What's Next: The Portland Trail Blazers in an Oden-Uncertain Future

If you're waking up this morning and haven't read last night's news about Greg Oden needing a second microfracture surgery, this one on the opposite knee from the first, you'll find plenty of coverage below (including Portland Trainer Jay Jensen's statements and more).  The question not yet answered:  Now what?

There are two strains to that query, covering both Greg Oden and the Blazers.  Once upon a time they would have been conjoined.  That they now need to be discussed separately speaks volumes.

Obviously Oden himself has another long journey through rehab ahead of him.  He'll need to leap more mental, emotional, and physical hurdles to regain the court.  Well wishes are the first and most appropriate reaction and Greg has ours and those of Blazer fans everywhere.  But this isn't 2007 and well-wishes cannot be the only order of business.  Up until this point it has always been assumed Oden was an NBA player with a rash of unfortunate injuries keeping him from his destiny.  The scale has tipped.  Greg Oden is now a guy with a rash of unfortunate injuries who has to prove to himself and the world that he is an NBA player.  Rumors have swirled about his attention to detail and his passion for the game.  This will be the breaking point.  He can only make it back if he is dedicated, body and soul, to making it in this league.  Anything less and it's not going to be worth the effort.  If anything stood in his way or distracted him before he has to set it aside.  He owes that to himself and to the teammates, fans, and team officials who have relied on him, valued him, and stood up for him.  This process will prove what kind of man Greg Oden is.  There is no room to hide anymore.  He'll come back strong or not at all.

The Blazers' journey with Oden is at a crossroads.  His contract is a major issue.   Since he's entering the fourth year of his rookie scale contract the team no longer has a firm lock on Oden's services.  In order to assure their right to keep him the Blazers must make a one-year qualifying offer to him.  The amount, determined by his draft rank, is $8.8 million.  In the majority of cases qualifying offers are rejected by the player in question and they then go on to become a restricted free agent.  That means they are free to negotiate potential deals with other teams but their current team has the right to match the deal and retain them.  However a lesser-used option is for the player to accept the one-year deal.  He then plays out that single season and becomes an unrestricted free agent upon its completion.

With his market value at an all-time low, Oden and his agent would certainly accept the one-year, $8.8 million deal, especially since there's no guarantee he'll even be playing ball at the start of next season.  Worse yet, a potential lockout looms over next year so there's no guarantee anybody will be playing.  The upshot is that Portland could well pay Oden $8.8 million to do little or nothing only to watch him waltz into unrestricted free agency afterwards.  The only way around this is offering him a longer-term and more expensive deal instead of the qualifying offer...an even more unpalatable prospect at this point.   The Blazers are stuck between the Scylla of paying Oden a fortune for an uncertain future and the Charybdis of letting him go with the only path between costing them $9 million in possibly-lost money then bidding against the entire league for his services with no guarantee he'll stay.

Even if Oden does stay somehow the Blazers certainly have to modify their expectations of him.  Double-microfracture on a huge and fragile 7-footer doesn't spell Hall-of-Fame career.  It hearkens more to Arvydas Sabonis without the experience, passing, or outside shot.  The original Sabonis was wildly popular but not a guy to carry a team to a title, which is more or less what the Blazers hoped for Oden.  The Blazers now have to face the reality that this guy isn't going to come in and revolutionize their team.  He'll be a complementary piece.  Though he'll not likely experience injuries this drastic his whole career, Portland can also plan on missing him for significant stretches of the future.  That's going to color how they perceive his value and how they progress with the rest of the team.

There's reason to mourn today.  The Oden dream is dead.  There may yet be Oden reality--maybe even good Oden reality--but that's dependent on how much Blazer management and ownership are willing to gamble and how much Greg himself can recover if they do invest in him.   Prospects for that reality, at least for Oden as a Blazer, have never been bleaker.  There's absolutely no way to spin it positively.  This is really bad news.

So what does the team do in the face of this news, which itself piggybacks on the recent revelation of Brandon Roy's chronic knee issues and perhaps-diminished game?  They say the Chinese character for "crisis" is the exact same as that for "opportunity".  This means the Doberman of Destiny has just visited the Blazers' house and left a big, fat, stinkin' pile of opportunity on their living room rug.

The first and most important step is that the Blazers cannot feel sorry for themselves.  The Houston Rockets have lost Yao Ming multiple times and dealt with Tracy McGrady's chronic injuries.  They never found ultimate success but they continued to develop players and they have been a good team, especially when healthy.  This happens.  It happened to you.  Nothing will change it.  Get over it and play.

Granted, some old opportunities are gone.  The Blazers shift from angling for eventual contention to just surviving (yet again).  Their now-familiar goal is to avoid the 8th playoff seed at all costs and see what they can do against any non-Lakers opponent.  Nor is that old momentum coming back anytime soon unless Brandon Roy all of a sudden resembles a rookie again.  In fact the Blazers--or at least their fans--may be the only people actually rooting for a full-year lockout in 2011-12.  At least it would give them a chance to recover, start fresh with a full lineup, and wipe away the residue of these setbacks.  Even then, though, the onus would be on the Blazers to prove worthy of serious consideration.  Until they go deep in the playoffs nobody will (or maybe should) believe they can.  Indeed, depending on how the rest of the year goes management may decide preemptively that this incarnation of the team is incapable of achieving those goals.  There's a possibility that we're experiencing not only the loss of title dreams, but of this era of Blazer basketball.

But that moment is not here yet.  The vacuum left by Roy's and Oden's knees presents legitimate, and at this point seemingly permanent, opportunity for several other players.  LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum lead the list.  Fans and pundits alike have speculated how good these two can be.  At this point absolutely nothing stands in their way.  in fact the Blazers need them to be the best they ever have been: scoring, defending, rebounding...everything.  Close on their heels comes Rudy Fernandez.  If he thinks he's a star now is the time to show it.  Wesley Matthews, Armon Johnson, and Dante Cunningham can also be counted in the group of potential ascendants.  

Most fans will be cautiously optimistic.  I am cautiously pessimistic, but I hold out some hope.  If Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant were on this team they'd already be playing.  We're not seeing that kind of production from these guys. I don't believe the old saw that Nate McMillan is somehow holding people back, just as he "held back" Sergio Rodriguez or Jerryd Bayless.  These players either aren't completely ready or aren't completely capable of doing what needs to be done.  But if they have it in them they have to find it now.  If the Blazers are going to regain any pretense to a championship they have to shift their mindset to developing new superstars.  The new hopes will have to lead the team and let Roy and/or Oden be the players they yet can be, playing alongside.  We're going to get a good idea in the remaining 70 games whether such stardom is in reach or whether Rich Cho needs to look elsewhere for central players.  I do not believe the Blazers will be content waiting out a string of mediocrity for the next several seasons.  Sink or swim, the chips will fall where they may based on performance.  

There's also immediate opportunity in the form of tonight's game and the ones that follow thereafter.  (Let this serve as your pre-game thread, by the way.  I don't have the heart to do another right now.  The game is against Denver at 7:30 and is televised nationally on TNT.  No jersey contest tonight.)  Despite the psychological blow of losing Oden when he was reportedly so close to returning this team is no different today than it was on Tuesday.  The good news is that the Blazers still have the opportunity to show pride, determination, and skill.  They still have Andre Miller and Marcus Camby.  They still have talent, youth, and a schedule in front of them.  Tonight's game won't be just about X's and O's, matchups and lineups.  It'll be about guts, about showing themselves and their fans and the league that the Blazers are NOT going to fold their tents.  It'll be about taking that raw deal out on the Denver Nuggets and punching them full in the face.  You should be able to tell everything you need to know by the look on the Nugget mugs.  Any laughs or smiles and Portland is done.  Grimaces are like gold to the Blazers.

The bad news is that the Blazers were going slightly limp even before this.  We saw fire in the two Oklahoma City games but when those turned into heartbreaking, close losses the spirit seemed to flee the team.  Portland got walloped in L.A. and New Orleans in games that should have been every bit as much heated contests as those Thunder matchups.  A single-point win against the Grizzlies was better than a loss but that wasn't a confidence-inspiring game either.  That makes the next two games against ultra-rivals Denver and Utah pivotal signs, at least as far as the early season goes.  With Roy wobbling and goals seemingly slipping farther from grasp the Blazers could well respond by going rogue, playing out the string, getting self-centered, making the environment toxic.  If that's even a slight inclination the Nuggets and Jazz will happily push them over the cliff into the Desert of Despair.  Without a track record of success and with the most stable players on the shortest-term deals, there might not be enough glue to hold the team together.

On the other hand this team has always responded well when treading the ultimate edge.  Just when you think they're finally going to give up they rally and surprise you.   That's exactly how they won 50 and 54 games the past two years.  It can be done.  Do they have the will and desire to do it?

In any case, we should get an indication tonight.  Letting division-mate Denver romp over you on your home floor would not be a positive sign.  A victory, no matter how achieved, would be.  Oden or no Oden, strong or shaky Roy, there's a game to be played.  That's probably the best medicine for the team at this juncture.  Let's see how they take it.

The future, whatever it may be, starts now.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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