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December 17th, 2010

Optimizing Outlaw – Starter or 6th Man?

This story starts with a demotion. Or rather a reassignment. An attempt to get something going for a player stuck in a slump.

After recent games against the Celtics and Hawks in which Nets forward Travis Outlaw scored only five points combined, shooting 1-for-11 and 1-of-6 from three-point range, the culminating moment in a season plagued with inconsistent outing, coach Avery Johnson who brought Outlaw in as a free agent to be the teams starting small forward shifted the eighth-year veteran to the bench, tabbing rookie Damion James for the first start of his NBA career on December 9 against the Mavericks.

The decision was not rash. The offense had scored fewer than 85 points in two of the previous three games, tallying 101 in the third only as they allowed 116. Something needed to happen, but Devin Harris and Brook Lopez were not being benched. Neither would power forward Kris Humphries, providing double-double production since taking over as starter, or shooting guard Anthony Morrow, whose blossoming mid-range game has established him as offenses third option.

That left Outlaw, slumping now, but with a history of providing punch off the pine, having twice finished among the top 10 in Sixth Man of Year voting (2008-09) while playing in Portland. Those two seasons, during which the Trail Blazers won 95 games, Outlaw averaged 13.0 points and 4.3 rebounds while shooting .382 from three-point range (.442 overall), earning the nickname Mr. Fourth Quarter after a series of game-winning shots. Coming off the bench allowed him to slot in often at power forward, where he proved too quick for defenders, or guard second-unit small forwards, often less prolific scorers than those playing ahead of them.

Hes got to have that Vinnie Johnson, microwave-type of personality, Johnson explained. Travis has had some success coming off the bench. Weve got to do something to try to jump-start him. Thats what my job is, to try to figure it out, and thats what were trying to do.

Said Outlaw: I definitely wasnt happy, but it was more that I wasnt happy with myself than the decision. I know Im a better player than that, so now its just time to build it up again.

The first game did not go well. James played within the flow, but produced only four points and one rebound in 23 minutes. It turned out James had broken his foot early on, toughing it out because a) hes tough and b) he didnt want to stymie the momentum he had built during the past few weeks. Foot surgery followed, and the rookie will miss 6-8 weeks. Outlaw played 17 minutes, but missed all seven field-goal attempts, totaling four points at the line.

Against the Lakers on Sunday, Johnson committed to experimenting with Outlaw as Sixth Man opted to start Quinton Ross, whose defensive prowess combined with the Lakers lineup to leave fewer than six minutes for the former starter. Outlaw scored only two points, shooting 1-of-3, leading to a one-on-one conference with the coach before Tuesdays game against the 76ers.

Johnson recalled: I said to him, Just because youre not starting doesnt mean youre not a big part of what were doing. No matter what we brought you in to do or how it has or hasnt worked out, thats not the point. The point is, we need you to be productive, and get back to being Travis Outlaw.

Johnson explained that he felt other teams had properly adjusted their gameplan against Outlaw, running him off the three-point line and preventing him from finding comfort zones on the floor. A few weeks ago, against his former team, Outlaw said opponents were breaking his rhythm by sending or feinting double-teams to remove any mid-range opportunities. And Tuesday, during shootaround, Outlaw admitted he had gone back to an old, unwanted habit, lining up shots directly in front of his face rather than off to the side.

Its more like Im aiming than regular shooting, (when Id be) keeping it on the right side and letting my elbow do the rest, Outlaw said, making a straight up-and-down motion with his shooting arm.

Outlaw continued on to explain that part of the adjustment to starting has been the change in scope, from Come on out and score for us (Portland) to play out the offense, making the right reads and getting the ball to Lopez if the center plants a foot in the paint or seals off his man. Attempting to gauge the defense had him hesitating, instead of confidently launching the shots of the type that earned him the Nets attentions and dollars during free agency.

Two of Outlaws teammates often played against him out West: Harris, a Maverick from 2004-08, and his fellow point guard, Jordan Farmar, who spent the last four seasons with the Lakers. Harris came off the bench for most of his first two years, also playing alongside Jason Terry, the 2009 Sixth Man of the Year. For Harris, Terry exemplifies the qualities necessary for a stellar substitute, entering a game with energy tons of it, bundles of it, is ready to roll as soon as the horn goes in and providing instant offensive firepower.

Considering what made Outlaw effective for the Trail Blazers, Harris offered an answer along similar lines: He just came out and made shots. He was a tough cover. He made tough shots and hes shown stretches of it (for us), where hes just bundles of energy and has a lot of enthusiasm. We kind of need him to find that back.

Farmar, meanwhile, had started only three regular-season games before doing so twice this season, once substituting for Harris and once slotting in alongside him. With the Lakers, Farmar played alongside Lamar Odom, whose selfless transition to Sixth Man proved a crucial part of the teams back-to-back NBA Championships.

Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that Farmar believes the most important aspect of that substitute role to be an accepting mindset, understanding that though a player might be skilled enough and deserving enough to start, if the coaching staff determines it best benefits the team to bring said player off the bench, they need to bear the burden of that responsibility. He cautions that this is a two-way street with top talents, and the coaches need to clearly define the role while offering similar leeway to what the starters are offered, in the event shots dont fall right away or the player doesnt otherwise immediately impact the game.

Assessing Outlaw, Farmar echoes Harris even in the examples: They just told him to go out and when you come into the game, youre coming in for firepower, to go out and score. Its similar for Jason Terry. Theres guys who coaches designate that role to, so that when the starters come out, theres not a lapse, theres going to be somebody whos going to be just as aggressive and play assertively the whole time.

Three games into the experiment, it seemed Outlaw had adjusted. Though the shots still didnt go down on Tuesday Outlaw, like most of his teammates (28-82 FGs, .341), connected on a paltry percentage (6-17 FGs, .353) the forward was noticeably more aggressive on offense, quickly firing away or driving toward the hoop for layups and runners.

That fearlessness nearly enabled Outlaw to enact a revival of Mr. Fourth Quarter. With the Nets trailing by six in the final minute, Outlaw swished a transition three, closing the score to 78-75 with 34.6 seconds remaining. Sixers swingman Andre Iguodala then hit two free throws, and Outlaw soon fired another three, though this one bounced high off the back rim, the Nets comeback hopes diminishing as the ball arced away from the hoop, time ticking off the clock. Two more Philly free throws sealed the game.

But Outlaw carried the momentum into Thursdays game against the Wizards, scoring 10 points in the first quarter and helping the Nets race to a 32-17 lead after one. His point production soon leveled off Outlaw didnt score again until the final minutes but he pulled down six fourth-quarter rebounds and hit 3-of-4 free throws in the games last 30 seconds to help Harris (4-of-4 from the line during that stretch) seal the victory, snapping an eight-game slide.

I dont know if the bench role more suits him, but hes coming in ready to play, Harris said, afterward. We like the shots that hes taking, hes a lot more aggressive, with the plays hes running, hes really looking to score. We like him when hes that aggressive.

Of this, Outlaw is aware. Readjusted to the new/old role, he finds himself comfortable, ready to take on the challenges and live up to the standards hes set for himself. Outlaw vowed after Thursdays victory that he wouldnt allow shooting to limit his effectiveness, committing to finding ways to get to the line or create for others using screen and rolls.

I think I lost my edge in being aggressive, trying to think the game too much instead of just going out and playing my game, Outlaw admitted afterward.

The Nets are hoping he continues to bring those bundles of energy. They need the offense. They need Travis Outlaw back, and Johnson thinks they might have found him, on the bench. For now.

What to Watch This Weekend

The Nets are challenging the Raptors in Toronto tonight (7 p.m., YES, Bloomberg 1130 AM, TV Companion), before returning to Newarks Prudential Center to take on the Hawks on Sunday at 1 p.m. (Buy Tickets). The latter game will also be broadcast on YES and Bloomberg 1130 AM. Here are a few things to keep an eye on:

  1. Can the Nets build on Thursday’s slide-snapping victory?

    The Nets won for the first time in nine attempts with a 97-89 victory against the Wizards, and they’ll take on another sub-.500 team tonight, traveling to Toronto to challenge the Raptors. It’s important they take advantage, with the next six scheduled opponents being (in order): the Hawks, Grizzlies, Hornets, Magic, Thunder and Bulls.

  2. How will new addition Sasha Vujacic impact the offense?

    With Travis Outlaw slumping and then Damion James and Anthony Morrow, going down with injuries, the Nets have struggled offensively for three straight games. Former Laker Sasha Vujacic should bring shooting, wielding a .372 career three-point percentage, and a season-high of .437. But Avery Johnson’s offense has proved a big adjustment for Jordan Farmar, who spent four years in L.A.’s Triangle Offense; Vujacic spent seven. Look for him to start by setting up in the corner’s and building from there.

--Posted by Ben Couch at 2:56 p.m.

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