Friday, December 14, 2007

Making Room for an Outlaw

I know that ever since Kevin Pritchard came on board in Portland, the Blazers have had a plan. I doubt that plan ever included Greg Oden (becuase how could they have imagined getting the top pick?) and I know it didn't include Greg Oden having microfracture surgery. It certainly is built around Brandon Roy and the plan probably expects big things from LaMarcus Aldridge. It was predicated around jettison players from the Jail Blazers era and making character count and bringing the fans back. Whatever the plan was, it was a good one and it is unfolding before our very eyes.

But I can't help wondering ... did Travis Outlaw ever really figure into the plan? He was drafted right out of high school back when the Blazers were still taking shaky guys like Quentel Woods in the draft and trading for dudes like Darius Miles (by the way, the mere sight of Miles getting on an exercise bike or jogging up and down the practice floor sends my Portland-based friends into convulsions). And at the time, he seemed like a perfect fit. As my Dad joked on draft night, "Why wouldn't the Blazers take an Outlaw?"

But the thing is, he's improved every year. Last year he made some big strides on defense, became a better rebounder, improved a bit with his midrange jumper, and really learned how to get to the line.

This year he lost the starting small forward job in camp to Martell Webster (who is also vastly improved, armed with a new attitude and unlimited range on this jumper) but didn't hang his head for a minute. Instead, he's tearing it up off the bench, giving the Blazers energy and scoring punch at both forward spots. Every time I catch part of a Portland game, the Blazers' level of success seems to correspond with Outlaw's minutes.

He's been especially potent in December, where through six games, he is scoring 18 points and grabbing 7 boards a night, shooting over 50% from the field (he finally seems totally comfortable taking the 17-footer, which was always a huge key for him), and averaging over 5 free throw attempts a game. He also blocks a shot a night and seems to make one or two "momentum" plays every fourth quarter. His minutes per game are up from 25 a night in November to 29 per in December, but it is more about what he's doing with those minutes than the increase in playing time.

The bottom line is that for the past six games - a stretch in which the Blazers are 5-1, by the way - Outlaw has been playing the sixth man role at a level just beneath that of such off-the-bench luminaries as Manu Ginobili and Leandro Barbosa. The guy has been good. Really good.

Which brings me back around to my original point. What was the long term plan for Outlaw going into this season? And what is it now? I think Portland always imagined putting a shooter/defender at the three position to stretch the floor for the bigs and for Roy (who can post) and that they probably viewed Outlaw as an ancillary piece of the puzzle.

But I think he's gotta be changing some minds. Maybe he's not a prototypical small forward in terms of his skill set and certainly he won't likely be the starting power forward on a team with Aldridge and Oden, but doesn't he have to get 30 minutes a night for the next five years?

I'll be curious to see how this all plays out, but my gut instinct is that Travis Outlaw is making himself an invaluable piece of this team and that he will be heard from for years to come.

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