Matthews or Batum?


I tried hard to avoid Blazer related news today, knowing that after Sunday’s performance against the Nets plenty of stuff would be out there about the status and expectations of the Blazers going forward. I made it about half the day, paying attention but not commenting. I’m not going to make it the rest of the evening, because I feel like I want to comment on the recent news that came out this afternoon.

The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman dropped the tidbit of information in the middle of the day that Nicolas Batum would be removed from the starting lineup for Tuesday’s match-up in Philly against the 76ers in favor of Wesley Matthews. Freeman followed that up with some knowledgeable tweets explaining the thinking behind the switch. This tweet combined with this tweet probably give the most obvious reasons Batum has been bumped. To paraphrase: Nic has had some poor outings in his last few, basically since his outstanding defensive performance against the Nuggets in the Blazers last win, and Wesley has played much better as a starter. Following Freeman’s tweet, Twitter blew up with opinions on the lineup switch.

Here’s my opinion: this is a positive switch, and it has a lot less to do with the way these two guys are playing. Wesley and Nic have both been bright spots in the Blazers pretty dark November, but neither guy has been able to establish a rhythm. Swapping one for the other in the starting five might not have that much of an effect on their play, but it will give them both a different role in the offense. Nicolas needs to become a featured offensive player. In the second unit he might be able to get the requisite number of touches to get his shooting stroke going. Wesley seems to play better with the ball in his hands in the games he’s started, but more than that he looks good with Brandon Roy on the floor.

But like I said, this in my mind is about more than just how two players are faring on the court. This is about the Blazers making a change. Portland is a talented team, shortened a little by their lack of healthy big men, and for the most part their failures on the court have been mental and confidence based, not really basketball related. Coach Nate McMillan needs to do something to show his guys that he isn’t giving up on the team. Making a lineup swap might not seem like a big deal, but those that know Sarge’s tendencies would say different. Remember a season ago, the Steve Blake/Andre Miller, who’s your point guard debate? Nate respects his roster choices, and is reluctant to make changes. Bringing in Matthews for Batum rewards Wes for his good play, and punishes Nic for his lackluster showings of course, but more than that it says that Nate is going to fight against this team hitting the skids for real.

Following Sunday’s loss, the Blazers held a fabled “players only” meeting. Another NBA team, located in South Beach, did the same thing recently. This move is an indication that things have gone too far. Like their coach, it seems that Portland wants to stop the bleeding before 2010-11 goes critical. The next group that needs to follow that trend is the fans.

Not getting specific, I’ve seen a lot of things in the last few days that distress me a little to say the least. It’s a little early in the season to say that Portland is barely a playoff team, or is doomed to languish in mediocrity, or that maybe Brandon Roy is what’s bringing this team down.

To say Portland is barely a playoff team is pretty extreme. Sitting as they are at 8-8, the Blazers are the number eight team in the West. Look at the teams that are behind Portland: Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis, Houston, Sacramento, Minnesota, and the LA Clippers. Sure the Blazers aren’t among the elite teams in the league, but I’m pretty sure they’re a better team than every one that I just named. And to be honest, how many elite teams are there really? One? Two at the most.

Benching Brandon Roy or saying that he is the Blazer’s current problem also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Brandon is Portland’s best player, the team’s offense is built around things that he can do. I’m not just talking about isolation and step-back jump shots. In one of the better moments in Sunday’s loss, Brandon drove by his defender into the key, the New Jersey defense collapsed on Brandon who found Wesley wide open for an easy three.  Portland has struggled  when the ball stops moving, and the jump shots either aren’t open or are not falling. Brandon helps get shooters open, takes pressure off of LaMarcus Aldridge, and is easily the only go-to guy Portland has. Putting him on the bench takes the teeth right out of Portland’s offense. Brandon also needs to get reps and get minutes so he can get a feel for what his body can do. I understand the thinking that Brandon needs time to heal, but the doctors have said that there is not a whole lot more that can happen to his knees. If he had a rehab schedule than the Blazers should stick to that, as of right now its about assessment, watching minutes, and being careful how much work Brandon puts on his body. If Brandon is able to play, he should be on the court, if he is on the court he needs to be in the starting lineup. He’s the best player on the roster, it’s that simple.

Tuesday is going to be yet another test for the Blazers. It’s a chance to make-up for a poor showing in New Jersey and to end November on a high note. Portland needs to show that they understand how far they have fallen in just a few weeks, and they need to show that they are going to do something to make a difference. Nicolas Batum is still going to get his minutes, and Wesley Matthews isn’t going to score 40. What the Blazers are going to get is a new look, a new rotation, and hopefully a new, and positive outlook on what this season can still be.

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject