Trail Blazer fans will probably see the return of Brandon Roy this week.
Forgive them if they're conflicted or can't remember Roy playing—he's been out with knee problems since Dec. 15, after averaging career lows in points, rebounds, assists and field-goal percentage. The three-time NBA All-Star was once the Blazers' centerpiece. Then the team revealed early this season that the 26-year-old shooting guard had no meniscus left in either knee (and had experienced regular, significant swelling before surgery Jan. 17—a condition even the most optimistic reports say he will have to cope with for the rest of his career).
And with the Blazers returning from the All-Star break with a six-game win streak that's elevated them to a surprising 32-24 record, Blazer fans' conversation has downgraded from "Will Roy ever be 100 percent?" to "Can he still help the team?"
Last week, Roy seemed optimistic. He said he "felt pretty good" and sounded bullish about playing.
But the question of what Roy can contribute is overshadowed by how the Blazers should use him. It's not just a question of ability, but chemistry. Where the Blazers once relied on Roy's quick cuts to the basket and late-game heroics, All-Star-caliber forward LaMarcus Aldridge is now the offensive focus, and Roy's replacement is Wesley Matthews, a candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award.
Trade rumors are swirling around several Blazers before the league's Feb. 24 trading deadline. Since Roy's huge five-year contract makes him untradeable, the iconic Blazer may be coming off the bench for instant offense in limited minutes. In December, he hinted that a permanent bench role would be hard to accept. But Roy said more recently he'd rather come off the bench for the time being in order to "get [his] legs back." But while he has been consistently upbeat about his injury, the team must worry that a serious injury could damage the reputation of its already beleaguered medical staff and, eventually, fan and free-agent perception of the franchise itself.
Despite the looming questions, Portland ranks fifth overall in the Western Conference heading into its Feb. 23 game against the Lakers. Roy's absence has made Aldridge and veteran point guard Andre Miller more vocal on-court leaders and forced the Blazers to play scrappier ball.
After the Blazers' Feb. 16 win against New Orleans, the locker room was electric. Reporters surrounded a joking Aldridge while backup guard Patty Mills threw towels across the room and poured shampoo in a showering Rudy Fernandez's underwear as a practical joke. It seemed like a team optimistic about its future and finally comfortable with one another. Roy was nowhere to be seen.