MINNEAPOLIS – In an arena a thousand miles from Brandon Roy’s new home, the conversation twisted in a way it’s never twisted before.
It ballooned bigger than just two or three games. It sped through the shooting guard and his coach’s attempts to gradually test limits. When it comes to the Minnesota Timberwolves guard, the conclusions are forming more quickly than they might be warranted, and in them, the NBA’s newest comeback kid will face his toughest test yet.
No one has talked about Roy like this before. You wouldn’t have dared back then, just three years ago, though it seems like so many more. You wouldn’t have dared. Not before the retirement. Not since the comeback. Not really ever.
But in the bowels of the newest NBA arena, where everything is shiny and solid and years away from being broken, Nets coach Avery Johnson is insinuating that Brandon Roy might be the opposite of all that. He’s maybe broken, maybe healing, definitely a work in progress in his return from an early retirement forced by aching knees. Roy is still finding his way, the Nets coach says, still trying to establish himself and test his limits. And then the kicker: Johnson shifts the discussion seamlessly to exploiting his opponent’s weaknesses, and right now, it’s clear he sees Roy as such.
Two games were enough for a consensus, no matter how fleeting it might prove. Two games were enough to err on the side of the second night, to believe the game in which Roy went 0-for-4 from the floor and scored just four points on free throws was the true representation of the player. Never mind that 10 points and six assists were perfectly respectable on Friday, despite shooting struggles. Never mind that it had been two games for a man who missed 66 and hasn’t been himself for close to 150.
Roy did little to prove Johnson wrong Monday night in Brooklyn. He had just six points, though his shooting was more accurate, and seven assists is hardly shameful. Even so, he wasn’t magnificent, and early on, he’s had weaknesses. Since June, Brandon Roy has dealt in big, in shocking, in nobody saw that coming, and it appears early that only play on that same grandiose scale will be enough to prove that he’s made it back.
But expecting Roy to emerge this early as a star would have been premature. Resigning that he’s a nonfactor would be equally irresponsible.
So maybe the evaluation process needs to change. Maybe the goals need to be altered. But wait. Inside Minnesota’s Brandon Roy brain trust, where plans are formulated and decisions are made, nothing is set. The Roy plan is still very much in flux, and though there might be goals, there is no ceiling.
The Timberwolves are comfortable with that approach. They believe it can’t be too detrimental to what they’re doing early, and they’re willing to take the risk that is Roy. But such an approach isn’t easy to accept, not around the league, not when everyone wants at once to see the star player restored for the good of the game and to take him down for the good of themselves.
In order to understand what Brandon Roy is going through, we have to go back. Back even to the initial announcement that he’d return, back to his first workouts with assistant coach Bill Bayno, back to his first day in Minnesota.
For Roy, who should at this point be a seasoned veteran, it’s been an onslaught of supposed firsts. First workout, first practice, first preseason game, first real game. It’s as if he is a rookie again, but with the knowledge that as exciting as these firsts might be, they’re also inherently difficult.
What Roy is doing is harder than any true debut, and the jitters are natural. He’s described the process as an attempt to “shake some of that rust off,” and unlike a rookie, he already brings a baseline set of expectations at the NBA level, not just a resume of college or international accomplishments that might not translate.
Roy’s skills have translated before, to the tune of three All-Star appearances. That’s why it hurt so much when they ceased to, when he sat last season watching opening day games with a hefty amnesty check but no team. That’s why he’s so confident that he can prove himself, but the gradual devolution of his career is not quickly forgotten.
“My appreciation for the game has been at a really high level,” Roy said before the Timberwolves’ first game. “Not that I lost it, but again, sometimes you take some things for granted. (I appreciate) just being back in this position.”
There was an excitement in being unproven, a fierce joy in having something to prove. Roy hadn’t had a blank slate in years, but in this resurgence, he was afforded something close. He let himself succumb to the guilty pleasures of being a something of a born-again rookie as well as the jitters. He flew in family from the West Coast for Minnesota’s home opener last Friday. He was restless before his first preseason game and then calculated in his approach to calm his nerves before the first night of the regular season.
And as much as the nerves and milestones might be fun, it’s easy to see that Brandon Roy wants this weeks-long coming out party to be over. He wants this experiment to fade into something altogether normal, but the rest of the basketball world isn’t helping.
At every stop, beginning in mid-October with those early preseason games, Roy has been a phenomenon. Opposing coaches have shared their hopes for his successful return, their stories of trying to woo him, their memories of his past dominance. It’s not about what he does on the court but about what he did, who he is and a general excitement just to see him back on an NBA team.
That’s a testament to Roy as a person and a teammate. There are few better. It can make him impatient, though, this steady stream of well-wishers. Take last week, for example, when the Timberwolves were one of the last teams to tip off their season. Roy started getting good luck messages on Tuesday. More poured in Wednesday, and Thursday, too. It seemed as if Friday’s first game would never come, and Roy wanted to fast forward. When the day finally came, there had been an epic buildup, and human instinct would have been for Roy to want to dive in like the All-Star he once was, to live up to the congratulations and the expectations in those first 48 minutes.
That would have been the worst way to approach it.
Right now, Brandon Roy needs to focus on basketball. He needs to be selfish. With Game 4 looming, and then five and six and seven, there’s no sign of this welcome tour letting up, and as the conversation in Brooklyn proved, it might get harsher. The feel-good story will wear thin, and coaches will start to pick at him and his game. They’ll admit to picking. They’ll exploit him as a weakness if he is such just as they’ll praise his miraculous recovery if that’s what transpires.
In all this discussion of what Roy can and can’t do, the tape analysis and the chatter, a common assumption looms: Brandon Roy is redefining himself. Roy knows it, too; he told Sacramento coach Keith Smart on Friday that he’s not the Brandon Roy he once was, but that he’s still the same type of player. He’s redefining himself without trying, really, and that’s the key. In order for Roy to gain some degree of separation between himself and his injury, he needs to accept who he is and then push the limits.
“There is some strong tendencies that are still there,” Smart said. “That kid, he knew how to play before the setback. So now, the issue for him is can I get healthy enough to play? Once I get healthy enough to play, can all these things I do come back, and can I command those things when I need them at that time?”
Realistically, though, this will always be about those knees. It’s going to take more than a few games, more time even than a full season, to shake that stigma. Roy is no Hercules, no unbreakable force. In fact, he’s more fragile than he appears. During games, he sits on a folding chair on the sideline perched atop what looks like a booster cushion, which helps with some lingering lower pack pain. His every move is calculated within the limits of those knees: how they feel, how they look, how they move. When he came back into one preseason game stiff after too long of a rest, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman described Roy’s play as “just not him.”
Two small joints, masses of bone and muscle and not enough cartilage, have an almost staggering power. They can prevent Roy, in a sense, from being himself.
But Roy, for his part, has moved on. When you spend as much time deliberating a comeback and experimenting with your supposedly nonfunctional knees as he has, you have to believe. Otherwise the whole plan is doomed. He thinks about the knees when he’s asked, but he tries to shelve those thoughts as much as possible. He has to in order to test himself, to take the open shots and lose the early-season timidity. It’s going to take time, this identity, and so Roy must slow his charge toward becoming whatever it is he will someday be.
When Roy was one of the league’s best guards, it wasn’t because of his raw athleticism, necessarily. It was the result of a mix of skills and smarts that included an ability to dissect the floor and see things other players couldn’t. Back then, he could adjust the game’s pace to his liking and pick it apart. Now, it can seem like he’s struggling to keep up. Conclusions are forming so quickly while Roy is still trying to form his own opinion of what he might be.
The comeback will be shot if Roy’s knees are done. That, we know. But to tell that they’re done, past the point of recovery? How many games does it take? How long without a breakthrough performance? Will it be some dramatic fall, if it happens, or just a gradual slide toward inefficacy?
There are so many questions. Too many. Adelman and Roy have formulated a loose plan for their grand experiment, but the details are vague. Right now, the coach is targeting about 30 minutes per game for Roy, and from there, it’s give-and-take. Something as minor as a bumped knee like the one he suffered in the team’s final preseason game in Green Bay might set the whole thing amuck, or it might be a nonfactor. With every potential conflict and resolution, the team will have a better idea of what Roy can do, and Roy will come closer to knowing if his own goals were just plain unrealistic.
So far, there have been glimpses of outcomes at both ends of the success-failure spectrum. There have been moments where Roy sees the court and works it to his advantage, where he seems to go from no points to six in just an instant. But there have also been the slow stretches, where he looks stiff and uncomfortable and out of place. And just when you think, hey, he’s back, or no, he’s done, Roy gives a taste of the opposite.
“I think he’s shown it in spurts,” Adelman said of Roy’s play. “It’s just again, how much can he do over a long season, day after day, the daily grind we have? That’s something that he’ll find out as we find out. But I think he certainly has shown us that in the game, he still has the skills to do things.”
“When do I play him? How long can I rest him without getting stiff? What can he do to keep himself fresh and not get stiff? Like I said, it’s the unknown right now. But I think we can come to some kind of rational conclusion as to what we’re going to do.”
Adelman is a man of rational conclusions. He’s pragmatic and weathered, and when he shows emotion, he means it. When he says he’s seeing good things from Roy, those flashes of goodness (we’re not at the point of greatness, not yet), you feel like you have to believe him. He’s been around too long and had too much success, you’ve got to imagine, to be fooled. To trust in Adelman right now is to trust in Roy, or at least to believe in this approach that’s at once cautious and laissez-faire and in no need of a conclusion just yet.
Right now, patience is of the essence, and Roy is fighting his admitted inclination to hurry. He knows he can be tempted to want too much, too fast, but he’s also been burned by this game enough to know that to succeed is to test his limits gradually. He doesn’t want to be an early flameout, and he remembers how long those 82-game seasons can be.
This one will seem even longer. It’ll be unstable and nerve-wracking. A bad game will spell doom, a good one success. People with so business deciding Roy’s fate will spout their opinions as if they’re its ultimate arbiters. It’ll be the most harrowing of reunion tours, and if Roy is smart, he’ll smile and nod and then listen to no one but Adelman.
There’s no better candidate for such an approach. Roy’s high school and college teammate Will Conroy, who holds the 15th spot on the Timberwolves’ roster, describes his long-time friend as a caveman, cut off from the outside chatter that could do him in. Roy didn’t listen to the praise back when it was coming from all angles, and he’s not going to listen to the speculation now. That’s not who he is.
When word of Roy’s comeback first spread, there was a certain dichotomy to the imaginable results. With the drama of what he was doing and the heights his career had reached, it was easy to imagine that he’d either excel immediately or collapse on the court in a broken pile of player. What’s most daunting now is the likelihood that the results will lie somewhere in between.
It’ll be a gradual climb or a measured devolution. It may not be sensational or even remarkable, and it will take time.
When the Timberwolves beat the Nets on Monday night, coming back from a 22-point deficit, Roy spent the fourth quarter on the bench. But when the buzzer sounded and the team rose to its feet, he was in the thick of the celebration. As he turned to walk toward the tunnel, Roy turned and looked up into the crowd.
From the media seats, he was more than 20 rows down and away, a body in miniature. But even from that distance, his smile radiated. It stuck out from the mob of players around him. Brandon Roy hadn’t been a part of something like that in who knows how long, and he was perfectly pleased to play his role. Early on this season, Roy is one of many. He’s not a star, not a weapon. He’s a project, and he seemed just as happy blending in as he would have at the forefront of it all.
For now, that’s enough. This is an experiment. Let it play out at least a bit longer.