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.