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NBA: Jerryd Bayless and the Liberation of Combo Guards

December 19, 2009

The myth of point guard purity is one of my personal voodoos, so excuse the bleating back pat to come. Jerryd Bayless, a so-called combo guard, a Gilbert Arenas lite, went to Portland in the 2008 draft. In fact, Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard sent valued Jarrett Jack to Indiana in order to move up a few spot in the mid-first round to grab Bayless when the top 10 drafters bypassed the Wildcat for illustrious talents like Joe Alexander.

Bayless hasn’t really paid off for Pritchard or the Blazers … until now, that is. Bayless played in only 53 games last season, averaging 12 minutes per contest. Portland has a few higher-profile point guards (Andre Miller and Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez last year) and a starting two-guard (Brandon Roy) who happens to dominate the ball and initiate the offense. Bayless seemed to be on a repeat path this season: pulling in only when injury, foul trouble or garbage time struck. He’s not a fit with coach Nate McMillans conservative, slow system, and there is the perception that Portland alreadyhad too many mouths to feed before introducing a score-first lead guard to the mix.

But something funny happened, even with Blake and Miller and Roy all healthy. Portland has disappointed, and McMillan has gotten desperate. You can stick to religion when you exceed expectations, even if sin would add a win. To a degree, that’s a fine stance to take: in years past, it was always about the future with the club, and indoctrinating the roster in the ways of Blazer Ball served as a dominant goal.

But tomorrow is here, and the Blazers can’t get by (in the media, with the home crowd) building for the future. It’s suddenly all about this moment, this opportunity to leap into orbit, to join the Lakers, the Celtics, the Magic, the Cavaliers. That’s how the atmosphere has been all year, and Portland’s disappointing start has added a hanging smog of … well, disappointment. McMillan, as I said, is on the precipice of desperation.

Enter Bayless, who has become a smidge vocal about his lack of opportunity. McMillan the Pastor would never approve of what Bayless has done the past two games — 11 shot attempts (six FGAs, 10 FTAs) in 24 minutes against Sacramento Tuesday,21 shots (15 FGAs, 12 FTAs) in 29 minutes Thursday against the Suns. But McMillan lost his cloth when Greg Oden went down, and McMillan the Coach Facing Criticism for the First Time in a Long Time sure loves it. To wit, McMillan’s post-game comments, transcribed by Ben Golliver of Blazersedge:

What can you say? I thought he had a great game. We know Jerryd can put some points on the board. And with all the guys we have out, we need that. He’s getting the opportunity to play and he’s taking advantage of it. I’ve told him for really for the last two years ‘be patient, be patient, the opportunity is going to come. I don’t know when but it just does in the NBA.’ And that opportunity has come in the last two games. He’s shown this at times. The last two times he’s shown what he’s capable of doing with that opportunity.

Of course, Bayless scored a vital 14 against Sacramento, and a game-high 29 against Phoenix. If those shots don’t fall, if Bayless doesn’t get the whistles he did and more possessions end with a missed FGA instead of two made FTAs, then McMillan doesn’t say that, and Bayless gets no freedom. McMillan, I’d argue, doesn’t believe in Bayless, but believes in what Bayless just did, and knows that right now, with the bench suffering from the losses of Oden (bumping Joel Przybilla to the starting unit), Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez, he as a coach and manager of playing time needs to keep believing in Bayless’s work until twilight falls on the guard.

And that, perhaps, is the long-term curse of the combo guards who serve under traditional coaches: you’re like the woman on the side. When coach needs you, he’ll use you. But the minute you disappoint, or try to break out of the lopsided relationship, you’re gone, and it’s on to the new one. Combo guards deserve better treatment under the old school regime. If Dennis Johnson is the Susan B. Anthony of this movement, maybe Bayless can be the Gloria Steinem. Forward!

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