Spanish Armada Docks In Portland; Mixed Results Ensue

It's snowing in Portland and in the mountains of Basque country, so it is therefore the perfect time to turn to our favorite Jewish-Welsh correspondent Eli Gunn-Jones. Take it away, Eli!

Portland has been hit with uncharacteristically heavy snowfall as of late, but due to the Blazers’ mildly surprising mini-slump, Rose City residents have reacted as if chunks of the sky have been falling instead of condensed frozen rain. Setting aside Tuesday’s gimme against tumultuous Sacramento and Brandon’s career performance versus Phoenix last night (which, by the way, barely secured the win), Portland dropped three straight and four of five. Though talk of “tempering expectations” and “weathering the storm” (sorry for the pun) has been the point of emphasis for Portland fans this week, there are still certain infallibilities, untouchable commandments for all to remember. Brandon is a god. Oden will get there. We have too many small forwards. Rudy Fernandez is the unquestionable fan favorite.

How interesting, then, that the high-flying Spaniard’s meteoric rise is countered by the ongoing, ever-present instability of fellow countryman Sergio Rodriguez. It is difficult to ascertain why Rudy, the stunning rookie, is so quickly showered with boundless praise from both the fans and Blazers’ organization while Sergio, a dazzling guard in his own right, is met with a decidedly less enthusiastic response. However, a number of factors offer clues in this muddled situation.

Rudy certainly has the benefit of momentum and hype. This past summer, the lanky Euro stepped off his plane at PDX to find over one hundred fans boisterously cheering his arrival. The excitement can be attributed to Rudy's inspiring play in the Olympic finals when he went toe-to-toe with the NBA's best and brightest. Coach McMillan, an assistant in Beijing, sang numerous praises for his sweet-shooting soon-to-be guard, pointing out the maturity and mental toughness that is overshadowed by Rudy’s long range jumper, quick decision making and aerial grace.

And that’s the odd thing about Rudy’s arrival and subsequent place on the team. His place is already so engrained within the DNA of the team. McMillan already trusts him; Pritchard looks like a genius for nabbing him. He’s not supposed to be Pippen, the Outstanding Achievement for Best Supporting Actor. Rather, Rudy is the star of the second unit, the protagonist of his very own genre B-film. He electrifies the crowd with a barrage of treys and legs-splayed outta-control-lookin-but-very-much-in-control dunks.

Sergio, meanwhile, is a more complicated entity in Blazerdom. He is the rope in a perpetual tug-of-war game. Message board debates can reach Fatlip vs. Imani levels of acerbity (reunion shows notwithstanding). Some call for Spanish Chocolate to play 30 minutes a night, banking on the stability to boost his confidence, shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Detractors pray for a trade before the rest of the league discovers he’s a sham. Within the organization, all signs point to a similar divide. There was the semi-famous public tiff over playing time that led to Sergio’s agent demanding a trade. PT is still quite inconsistent, though his 18 min/game in December is the most he’s ever been afforded. Most importantly, Sergio’s playing style—fast break-oriented, sleight of hand magic tricks, gambling defense—is completely at odds with McMillan’s philosophy, both as a hard-nosed former player and disciplined coach. McMillan’s slow and steady approach is a dream come true for veteran starter Steve Blake.

But therein lies the confusing part of this whole situation: how exactly does Rudy fit in with McMillan’s value system that warrants his 28 minutes per while Sergio does not? I’ll happily describe Rudy’s game as dynamic, exciting, and at times unstoppable. But he’s often a defensive liability, launches too many questionable threes, and there are stretches in which he tries either too much or too little. Criticisms, by the way, that have been volleyed at Sergio. Is there a bizarre double standard brewing here?

“Rudy as patron saint” and “Blazers have vendetta against Sergio” are both gross oversimplifications, but those are the archetypes that have solidified. Rudy’s cooled a bit since his scorching start—which, sadly, has cost him some offensive wiggle room with Coach—though he still throws in 11 ppg and drains the long ball. But guess what? So does Sergio, who’s once woeful 3pt shooting now stands at a respectable .366, not to mention those four assists a game (in 16 mpg?!) coupled with a lowered turnover count. Maybe McMillan’s preaching has gotten through, which would be simultaneously rewarding and disappointing. I mean, the nerds beat the jocks at the end of the movie by embracing their inner dweeb, not by becoming roided-out physical specimens. Right?

The Blazers’ recent underachieving, coupled with a crucial home-and-home with Denver followed by surging Dallas, makes this all the more relevant. In the wake of Blake’s poor performance over the past few weeks (game-winning three at Toronto and last night’s shooting clinic exempt), is it time for Sergio to get his chance? Should Rudy return to his Rip Hamilton-esque screen popping ways rather than languish in the role of spot-up deep threat that so egregiously wastes his versatile offensive panache? Best of all, could this team-wide funk translate to more minutes for the eye-popping Spanish tandem together? Just picture it—“Spaniards return Blazers to Western conference elite with electrifying lobs on the court, wear matching sweaters off.”

This is just an exercise in fantasy, though. The organization is too stable, too consistent, too goal-oriented, to rock the boat with any panic lineup changes. And hey, that makes a lot of sense for a promising young team building towards eventual title contention. But, when gazing with FD-tinted glasses, frustration mounts. The team is restrained to the point of boredom; McMillan has truly molded them in his own image. I fear Sergio will decay until his will is broken, devolving from unpredictable ringleader to safe passer; I fear the dark gods have placed Rudy on a path to become a generic, imitation Ginobli. Say it ‘aint so.

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At 12/19/2008 4:11 PM, Blogger db said...

Alongside ten reasons Rudy is a more NBA-ready player than Sergio, there is the more important fact that Sergio plays PG rather than scoring wing, and therefore their mistakes aren't equivalent as Sergio's mistakes tend to throw out the whole team. Sergio is probably the kind of PG you could orient a system around (like a poor man's Nash) and live/die with his decision making. But that team would never be great.

The biggest problem at the moment is that the Spanish Armarda haven't been dropping any bombs and being that change of pace/style that they could be. This is partially due to line-up instabiity and Nate not really knowing what to do with his small forwards, but also their inability to maintain the early confidence through the grind of the season.

I'm also hoping they get it together as Rudy is one of my favourite players to watch, and his chemistry with Sergio is something else. Ironically, the key to Sergio's role might be relying less on looking to Rudy and being able to get Travis Outlaw shots from good spots on the floor.

wv: muling - Nate's coaching style

At 12/19/2008 4:36 PM, Blogger Robert said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12/19/2008 5:00 PM, Blogger Robert said...

Denver fan living in Portland here.

I can honestly say that the Rudy phenomenon has an element of critical mass to it - people are simply excited because he generated so much talk, even among people who follow the game topically, before he ever arrived.

The situation with Sergio (and, to an even stronger degree, Travis Outlaw) isn't really anything more than what happens with any couch-potato coaching. Except that Portland is unique in that literally, the entire city has bought into Nate's plan. So anyone who doesn't really fit the bill of consistent roleplaying and numbers proportionate to their position gets reviled. At least, insofar as anyone gets reviled in a one-team city.

For my part, being a Nuggets fan, the whole thing reminds me of JR Smith and the endless debate he prompts, even among people who consider themselves professionals. I love JR, and anyone who defies statistics and the idea of rational analysis. I wish I could be a Portland fan, because they have a lot of great momentum right now. But the Nuggets are too much of a perennial dark horse, and the only thing that helps that maintain some youthful exuberance is JR. So I dig on Travis and Sergio. I think there's a place on any team for a player that whose brilliant inconsistency creates more matchup problems than their physical assets.

At 12/19/2008 5:49 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

I thought Nate was already playing the two Spaniards together in the backcourt. which, I personally, thought was a great idea. Seeing their chemistry together was a big factor in my dropping Steve Blake for DJ Augustin a couple weeks ago. (which literally couldn't have worked out any better) Although I haven't been overly impressed by Rodriguez, but its clear that Rudy! is a unique talent (sorta looks like a crackhead though, right?) and is a dynamic scorer, but since they are both turnover and mistake prone, that town might not be big enough for the both of em. Which is a shame.

At 12/19/2008 7:51 PM, Blogger Grace said...

I am worried about Nate's rigidness as well. In the Phx game last night Nate insisted on playing a zone with the armada together in the game. I assume the coach is worried about a lack of a "match-up" for the slight sergio but the blazers gave up several uncontested triples in a just a few minutes because of the poorly executed/constructed zone. After that run of points sergio never re-entered the game. I think Nate will always end up choosing to favor d over o/chemistry.

I also wonder what would happen if Outlaw played a few more minutes with the starters and Batum found some minutes with that second unit. Batum brings that same sort of erratic beauty to the defensive end that the armada brings to the offensive. I'd like to see three incomplete players around the perimeter awkwardly trying to "fit in."

At 12/20/2008 12:41 AM, Blogger Matt Lundy said...

There were Fatlip vs. Imani debates? Really? Fatlip was ten times better than Imani.

Last night during the Suns/Blazers game, for whatever reason, I attributed Rudy's Portland-area success to his curly locks and a resemblance to two beloved-by-the-ladies American douchebags with similar haircuts: Matt Leinart and Brody Jenner. Seriously, the hair and general look is similar. Sergio, on the other hand, has the buzzed recessed hairline and tooth linearity of an 18th-Century Briton. Tough to market that shit.

At 12/20/2008 1:32 AM, Blogger db said...

Sergio, on the other hand, has the buzzed recessed hairline and tooth linearity of an 18th-Century Briton. Tough to market that shit.

lol, so true. Count me in with Grace on sending Outlaw up to the starting unit and getting Batum going with Sergio and Rudy. That lineup with, say Aldridge and Oden (or Outlaw at the PF in smallball) would have plenty of length and angles.

At 12/20/2008 2:11 AM, Blogger tray said...

I like Sergio... but he doesn't really deserve that much playing time on that team, given how they play. Send him to Philadelphia. I'd part with Iguodala for him. Seriously, he sucks. I'm not sure what else you'd need to throw in to solve the gaping gap in salary, but we could hammer out something.

At 12/20/2008 8:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 12/20/2008 7:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cugth Sergio and hte crew at the Fleet this season to take on the Celtics (the KG big Baby Throw Down) and I have to say that he looked much better than Steve Blake running the show. His ability to get up the floor in transition and after made baskets helped the Blazers get back in that game. I have not seen him on the regular, but I wonder about his time in Portland with Bayless waiting in the wings.

Regarding Denver...if we rolled the clock back a few years when Kenyon Martin/Richard Jefferson played together in Jersey and cross pollinated their games would you get JR Smith? Or is he more Ron Artest/Ricky Davis?

At 12/21/2008 3:30 AM, Blogger Zach Smart said...

The Rudy Gay that's referenced in this article is the same Rudy Gay he was at UConn...Otherworldly, freakish athleticism and good-life on some mid-range jumpers though his shot selection is questionable and his D can be suspect at times. He sucked some serious GUS JOHNSON during the SUNY Albany (Why not us?) game, scoring 8 points and doing a wowing Houdini impression. I guess you can give him a free pass since that team had four other NBA players on the court at all times.


At 12/27/2008 2:52 PM, Blogger adrian said...

<3 Stranger than Fiction

At 4/13/2009 1:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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