(The following is the third of six posts based off of conversations with Travis Outlaw. Click to read the first and second posts)
Even in his sixth year in Portland, Travis Outlaw and the Trail Blazers coaching staff are still trying to figure where he best fits on the floor. Coming off the bench seems to suit Outlaw just fine, but at what position? Does he come in for Nicolas Batum at small forward or is he better suited to fill in for LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward? Is it better to decide on a game-by-game basis? These are the questions that follow Outlaw.
Those questions seem to have been around for a while. Outlaw came into the league as a prototypical wing; a guy who could play forward and a little at the off-guard. Gradually Travis morphed into a straight small forward, but as time went on, head coach Nate McMillan found he could almost always draw a beneficial matchup by using Outlaw at power forward in the second unit. It worked well last season, with Outlaw putting up the best numbers of his career playing almost exclusively at the four.
But for any number of reasons, including the departure of James Jones and the injury to Martell Webster, Outlaw has been used primarily this season backing up Batum at the three (Outlaw averages nearly 10 more minutes a game than Batum). Outlaw has been decent in that role this season, but something still feels a bit askew. According to Travis, it might come down to simply getting reacquainted to life playing the three.
“In my book, three don’t do nothing but stand in the corner,” said Outlaw. “I’m so used to playing at the four, where I’d always touch it. I’d at least touch it once every trip down the floor. But at the three, you stay spaced and hope your defender helps. My man ain’t been helping too much lately, but you hope your man helps.”
Outlaw has a point about the differences between the small and power forward positions. In Nate McMillan’s offense, one of the primary responsibilities of the three is to, as Outlaw notes, keep the floor spaced, which prohibits defenders from loading up on LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy in the paint. The end result is that a significant number of attempts from Trail Blazers small forwards come from the baseline. That might not play to Outlaw’s strengths as an elite athlete, but it does highlight one of the major improvements in Travis’ game: the outside shot, specifically from the corners.
“I love the baseline three,” said Outlaw. “That’s my sweet spot. I don’t really want to shoot a three anywhere else. Not to say that I can’t, but that’s there most of the small forward’s shots come from: the baseline three. It’s rotate, rotate, corner three.”
And he’s been hitting a lot of those shots from the sweet spot. Outlaw is shooting 41% from three overall, but he’s four percentage points better (33-of-73) when shooting three’s from the baseline. When you’re shooting that well from a specific spot, maybe it’s best not to stray too far away.
So in a way, Travis is being trapped in the corner by his own talent.
“Last year I had so much freedom,” said Outlaw. “Now it feels a little restrictive, but it could be because everybody know that when I got the ball to come load up on me.
“You know, the scouting report is out that I guess I can score. Now it’s like when I drive or go into a pull-up, another dude is coming over as soon as I give a move. So it’s a little different.”