2008-09 have looked so impressive if he had done the same thing the year before?
With this in mind, two players emerge ever so slightly. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews have shown this season that they are not messing around on the offensive end, and with a little time they can be deadly offensive weapons. Nic needs to add more dimensions to his game, and he would need to start thinking about the double-teams that he will draw as the first option instead of the third or fourth. Wesley too can lean pretty heavily on one or two offensive options. With Wesley, though he has an obvious sense of wanting to attack the basket first, settle from jumpers later, especially these last few outings as a starter. If Wesley and Nic can add to what they’ve already got, Franchise Player status may be just around the corner.
Having said that, you don’t want a player that’s too raw, or will take too much time to develop. That makes the draft problematic, and leads management in the direction of more established offensive players. In the case of the Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge has probably the most established offensive game of the Franchise Player candidates. Yes Aldridge’s game has holes on offense, and it seems unlikely that in the middle of his fifth year in the league he will develop a real back-to-the-basket game, but with LA you absolutely know what you’re going to get.
Of course, there is one candidate that has put up Roy like numbers at least in one game: Andre Miller. Miller and Rudy, though have the furthest to go in this category. Andre’s numbers are good, and Rudy will forever have big game potential, but neither of these guys is strong enough on offense to carry a team on their own.
A player introduced through trade or free agency can easily dominate this category. The NBA is chock full of the most talented basketball players in the world. Portland would just have to reach out and grab one.
Defense is really a non-issue. We all know defense wins championships, and Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews most nights of the week hang their hats on defense, but a Franchise Player can be a slouch on defense if their good enough on offense. Reverse offense and defense, and you don’t get the same result.
This category can be somewhat problematic. There are way too many variables and intangibles. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes an NBA player marketable, and what traits should be looked for when searching out someone to represent an organization and a city. On top of that, many of the attributes that make a player good at that portion of the business of basketball make them not so good at some of the other, on the court, portions.
With the right coaching, any of the Franchise Player candidates would make great representatives for the Blazers. At the same time each comes with limitations. Andre Miller is shy and reserved, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez have problems with the language, LaMarcus Aldridge has a bit of a standoffish personality. Here again, Wesley Matthews separates himself a little from the field. That’s mostly because we know so little about him. As only a second-year player, and one that wasn’t on the radar of casual fans too much last year and definitely not during his college days, he is still very very new. This could play to his favor. Like a draft pick, Wesley could be prepped for life as a Franchise Player.
Again, though, trading for or acquiring a player with marketable personality traits would be easier than trying to mold one from those you already have or building one from scratch. However, it seems unlikely that a team would bring in a Franchise level guy just because of how he will or will not be perceived across the country. You acquire guys like Juwan Howard, an NBA ambassador on every level, because he’s got those hard to qualify skills. Howard, for all the things he brought to the Blazers, was not a Franchise Player.
This category is the hardest to judge, and on a lot of levels is not as important as the others. There are many things that can be forgiven of an NBA player if he brings it on the court. The first of those is how he represents the city in which he plays.
This is an interesting category, and yet another that carries with it amorphous importance. How the fans feel about goings on surrounding the team is important to the front office. Fans buy the tickets. They support the team in the literal sense. Just how important fan feelings are is up for debate. If you haven’t checked out Casey Jarman’s excellent piece about the Greg Oden presser please do so. Pay special attention to his off-the-record interaction with Rich Cho, and you’ll get the sense of what I mean.
The front office knows that a Franchise Player needs to have the support of the fans, but that doesn’t mean that the fans will decide who the Franchise Player is going to be. All my candidates for Franchise Player seem to have decent to great relationships with the fans. Of them, I would say Nicolas Batum is probably the favorite. I would wager that Nic is among the favorite Blazer of almost every fan in Portland. Wesley Matthews is building a fan base, and it grows with every made three-pointer. Andre Miller has a ton of history in the NBA, and although he has never been a marquee guy that draws fans from hither and yon, he hasn’t been the guy that turns fans off.
The two candidates with the most precarious fan relationships are LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Fernandez. Blazer fans love LA when he plays well and seem to hate him when he doesn’t. In my opinion some of that has to do with LA’s palpable indifference to EVERYONE. If LaMarcus were to warm up just slightly the Portland fans would respond in kind. Rudy is a different matter. In his rookie season he was the toast of the town. Now, not so much. He’s playing his way back, but it’s a long hard road he has chosen to send himself down.
This category is tough for non-Blazer players. Acquisitions and trades bring with them fans, but also leave behind haters. See James, LeBron. Rookies can become fan favorites, but it takes time. Often handing a rookie the expectations of a fervid fan base can have unintended side effects. See Oden, Greg.
Fandom ties neatly into the final category:
It’s the Media
Compared to other cities within the purview of the NBA, Portland is a small media market. The City of Roses is home to zero other major professional sports franchises, meaning the entire brute force of the local sports media machine is focused on the Blazers. It goes without saying that the scrutiny is intense. Although a strong relationship with the local scribes is not mandatory, a good relationship greases the wheels; a bad relationship brings the whole vehicle to a crashing halt. There are too many examples to site them all, but the big ones from recent history that leap to mind are Rasheed Wallace and Zach Randolph of only a few years ago, and what can be called the “Rudy Fernandez Media Debacle 2010.”
Two of these Franchise Player candidates are well on their way to becoming favorites among the local media, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, raise your hand if you spot a theme. Batum especially is open and friendly with the media, and more to the point he is remarkably candid. Nic provides answers to questions that can almost be classified as conversational, as if he actually likes talking to the media. Wesley isn’t as friendly as Nic, but he seems to be doing more right than wrong with the local newspaper writers and TV personalities. Of course these two Blazers have seen very little negative press. Attitudes and behaviors may change if things stop being friendly and start being real.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s relationship with the media is like that of his with the fans, indifference, punctuated by moments of intense feelings both negative and positive. LA has stepped up his effort on the court against the allegations of his softness, and has faced down the media many times. If anything, LA’s battle-tested thick skin gives him the head start in this category.
Andre Miller is kind of a non-starter. He answers questions, seems friendly, obviously knows a ton about basketball, but he comes off a little like a guy who deals with the media because he knows it’s part of his job. Can’t fault a guy for knowing the truth. Andre overcame what felt like an initial attempt to run him out of town, and like LA he is probably best equipped to deal with the media.
Rudy loses this category. If you have to ask why, you haven’t been paying attention to anything that has happened this season.
This category is closely related to the fan favorite situation when it comes to bringing in a player or drafting a rookie. Outside players bring in their own ideas of the purpose of the media. A long-term veteran would make a good Franchise Player in relation to the media. League vets have seen it all, and can deal well with adversity. Very, very few rookies are prepared for the media when they reach the league. Big-time high school, and college players have been dealing with the media for years by the time they get to the NBA, but that doesn’t mean they know how to handle the onslaught. When it comes to the NBA, the media is something you have to see and work with for awhile before you can make it work for you.
There you have it. I have presented you only with my opinions. None of the above should be quoted as fact or taken to mean anything other than speculation. What we can hope for as Blazer fans is that Brandon Roy’s recovery is full, and that order is restored across the board. Otherwise, we can hope for swift actions and resolutions from management. There are some things we don’t want. We don’t want to introduce a player from outside that destroys everything that has been built. This happens a lot. The bloated contracts of overpaid players can handicap organizations for a long time.
We also really don’t want to rebuild through the draft. Yes we’re coming off of back-to-back 50 win seasons, but 2005-06 wasn’t really that long ago. Blazer fans, do you remember what it was like to win 21 games? I do. It wasn’t fun then, and it won’t be more fun now that we’ve tasted the Playoffs.
Alright then. I’m finished.
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