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Duking It Out at the Three In Portland

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Despite Nate McMillan's best attempts to downplay its significance, this year's Portland Trail Blazers training camp looks to have arrived complete with a full-blown position contest, and - surprise! - it isn't between Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden for the center spot.  Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster are battling it out for the chance to be the Blazers' starting small forward this year.

As we discussed earlier this offseason, Outlaw has a strong desire to start and promised this summer that he would return to camp a much-improved player.  He says he has been working tirelessly on his jump shooting and seems to truly believe that this is the time for him to make a jump into the group on the floor at tip-off.  Webster has sworn to be focused on becoming a more consistent player and improving his all-around game.  Both say they just want to contribute no matter their respective roles, that the starting issue isn't critical.

But both 6-foot-9, 210-pound forwards want the top job, and only one of them can have it.  We'll give the points and lean with Webster, the favored incumbent.

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If we're with McMillan about one thing regarding this positional debate, it's the idea that it makes sense to determine the starter based on the best fits for the team's top two units rather than who the better individual player.  This isn't a vacuum. 

It's by that logic that Webster gets the nod.  With a starting lineup likely to feature Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and two-guard Brandon Roy (who gets in the lane well but doesn't do much from the outside), the Blazers will need someone to help stretch the floor for the starters.  Webster does just that.  In three professional seasons, he has shot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc, improving each year from 35.7 percent to 36.4 to 38.8.  Though Outlaw actually had a higher three-point percentage of 39.6 percent last season, he accumulated his on a much smaller sample size (Outlaw took 101 threes; Webster made 123), and his four-year track record overall has been far less impressive: Outlaw shoots just 33.8 percent from deep for his career.  Webster remains the bigger asset as far as outside shooting is concerned.

Further, while Webster's shooting touch helps him mesh with the first unit offensively, having Outlaw's scoring off the bench makes a lot of sense.  Outlaw attacks the basket more than Webster does, and he looks to shoot at a high volume from the second he steps on the floor.  His 13.3 points per game were third on the team, and he took more than 300 more shots than Webster did last season.  Outlaw's lack of efficiency (50.2 percent true shooting for his career as compared to Webster's 53.6) makes him less of a fit for the first unit, but his ability to score points in bunches (though it takes him his share of shots) makes him an offensive catalyst for the second unit.  That he can come on and attack the basket, create his own shot and leave easy opportunities available for his teammates could provide a major energy lift when Portland's starters are off the floor.  Having a slasher as sixth man and having someone to space the floor out there along with the starters are both approaches that make sense.  Webster is the more comfortable of the two seeing his shots totals stay low, and that's what they will do so long as he plays with the likes of Roy and Aldridge.  Outlaw, who seems more concerned than Webster about getting his touches and his shots, would have much closer to carte blanche to be an offensive leader on the second unit than the first.

Beyond the offensive differences, Webster also makes more sense from a defensive standpoint.  Though both players are long and versatile, Webster spent more time at the three last season, and the team was considerably more successful defensively with him on the court than Outlaw.  The Blazers saw less than a one-point difference in defensive efficiency whether or not Webster was on the floor last year.  They were 4.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with Outlaw on the floor than without him.  Webster also held opponents to 49.3 percent effective field goal shooting at small forward last season.  In contrast, Outlaw gave up 52.8 percent effective field goal shooting during his limiited time at the three.  Webster spent much more time at the small forward spot and is already comfortable there from a few years of NBA experience.  Outlaw is still growing as a small forward, having spent a lot of time at the four previously.  

Martell Webster is a better defender than Travis Outlaw.  He is the better outside shooter, and he is also more content to see his own shots limited in favor of the scoring needs of his teammates.  Those three factors make him the pick for the small forward spot on the Blazers, while Outlaw should continue to grow into his role as a dynamic sixth man and occasionally clutch performer off the bench. 

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