The battle for playing time at small forward for the Portland Trail Blazers might be one of the most intriguing positional struggles in the NBA this year. As the 09-10 season kicks off, the Blazers have a stable of young, worthy players vying for the starting position at SF, but only a limited amount of playing time to hand out. The following is a detailed breakdown of the weakness and strengths of each player, as well as a prediction as to who emerges at small forward out of this talented group.
Going into last season, nobody outside of Portland really knew anything about this rookie other than that he was only 19 years old, he was from France, and that he would be battling for playing time at an already deep position for the Blazers. However, Batum played admirably when given the opportunity to take the court last season, securing his status as the best on-ball defender on the Blazers, while showing surprisingly good shooting range, and the ability to take the ball to the basket with a vengeance when necessary. Batum got 75 starts at small forward last season, and came through with averages of 5.3 pts, 2.8 rebs, .5 blks and .6 stls per game in only 18 minutes of playing time per contest. While Batum’s outstanding defense surely makes his value in reality eclipse his prospects as a fantasy powerhouse, if he gets the majority of the minutes at SF for this team, his offense will improve with time. Batum’s defense is already top-tier level, and his offensive game resembles an unpolished Tayshaun Prince.
Batum’s weaknesses at the moment are that his offensive game is very stationary and that he looks uncomfortable handling the ball. Batum also hasn’t been successful in using his aggressive drives to create opportunities for his teammates, as evidenced by his measly 0.9 apg average. While Batum has his deficiencies, he is a promising young player with lots of room to improve. Looking towards the future, he definitely has the most room to improve of any player in this group. Unfortunately for Batum, he will undergo surgery Friday to remove torn cartilage in his right shoulder. This makes him undesirable from a fantasy perspective for the time being.
Like Batum, Rudy Fernandez emerged as a major contributor for the Blazers during his 08-09 rookie campaign. While Coach Nate McMillan preferred to play Rudy with the Blazers second unit off the bench, Fernandez put up impressive averages of 10.4 pts, 2.7 rebs, 2.0 assists and 2.0 3PM per game. His 159 3PM broke the previous record for 3 pointers made by a rookie, previously held by Kerry Kittles from his 96-97 campaign.
Those numbers are impressive for a first year 6th man, but the reality of the situation is that Fernandez was utilized mostly as a 3-point specialist for Portland last season. While Rudy surely showed glimpses of his breathtaking athleticism and play-making abilities during the season, he often floated around the perimeter on offense too much instead of using his slashing abilities to get to the hoop, create for teammates, or get to the free throw line (he shot 84% last season when he got there). This season will go a long way towards determining Rudy’s future in Portland. If Fernandez can expand his game to be more multi-dimensional threat this season, look for his playing time to increase as well as his role in the offense. At 24 years old, Fernandez is a veteran 2nd year player who needs to take the next step towards being more than a 3-point sniper on this team. Fernandez participated in the Sprite Slam Dunk Competition last season, and had his fair share of highlight-reel passes, so it’s not as if the tools aren’t there to be a complete player. I’m not sure Portland really believes Fernandez is starter material, or else they wouldn’t have pursued Hedo Turkoglu so aggressively this offseason. It’s now on his shoulders to show that he can contribute in Portland as a complete player on a daily basis. When that happens, Fernandez will take control of the SF position in Portland.
Outlaw has transformed himself since coming into the league straight out of high school in 2003. Outlaw arrived in Portland as a talented, athletic and wiry forward with a struggling jump shot and no ability to create for teammates. While his passing skills still haven’t fully developed, his shooting has improved over time. Last season, he was one of the more potent deep threats for Portland last season, shooting 38% from long range while knocking down 89 threes during the course of the season. Outlaw still struggles to find the open man when two or more defenders come at him, and his shot selection has driven even the most reserved Blazer fans to call for his benching.
But where Outlaw is most valuable to Portland is in the 4th quarter, where he is the only player on the team besides Brandon Roy with ability to create shots for himself consistently. Outlaw has also historically thrived in the clutch and came through in multiple crunch time situations last year for Portland.
However, Outlaw was Portland’s biggest disappointment in their early playoff exit last season. In the Blazers’ first round series against the Houston Rockets, Outlaw averaged 9 points, 3 rebounds and .5 assists per game while shooting 25% from long range and 32% overall. But with Ron Artest, Shane Battier and Yao Ming anchoring the Rockets’ defense in that series, all Blazers not named Brandon Roy looked sub-par, so Outlaw’s shortcomings can’t be overstated.
Outlaw lacks the upside of the other potential small forward starters, but his play has consistently improved in his five years in the league, Plus, he has shown the most willingness to come off the bench of any of these players.
Martell Webster is the dark horse candidate to step in as the starting small forward for Portland this season. Before fracturing his ankle and missing virtually the entire 08-09 season, Webster started 70 games for Portland at SF in 07-08 and came through with averages of 10.7 pts and 3.9 rebs per game while shooting 38% from 3. Much like Fernandez, Webster contributed to the Blazers mostly as a three-point specialist, with long bombs making up nearly half of his field goal makes and attempts during the season.
However, Webster, like Fernandez, possesses the physique (6’7’’) and athleticism to take his game inside the arc, but has failed to do so with consistency up to this point in his career. When Webster can take the ball to the rim on a regular basis he will see his stock rise in Portland. If he remains as a shooting threat with sub-par defense, he will not see much playing time in Portland this season. Coming off a serious injury, Webster is Portland’s number one question mark coming into the season. A former lottery pick, Webster is brimming with talent. All he needs to do is put the pieces together this season to become the complete player Portland envisioned when they drafted him #6 overall in 2005.
While all these players have legitimate cases to ultimately be crowned the starting small forward in Portland, I think Nicolas Batum has the best shot at being Portland’s starting small forward this season and the long term answer at the position. Last season, the Blazers were among the top teams in the NBA in offensive efficiency, meaning they got more points per possession than almost any other team in the NBA. While their turtle-like pace has obscured their defensive weaknesses, it was their inability to contain other teams that led to their shortcomings and early exit from the NBA playoffs. Batum’s outstanding defense and low volume shooting complement the Blazers’ franchise cornerstones (Roy, Aldridge & Oden) better than the strengths of the others.
That being said, I think Rudy Fernandez will easily be the most valuable fantasy contributor amongst this group. While Batum has the best chance of starting, Fernandez will ultimately see the most minutes at SG/SF in Portland and his stats will continue to improve as he elevates the underdeveloped facets of his game. Look for Fernandez to put up impressive numbers in an increased role in Portland this season, while Outlaw and Webster will split the remaining minutes and remain afterthoughts in the fantasy world.
Check out my sports blog, The Glyde (http://theglyde.blogspot.com). It has articles about teams around the NBA and other notable happenings in the sports world.
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