Training Camp opens this week at long last, bringing with it the expectant buzz of a long off-season ended untempered as yet by the harsh reality of having to play (and sometimes lose) games that really count. Everything is fall-fresh and new (or at least laundered) again. It's a great time to be a fan.
Barring a shocking move, this year's camp will be different than any we've seen in the last decade. Theoretically speaking positions are contested each year, a point emphasized by the old coach's saw, "Everybody earns their spot." In practical terms, however, Portland's starting lineup is already set before the first player officially reports. The only remaining suspense could have been the Greg Oden-Marcus Camby battle, but Oden's recovery will apparently push his debut past the start of the season. Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Marcus Camby will feel the warmth of the starting spotlight against the Phoenix Suns on October 26th. You have to go back to the dregs of the Rasheed Wallace days to find the last time such a declaration could be made this early in the process. Established teams (see also: Suns, Nuggets, L*kers, Jazz) are mostly unfamiliar with that kind of uncertainty. It's probably been a while since any of their fans wondered about the starting lineup for opening night. Now the Blazers can join the ranks of the established. This relative stability in no way guarantees that the roster has found its final form, because it hasn't. Changes are coming. But those changes will now progress from steady to steady instead of from gamble to gamble. The milestone is preliminary, but it's a milestone nonetheless.
The lack of position battles in the starting lineup doesn't eliminate all the intrigue from training camp either. To wit:
1. I want to see whether Andre Miller comes into camp, and by extension the season, ready to play and win. Him following his normal slow-starting routine won't kill the Blazers. But him coming into camp revved up and ready to go might be the single greatest boost the team could get, signifying that this season is both different and important. I am not holding my breath, however.
2. I want to see what Greg Oden looks like. I know he won't be going through camp the same as everybody else but the initial reports of his size and weight should forecast what lies in store for him as he attempts his full comeback. I like my Oden strong, but strong and lean. I am willing to sacrifice any amount of bulk to have him mobile. Extra weight also bodes ill for any number of possible injuries. Granted, Greg Oden is going to look massive to anybody's eyes. The proof will come on the court. But I'd prefer whispers that Oden is in fighting trim to whispers that the patron saint of protein shakes (or worse, McNuggets) paid him a visit during his rehab. I am only partially holding my breath on this one.
3. I want to see how October and November develop for Jerryd Bayless. This is an "up or out" year for him. If he comes out fired up AND focused he should be able to summarily dispose of any contenders for his position, gain ground on Andre Miller, and position himself as the possible point guard of Portland's future. If he doesn't carve out a spot under these circumstances it's hard to see more favorable ones coming, as the Blazers will try everything in their power to make a move for a point guard they love. If and when that happens, Bayless' window narrows considerably. His job is to convince them he's their true love and not just a friend with benefits.
4. I want to see how LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum attack offensively. Will Aldridge get to the hole more, especially while Camby is starting? If he's wildly successful, could that herald an Oden-off-the-bench look for longer than Greg's health dictates? Will Batum try to seize space in the offense? The Blazers have seen decent offense from their forwards in the past few seasons but they haven't really seen those forwards attack. Is this the year those plans change?
5. With rebounding high on Portland's strength list and shot blocking in the middle, do we finally see some running?
6. Wes Matthews: What does the guy look like when the pressure's on to impress?
7. Everybody is going to point to the Rudy Fernandez situation but frankly I'd just like to get past that. Either way it goes there are bigger fish to fry and outcomes farther up in the air. If Rudy stays he'll be a fine shooter and will help the offense with enough playing time. If he goes we're talking draft picks or minor players, neither of which helps the immediate picture. If he's dealt as part of a package to get a more significant asset nobody will blink any eye. Any way you go the waters are smooth here. The only real story would be him not showing up. If that happened you'd get a violent public reaction initially but in a week everybody, including his teammates, would shrug and move on.
Those are my stories of interest. What are you interested in seeing during the early days of camp? What kind of changes, if any, do you expect? For whom do you hold the most hope and/or enthusiasm and what players or situations have you biting your nails? Weigh in below.