First there’s the instinct. Then comes the caution. The NBA season is young, but already it’s been a succession of green lights and yellow lights for Brandon Roy – things he wants to do, things he maybe shouldn’t do – followed over the weekend by a unnerving red light that shut him down after just a half of basketball for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Roy experienced soreness in his knee Friday against Indiana and was shut down by the Wolves’ coaches and trainers for both the second half that night and for the game at Chicago Saturday. He was considered a game-time decision for Minnesota’s game at Dallas Monday.
None of this was unexpected – Roy and the Timberwolves knew the basketball world would be monitoring the shooting guard’s knee health the way paparazzi watch Donald Trump’s coiffure for a brisk wind. He is, after all, the former NBA Rookie of the Year and three-time All-Star for the Portland Trail Blazers whose basketball career appeared to be over at age 27. Early retirement had been thrust on Roy 11 months ago by bone-on-bone agony in his knees, the deterioration of cartilage seen as incurable, irreversible and, for someone expected to perform at the highest level 82 nights a year, unendurable.
A year away from the game soothed his aching joints, however, and made him miss it in ways he never imagined, leading to what now is a tentative, potentially feel-good story for Roy, respected and well-liked throughout the NBA. If, that is, his knees don’t feel bad.
Roy had some soreness in the team’s final preseason game against Milwaukee. That’s what flared up on him Friday, he said, and it was Wolves coach Rick Adelman who put the brakes on any rush Roy felt to play through the pain. “He’s been the best,” Roy said as the visitors’ dressing room at Chicago’s United Center cleared late Saturday. “Coming to me with, y’know, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ The other day when I wanted to rush back and play, he was like, ‘No, no, we expected this.’ He said, ‘We’re going to sit you this game and see how you feel.’ Especially with this being a back-to-back.”
The schedule is friendly enough short-term. Minnesota’s next set of games on consecutive nights comes Nov. 23-24 at Portland and Golden State. A betting man would expect Roy to play, and play hard, against his former team in the first of those. Same guy probably would anticipate a little aching and swelling the next night in Oakland.
“He’s figuring that out,” Adelman said, as Roy navigates the physical and mental demands of his comeback. “He hasn’t been as effective as a lot of people thought he should be, but they’re thinking about the guy three years ago. He’s so used to just letting guys come to him and taking ’em off the dribble and finishing plays.
“Y’know, he’s just coming back after being off a year and he’s just not as sure of himself right now. [Friday] he came out and took three quick jumpers and knocked ’em down. Everybody who comes back from knee surgery or major surgery, if they’re smart players, they figure out how to get to their strengths. He still can do that. It’s just going to take time.”
The numbers are not pretty. In five appearances, Roy has averaged 5.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 24.4 minutes, while shooting 31.4 percent and 0-for-9 from the arc. Over his first five season, his numbers in those same categories were 19.0, 4.3, 4.7 and 35.6. He was a 46.0 percent shooter, 35.2 percent on 3-pointers.
This isn’t just a matter of Roy being productive. It’s a question of how he’s productive. Without explosiveness, without the carefree and pain-free abandon with which he used to play this game, Roy’s identity of the court is changing. In baseball terms, he’s the equivalent of a thrower who loses a few miles-per-hour off his fastball and has to learn how to be a pitcher, hitting his spots.
“But once they do that, a lot of those guys, [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine, can pitch till they’re 45,” Wolves teammate Kevin Love said. “He’s not – and he knows this too – he’s not quite ‘Brandon Roy, the past superstar.’ But he makes great plays, he plays good defense. He doesn’t have that explosiveness, that dancing in the lane that he used to have. But he’s still effective. He plays like a veteran.”
Love mentioned Grant Hill, “a guy who played at the top of the backboard, really energetic guy, very, very bouncy” who had to adjust after injury setbacks. Adelman in Houston coached Tracy McGrady through physical ailments that hampered and changed his game. It basically is a premature aging, a loss of marvelous powers. For so many of these guys who go through it, it’s like asking Superman, post-Kryptonite, to find some way to be happy merely as Batman.
Wolves guard Luke Ridnour has known Roy “since about fifth grade” and has his eye on this downward transformation. “He had so much talent – he could do everything with the ball,” Ridnour said. “But his basketball IQ is so high. He understands angles and where you get shots from and how to make passes. He’s such an unselfish player. Obviously, he’s still finding his game as far as shooting and just playing, but he’s looked great to me the whole two months I’ve seen him.”
Any signs of frustration at being less than the player he was? Said Ridnour: “He’s so upbeat. To me, Brandon’s just excited to be out here playing. To be 28 years old, to be able to compete and do what God gave him the ability to do. It’s fun to see.”
Still, there are those plays when the old Roy has to yield to the new Roy, when the green light gives way to the yellow. When he’s 24 in his mind but going on 34 or 44 down there in his knees.
“I’ve had moments when I’ve over-thought things, especially when the tempo picked up with the regular season,” Roy said. “There’ve been plays that I thought I could make, but then I kind of backed out of it. Not because of pain but because of mental. ‘Are you sure? Are you sure!? Some of it was just second-guessing myself.”
He never was a guy who got by on raw ability alone. “No,” he said. “But the difference then, I did have those spurts when I could call on some athleticism. Now it’s a little bit different. I just have to continue to adjust and find my spots.”
On the floor. And in the schedule.