3's a crowd
Blazers have plenty of candidates for starting small forward next season
Kevin Pritchard and Nate McMillan soon will begin making the big decisions about next season for the Trail Blazers.
Near the top of the list: what to do about the small forward position.
Candidates are in full supply, beginning with Ime Udoka, the incumbent of sorts who started all 75 games he played in this season. Travis Outlaw, the fourth-year pro, came on like gangbusters the second half of the campaign. And Martell Webster, the wunderkind, has had two NBA seasons and is still eight months away from legal drinking age.
And don't forget Darius Miles, the enigmatic six-year veteran who sat out the entire season after microfracture knee surgery.
'It's going to be some interesting competition,' Pritchard says.
Udoka, who turns 30 in August, is an unrestricted free agent. The former Jefferson High and Portland State standout would prefer to stay with Portland.
A personal favorite of McMillan's because of his dependability and defensive prowess, Udoka led the Blazers in 3-point shooting (.406) but is short (6-5) for the 3 spot. The Blazers will make him an offer, probably with part of the veteran's exception that is likely to be more than $5.3 million next season.
'Ime was one of the most consistent players on the team,' McMillan says. 'He was the only guy who has played that position really well this season. We want him back.'
Outlaw, because he is 6-9, doesn't turn 23 until September, is the team's best shot-blocker and can jump out of the gym, also is a player the Blazers haven't wanted to give up on. Over the last three weeks, he came out of his shell offensively. Suddenly driving to the basket with abandon and becoming more consistent with his jump shot, the Mississippi native scored in double figures in nine of the last 11 games while averaging 17.5 points.
And suddenly, Outlaw is Rick Barry incarnate. Against the Jazz, he sank his first 16 free throws and finished 18 of 20 at the line, tying the franchise record for most makes in a game. Against Golden State, Outlaw - a 67-percent career foul shooter his first three seasons - was 16 of 16 from the stripe to equal the mark set by Jim Barnett in the first month of the franchise in November 1970.
'I pretty much made him a go-to guy this year (off the bench),' McMillan says. 'We ran our offense around his ability to score off pick-and-roll sets. He helped us defensively, too, because he was able to defend some 4s. He can get even better as he gets stronger. He has come a long way from last season, and he's only 22.'
'The biggest thing for Travis is he has made a decision to change his approach,' says assistant coach Monty Williams, who has worked many hours with Outlaw on individual skills. 'This is the first time he has been in shape since he's been in the league. He worked hard in the fall conditioning program. It's the first time he's lifted weights seriously.
'Travis has pushed himself, and it's shown. But he'll be the first to tell you he's still got a long way to go.'
Outlaw is a restricted free agent. Portland has tendered a $2.2 million qualifying offer and has the right to match any offer from another club, which Pritchard intends to do.
'Travis is at the precipice of his career,' Pritchard says. 'Either he can explode and become a phenomenal player or be stuck in a bench role. He'll determine that with his work ethic the next couple of seasons.'
'I'm more confident in my game now,' Outlaw says. 'I don't feel I'm going to get taken right out if I make mistakes. Coach (McMillan) has given me a little more leeway. When I shoot it, it's not like, 'Oh, what are you doing?' anymore.
'I'd like to start next season. I'm going to fight for it. D-Miles, he's a great player. There's competition. I ain't going to say I'm not coming off the bench. The important thing is who finishes the game. I'd like to be that guy next year.'
The 6-7 Webster, Portland's purest perimeter shooter, started 19 of the first 27 games but wound up in a reserve role, averaging 7.0 points while shooting .396 from the field and .364 from 3-point range.
'Martell's season was up and down,' McMillan says. 'It's what you expect from a second-year player who is only 20. He's still learning how to play. He had some games where he shot the ball well, and some games where he looked like he was lost. But I have seen him improve. You expect to start seeing some consistency in the third year.'
Coming off what he considers 'a pretty OK season,' Webster says he will work hard on creating off the dribble and developing a low-post game.
'But that stuff does not come fast,' he says. 'I know I have the skills to play in this league. It comes down to the mentality - knowing you can do it and going out there to prove it. I'm going to come back mentally ready. I'll be the starter (at small forward) next year.'
Then there is Miles, the X factor, who won't turn 26 until October but will be 19 months removed from his last game action when training camp opens. McMillan remembers his first game as Portland's coach, when Miles went for 32 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots in the 2005-06 opener at Minnesota. That was a long time ago.
Miles flies to New York next week to meet with the doctor who performed his surgery, undergo tests and determine when he can begin to run. His goal is to be ready for camp in October.
'We know most players who've had that surgery have taken two years to make it back,' McMillan says. 'The main thing for Darius is to get as healthy as possible. If he's healthy, he can do a lot of things for us, but in what kind of condition he'll return, we don't know. Until I see that, I can't say how he might fit in.'