Were Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King to come together at a hockey-mask factory to drink vampire blood, snort werewolf hair, and receive electric shock therapy they could still not pen a story as horror-filled as that of the "Jailblazers" era in Portland. How does a once-beloved franchise sink to such ignominious depths? Overpay veterans who aren't able to produce, watch every single one of your young hopes get into trouble with the law, the community, or both, put your arena into bankruptcy at the behest of an impossibly-rich, detached owner, threaten to move the team, and lose a lot of games in the process. The 2005-06 season capped a five-year descent into madness for the Trail Blazers, offering 21 wins and zero hope for the future. In that period Blazer fans hadn't seen a single credible attempt at rejuvenation. Instead they dined on a buffet of excuses for more and more things going wrong. This team wasn't sick in the summer of 2006. It wasn't suffering. It was done.
Normally a low win total offers hope in the form of the NBA Draft Lottery. Even this didn't work out right for the sad sack Blazers. Compiling the worst record in the league, they still had to settle for the 4th overall pick, a victim of ping-pong ball vagaries. But it's not like anybody had great expectations for Portland's drafting crew anyway. For the last four years straight they had gambled on high-school graduates, none of whom had panned out. 2002 pick Qyntel Woods spent as much time in court as on it. 2003 selection Travis Outlaw was a nice guy but about as consistent as over-watered Jell-o. 2004 pick Sebastian Telfair was getting into shady dealings of his own and wasn't producing on the floor either. In 2005 the Blazers had the 3rd overall pick in the draft, only to witness the following drama:
"Hey guys, do you want Chris Paul? How about Deron Williams?"
"No, that's OK. We're good. We'll just trade down to take...Martell Webster."
Webster, by the by, was yet another high school guy to pile on the growing mound of frustration. He was OK but he wasn't even the small forward of the present, let alone the point guard of the future. And besides, what team in such dire need trades down to get more talent?
That wasn't the only reason for draft-day depression. Zach Randolph, massively out of favor in 2006 because of his community disservice and nonchalant defense, had been picked the year before Woods. Before that the Blazers mucked around with some second-rounders as their highest selections. That meant faithful believers had to go back to 1996--a full decade prior--to find a pick they truly liked: Jermaine O'Neal. Of course O'Neal was traded before he could blossom. The last guy the Blazers drafted who actually stuck was Cliff Robinson back in 1989. Rip van Winkle could have napped, woken up, gotten a sandwich, caught up on every back episode of Seinfeld, Friends, and Cheers, and penned his own unauthorized autobiography in the interim since the Blazers had last drafted well.
Suffice it to say, not much more than the bare minimum of excitement required by a 4th overall pick accompanied this 2006 draft. Diehards were into it, of course. But outside of that small circle of adherents most people didn't care. Nor did they perceive the front office or ownership caring. Nobody could have predicted greatness. Just give us the next high school flop, let us laugh at you and mourn the misery you've created, then we'll go on with our lives. Call us again when you finally rid yourself of the arena albatross and move the team. We'll line your path with hemp hoodies and pelt you with bicycle wrenches on the way out of town.
But something funny happened on the way to the funeral. On June 28th, 2006 the Blazers finally made news for something other than financial disaster or apologizing for another crime against civility by one of their players.
All it took to enact this minor miracle was 6 trades involving a total of 17 players and draft picks...all in the space of three hours. When the flurry subsided the national media was abuzz with, "Whoa! Those idiots in the Blazers front office went desperate-crazy." But in Portland the buzz was, "Whoa! Those idiots in the Blazers front office actually give a crap!" You'd think that giving a crap would be one of the basic--nay, assumed--requirements for owning and operating a professional sports franchise but remember that Blazer fans had been bombarded with half a decade of not caring in the form of bankruptcy, constant implausible excuses for bad moves, players who never should have been in the uniform, and the like. The 2006 draft was an eye-opener simply because the Blazers did something, tried something positive.
Stunningly, the winds of change that started with that modest breeze ("Look, they did something!") quickly turned into a hurricane. The centerpieces of those draft-day moves were Texas forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Washington guard Brandon Roy. Aldridge was acclaimed the best domestically-produced big man in the draft and perhaps the best overall. Roy was declared the most NBA-ready player. These weren't high school gambles. These guys could produce. And so they did. Roy won Rookie of the Year in 2006-07. When a few trades seemed like a drinking fountain in the desert you can imagine that a prestigious national award made Portland fans feel like they were luxuriating in a pool at the Grand Wailea. This was living! What's more, Aldridge's height and good play made Zach Randolph expendable. When Z-Bo was traded one year later nobody remained for fans to dislike. Roy would go on to All-NBA honors and become the team's leader for the next four seasons. Aldridge would take over the prime spot when Roy's knees failed him. Between them they've become the foundation for everything the Blazers have done since, including their return to the playoffs.
It's hard to rate this event higher because we're still in the midst of it and because injuries will probably cut short its glory. But it's also hard to overstate the enormous transformation the 2006 draft heralded. If the Jailblazers era ranks among the greatest falls a sports franchise has ever experienced (and I believe, all things considered, it's close to #1 in that department) then watching such an amazing recovery blossom in less than a year--built on the backs of these players and moves--has to rank among the greatest comebacks in sports history. That's enough to earn Draft Day 2006 the #9 spot on our list of most pivotal Blazer moments.
Remember the events and talk about where they rank on your list below. Check out the #10 Event if you haven't already.