For Brandon Roy and the Portland Trail Blazers, this has been a year of adjustment. Because of the degenerative condition of his knees, the Roy who was one of the league's brightest young stars is likely gone forever. What Roy and his coach Nate McMillan have sought to figure out, then, is whether he can still be valuable to the Blazers in a different role. Since Roy returned to the lineup on Feb. 25, the results have been mixed.
At the individual level, Roy's performance is but a shadow of what he accomplished when healthy. Once one of the league's most efficient high scorers, Roy has made just 42.9 percent of his two-point attempts over the last month. Add in his difficulty getting to the foul line--free throws accounted for twice as high a percentage of Roy's plays last year--and Roy's True Shooting Percentage is an ugly 48.0 percent.
Nonetheless, the fear of Portland fans--that Roy's return to the lineup would interrupt the momentum the team had built in his absence--has not materialized. Roy took some of the blame when the Blazers lost three of the first four games he played, but that was more an issue of the difficulty integrating multiple newcomers. At the same time as Roy came back, so did center Marcus Camby, while Portland also added forward Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline. With so much turnover, McMillan needed a few games to establish a new rotation.
Looking strictly at the period since Roy's return, the Blazers have been better with him on the floor, outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 48 minutes. They're +4.8 per 48 minutes when he's been on the bench. That might actually understate Roy's impact, as he has been a relatively small part of lopsided wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers (by 41 points) and the Washington Wizards (by 35) that have padded Portland's differential.
How can we reconcile these two very different assessment's of Roy's value? One missing link is his sure-handed play with the ball. Always good at taking care of the basketball, Roy has taken turnover-free play to extremes over the last month, coughing the ball up just five times in 300 minutes. Typically, players with turnover rates so low are shooting specialists who never put the ball on the floor. Roy has pulled it off while frequently playing point guard.
Beyond that, teams still have to respect Roy's ability, especially as a shooter (even as he's making just 32.4 percent of his threes). That has served to open things up for his teammates, most notably when Roy is the Blazers' lead ballhandler. Per BasketballValue.com, Portland is scoring at a rate of 109.6 points per 100 possessions with Roy at the point since his return. That makes him an upgrade over Patty Mills, who had been backing up starter Andre Miller.
Credit Roy for being accepting of his new role thus far. This may change during the postseason, but he has yet to complain about coming off the bench and has willingly taken a backseat to LaMarcus Aldridge in the Blazers' offense. He's using just 21.7 percent of Portland's plays, down significantly from where it was earlier this season, let alone in past years.
In terms of where he's getting his shots, the change in Roy's game has been less dramatic. Via Hoopdata.com, Roy is still attempting 25 percent of his shots at the rim--not a significant change from the 27 percent of his attempts that were at the rim last year. He's traded some shots at the fringe of the paint for longer attempts, but the bigger issue is that Roy simply is no longer making long twos, formerly a strength of his game. He has shot 31.1 percent from 16-23 feet, down substantially from last year's 44.0 percent mark. Roy doesn't have the same ability to create separation with the dribble that he once did, but he's too accurate a shooter not to improve his percentage.
Roy's knees have also had an impact at the defensive end of the floor, where he was never a standout in the best of times. Finding a good matchup for Roy on defense might be a problem in the postseason, though the Blazers' most likely first-round opponents (the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers) both use slower, bigger point guards who are ideal opposing numbers for Roy. Despite his limitations, it is hard to find evidence of Roy hurting Portland defensively. Over the course of the season, the Blazers have been better on defense with him on the floor.
A month into the experiment that is Brandon Roy 2.0, realistic expectations for his impact have become apparent. In limited minutes, Roy can contribute and even carry Portland at times down the stretch thanks to his experience creating his own shot. Because of Roy's injury, the Blazers have had to temper high expectations, but with the addition of Wallace this figures to be a dangerous lower seed in the Western Conference playoffs with more than enough ability to pull off an upset.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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