Byron Scott saw it before I did. After the New Orleans Hornets lost to the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden on Nov. 28, Scott was asked about Brandon Roy by a local reporter.
"As coaches, when we scout Portland we kind of put him in the same category as Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], Dwyane Wade," Scott answered. "We treat him the same. He's that good."
At the time, the comment seemed like a nice compliment to pay to a rival after a hard loss, but frankly a bit of an exaggeration. The next time I was in Portland, Ben Golliver of seminal Portland blog Blazer's Edge took a very different path to draw a similar conclusion, observing that Roy was carrying himself with the air of a superstar. I wasn't convinced.
Things finally clicked for me Tuesday, in an otherwise-forgettable Blazers blowout of the Sacramento Kings. I was struck by Roy's 15-of-15 effort from the free-throw line, setting career highs for both makes and attempts in a night shortened by the lopsided margin. If there was any doubt remaining, it was removed last night, when Roy scored a career-high 52 points (joining Tony Parker as the only NBA players to hit the 50-point mark this season) and knocked down the game-winning three-pointer in the Blazers' wild 124-119 win against the Phoenix Suns on TNT.
It is obvious now: Roy has made the leap to superstardom.
The numbers agree. With his performance Thursday, Roy vaulted into sixth in the NBA in Wins Above Replacement Player for the 2008-09 season. The group he trails--James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Wade and Tim Duncan, in that order--makes up the early competition for MVP, with the possible addition of Bryant. To that extent, the chants of "M-V-P" that rung from the Rose Garden rafters during Roy's career night weren't unreasonable.
Certainly, Roy's NBA career has been marked by precocious success, as he followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign by being the only second-year player picked for last year's All-Star Game. Still, the All-Star accolade seemed as much a nod to the Blazers' surprising start as Roy's own play, especially with the depth at guard in the Western Conference. Making the All-Star team more comfortably seemed like a reasonable individual goal for Roy entering this season. Instead, he's far surpassed those expectations.
Something really seems to have locked in for Roy since the Blazers returned from a lengthy East Coast swing early last week. His dominant performance against Phoenix capped a five-game stretch in which Roy scored 30-plus points four times and finished with 29 in the other. All the scoring hasn't taken away from Roy's other contributions. Setting aside the 52 points, last night was a quintessential Roy line--six assists, five rebounds and nary a turnover in his 44 minutes of action.
The key difference has been Roy's ability to get to the free-throw line. Whether it's due to an elevation in his status amongst the league's officials or simply the difficulty in keeping him out of the lane, Roy has seen his free-throw attempts surge forward. He's broken his career high for free-throw attempts three times in the last five games, including 21 tries against the Suns. Here's how free throws break down as a percentage of possessions over the course of Roy's career, isolating the most recent five-game stretch.
Last 5 .196
Over the last five games, one in five of Roy's possessions has resulted in a trip to the free-throw line, and considering he's knocking those attempts down at an 87.7 percent clip, that's translated into a lot of points. The only perimeter player to sustain such a high rate of free-throw attempts over the course of the season is New Jersey's Devin Harris, whose proclivity for trips to the charity stripe was the subject of a recent Unfiltered post.
If Roy had an offensive weakness during his first two seasons, it was that he tended to rely too much on scoring via the two-point basket, in general the least efficient method. Because of his unique ability to finish in the paint and his highly accurate midrange jumper, Roy made it work. Nonetheless, scoring more points via the free-throw line and from beyond the arc was an easy way for Roy to improve his True Shooting Percentage, only average so far during his career. Three-point range remains a work in progress, but when Roy is hitting from downtown, as he was against the Suns (5-of-7 on threes), he is virtually unstoppable.
The second clear sign of Roy's budding superstardom is his increasing usage rate. He's gone from using 23.1 percent of the Blazers' possessions as a rookie to 25.1 percent a year ago and 29.9 percent so far this season, putting him eighth in the league. Somewhat surprisingly, this is one trend that isn't evident over the last five games, as Roy has continued to post a usage rate around 30 percent. He's merely being more efficient with his possessions.
The last indicator is that teams are beginning to back up Scott's words with their actions and treating Roy as one of the league's elite players by trapping him to take the ball out of his hands down the stretch. Roy is such a good (and willing) passer that this strategy can be dangerous, but Portland has yet to deal well with this tactic. When Orlando sprung the trap on Roy last week, he got stuck in the corner with the shot clock running down and missed a prayer.
Phoenix used the same defense last night and the Blazers were bailed out by an off-balance LaMarcus Aldridge jumper from just inside the three-point line. On the next possession, the Blazers were able to operate before the Suns' defense got set and Roy worked the two-man game with Steve Blake to set up the game-winner. Given this surely won't be the last time the opposition traps Roy, Nate McMillan ought to devote some practice time to options that result in either a good three-point look for Blake, Rudy Fernandez or Travis Outlaw, or finding Aldridge or Greg Oden in the paint.
The ideal scenario would create enough fear of being beaten by the pass that opponents would call off the trap, leaving the ball in Roy's hands. If there's one area where he has played at a superstar level for some time now, it has been in creating good shots and knocking them down in end-game situations, including this year's buzzer-beater against the Houston Rockets. Now, the rest of Roy's game has caught up.
Kobe. LeBron. D-Wade. B-Roy? It still sounds a little funny, but it seems we are going to have to get comfortable with the notion of Brandon Roy as an elite NBA player.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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