Thursday, March 5, 2009
PER Diem: March 5, 2009
By John Hollinger
PORTLAND -- Brandon Roy needs a nickname, so let me boldly propose one: The Magnificent Seven.
For starters, he wears No. 7, which is helpful. But this season, he's the magnificent No. 7 in more ways than one.
Take a look at the NBA this season. Six players have been a cut above the rest -- LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. But who has been the seventh-best? Search around, and you won't find anyone with a better case than Roy.
He is seventh in the league in player efficiency rating for a team that, coincidentally, has the league's seventh-best record after Wednesday's 107-105 win over Indiana -- one in which he scored 10 points in the final two minutes and 24 in the second half. Check the Power Rankings this morning; guess which team is No. 7?
He has been healthy all season, is the clear leader of one of the league's most unified locker rooms and has positioned the upstart Blazers to claim a top-four playoff seed in the top-heavy Western Conference.
So why aren't we hearing more about this guy? He might be seventh on my stat charts, but he's nowhere close in terms of name recognition yet. Sure, he's a two-time All-Star, but the perception of him is more as a nice player than as a superstar.
The latter description, however, is far more accurate.
"Our people know who he is," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "The attention, I think that will come. It takes time; you have to earn it."
"Sometimes I think I don't get the attention," Roy said. "But that's not what motivates me."
It doesn't help that Roy highlights are hardly a YouTube staple. Not only is he far out of the limelight in the NBA's last bastion in the Pacific Northwest, but his game doesn't lend itself to the rim-rattling dunks or ankle-breaking crossovers that have gained notoriety for other players -- even if Roy's methods have proved to be more effective.
His game is pure craftiness -- changes of pace and direction, subtle fakes, midrange jumpers and cleanly executed finishes around the rim with either hand. It's jarring to see a player who is 24 years old play with such polish, something Roy credits to his older brother.
"He was faster, stronger, taller everything," Roy said. "The only thing I could do to beat him was to try to outsmart him. Now that I'm in the NBA, I use those same skills, because guys are bigger, faster, stronger. It's just my style. I could go up and dunk basketballs, but I just try to get to the point as fast as possible with as little energy as I have to."
And the other reason Roy's exploits don't get more attention, I must say, is numbers. Roy isn't a guy who excels in one category, so there's nothing to make you go, "Wow." Even the advanced metrics agree on this -- he's not among the top three shooting guards in any category except PER.
But here's the thing -- he's good at everything. Roy might not lead his position in any category, but he's in the top third in all of them.
Similarly, Roy's averages of 22.6 points, 5.1 assists and 4.7 boards don't scream superstar ... until you realize he's doing it with a high shooting percentage and an extremely low turnover rate, and that his numbers have been deflated because he plays for the league's second-slowest-paced team and is the unquestioned centerpiece of the league's second-ranked offense.
He keeps developing his game, too. One thing he's added this season is a vastly improved ability to get to the rim and finish, something he and McMillan credit to an offseason strength program. Roy is shooting 56.9 percent in the immediate basket area, a phenomenal mark for a guard, and has taken 42.0 percent of his attempts from that distance this season -- compared to only 34.2 percent last season.
Similarly, he's drawn .397 free throw attempts per field goal attempt this season, compared to .297 last season.
"He's expanded his game," McMillan said. "He was a jump shooter, and he tried to work on his body to get stronger so he could get more contact. [And] he'll learn how to get to the free throw line more. I don't think he's reached his full potential."
I have to underscore just how rare this is. Normally the proportion of a player's attempts in the basket area will decrease with age, as his athleticism slowly declines and his shooting slowly improves. It takes a very strong will to fly in the face of those trends and increase the proportion of basket-area attempts as one's career goes on.
"I noticed last year I had to get stronger late in games," Roy said. "I put a lot of weight on, and when the season started, I dropped the weight but kept the strength."
The result has been a transformation -- now he's not only an elite midrange shooter, he's also a terror on the drive.
"If you let him get to the basket, he's so strong and shoots with either hand so well," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said prior to Wednesday's game. "He shoots an extraordinary percentage inside 5 feet."
O'Brien learned just how tough Roy is the hard way at the end of the game. The Blazers ran every play through him in the final four minutes, save for one botched possession on which they failed to play keep-away and gave up a game-tying layup with 11 seconds left.
No matter -- Roy quickly made amends by drawing a foul on a drive to the basket with 1.7 seconds left and hitting the game-clinching free throws. Besides that one late turnover, all eight Blazers trips in the final four minutes started with Roy dribbling out high and driving to the basket to either find a teammate or score himself. He set up a quality shot on seven of the eight, and six of them resulted in Blazers buckets.
"I've kind of gained a trust level with [McMillan]," Roy said. "He can tell when I want it. I look at him and I'm like, 'Coach, don't' call anything.' It's an eye contact thing."
And for McMillan, it might be the easiest part of his job. "You give it to your best player," he said. "The game is on the line, it's the last possession -- you want your best creator to have the ball."
In this case, McMillan's best creator is better than almost anyone else's. And if The Magnificent Seven keeps racking up performances like the one against the Pacers, it's inevitable that eventually the rest of the country will catch on to just how good Roy has been this season.
|Brandon Roy's numbers may not wow you, but there's no doubt he's an NBA superstar.|
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.