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The end of the 2005-06 season found the Portland Trail Blazers languishing in a toxic swamp of crapulence, drunk on their own misjudgments. Draft picks had failed. Young, talented players repeated and enhanced the public relations mistakes of their predecessors. The Rose Garden arena remained in bankruptcy, leaving the fate of the franchise itself insecure. As if this weren't enough, 61 losses the season before had bludgeoned both life and hope out of the fan base.
To the surprise of nobody, General Manager John Nash's contract was not renewed. Amid groans from the small audience that remained, President Steve Patterson, Nash's cohort and presumably party to creating the current disaster, was named to the vacant GM position. On the surface this looked like more of the same.
That perception changed radically on Draft Day 2006...a day which has since become legendary among Blazer fans. It started in normal fashion. The Blazers, drafting a slightly lower lottery position than their record merited, selected Tyrus Thomas from LSU with the fourth pick. Thomas was an athletic forward, perceived as mercurial. The Blazers had plenty of players like that. Groans ensued. Hold on, though...something weird was happening. A rumored trade flashed across the screen. Portland would send Thomas plus Russian Viktor Khryapa--a minor player at best--to Chicago for the guy they selected with the second pick of this draft, LaMarcus Aldridge. Apparently the Bulls were in love with Thomas' potential. Aldridge, meanwhile, was a legit 6'11" guy with a host of offensive moves, a nice body, a good reputation, speed, and the ability to immediately challenge for playing time. He had been mentioned as a potential #1 overall pick in the draft. This was a much better forward to have. Good move, Blazers!
But wait...there's more.
A few picks later another rumored trade flashed across the screen. The Blazers were moving under-performing lottery pick Sebastian Telfair and perpetually-injured center Theo Ratliff to the Boston Celtics for the guy they just drafted at #7, Randy Foye, plus center Raef LaFrentz and former Blazer Dan Dickau. This didn't make a ton of sense as Foye was a combo guard given to offense first. The Blazers had just rid themselves of two small guards prone to favor their own shot in Telfair and Damon Stoudamire. Why pick up a younger, less point-guard-capable version?
But wait...there's more.
On the heels of this first announcement came a second. The Blazers would trade Foye to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the guy they selected at #6 in this draft, Brandon Roy. This made more sense! Roy was a legit shooting guard with marvelous offense skills plus enough size to not embarrass himself on defense. Insiders called him the most NBA-ready player in this draft. Solid!
But wait...there's more.
A little later the news broke that Portland had purchased the rights to exciting Spanish point guard Sergio Rodriguez from the Phoenix Suns who had drafted the guy at #27. Talent for cash? Always welcome! Nice!
But wait...there's more.
Well, honestly that "more" involved acquiring some second-round picks and then trading them for future second-round picks. It's not worth delving into detail except to say that by the time the evening ended the Blazers had executed three draft picks and seven trades involving a total of 18 players. Forget the draft board, viewers needed a separate scorecard just to keep up with Portland's moves.
Portland fans were thunderstruck. What the heck just happened? Nobody had ever seen a day like this. This made the jaw-dropping 5-for-1 Kiki Vandeweghe trade look like child's play by comparison. Several national experts derided the Blazers for foolishness...moving for the sake of moving. I, myself, opined that while I liked the players the Blazers got they may have overpaid, or at least over-complicated the process, to get them. This was odd. But to most Blazer fans the night was like a breath of fresh air. There had to be some significant change somewhere in these moves, right? Heck, any change would be significant with this group. By definition the only way to go was up.
After a decade of wishful thinking Portland fans finally turned out to be right.
I got to see Roy and Aldridge play in person in the 2006 Summer League. That was the first inkling of how things would go. Aldridge was a physical specimen, moving with a grace that belied his height and frame. You could tell he had a good 30 pounds of grown potential on him but even the just-out-of-college skinny version looked imposing. He didn't set the league on fire but he did move in a unique way for a big man.
Brandon Roy was the guy setting an already hot Las Vegas on fire. With the ball in his hands he was unstoppable. He immediately showed the ability to travel any of four directions off the dribble (front, left, right, or even back) and to score no matter which way he went. His offense left everyone else looking like they were playing on another planet where gravity nailed them in place. My immediate observation was, "Let's give him some time before we pin the weight of the world on his shoulders, but this guy is going to be special."
As word of the capability of Portland's draftees spread a third name began to surface in conjunction with them. Curious observers, amazed by the good fortune, began to question how a team known for blowing drafts could suddenly come up aces twice in this one, and via such intricate maneuvering. Patterson and owner Paul Allen had been a part of multiple drafts without this kind of result. Nash's departure didn't explain anything. The only semi-visible difference was the prominence of the executive who had coached the team after Maurice Cheeks' departure a couple years prior, Kevin Pritchard. Nash's absence had put him one step closer to the top chair, officially "Assistant General Manager". Media reports began circulating that Pritchard's voice and style had heavily influenced the draft, that Allen had favored him by listening to his suggestions, and that Roy/Aldridge was the result. Thus Pritchard's name became associated with the two rising stars and he was tabbed as an official Person To Watch (and automatic fan favorite) in the organization.
Meanwhile the Blazers made a couple of housecleaning moves, divesting themselves of all players who had been championed by Nash. Project center Ha Seung-Jin, point guard Steve Blake, and forward Brian Skinner got shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks for "former All-Star" (and current iceberg) center Jamaal Magloire. Forwards Ime Udoka (a Portland State grad) and Stephen Graham joined the team late in the summer. The Blazers were ready to roll.
Volume scoring forward Zach Randolph was still the Blazers' main man in '06-'07 but he was a man alone. Injuries had put his wingman, Darius Miles, in street clothes semi-permanently. Everyone else on the team was either a straight arrow or a veteran with enough sense to keep indiscretions quiet. Hard workers like Joel Przybilla, Jarrett Jack, and Udoka combined with guys trying to make their name like Roy, Aldridge, and Martell Webster, leaving little room for anything but serious play.
And from Game 1 of the season it became apparent that the Blazers were indeed getting more serious this season. Randolph scored 30 to lead the team to a victory over the Supersonics, but that wasn't the big revelation. His deputy turned out to be Roy, who scored 20 in his first NBA game. He'd follow that up with 19 and go on to score 15+ in 20 out of his first 30 games. Injuries held him to 57 games on the season but those 57 were, for the most part, brilliant. He averaged 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists on the year and earned the Rookie of the Year title. In the process he assumed both team leadership from Randolph and the hearts of Blazer fans everywhere.
Randolph also turned in a fantastic statistical season at 24 points and 10 rebounds but fans were becoming disenchanted with his play. His tendency to hold the ball forever and look for his own shot above all else had been semi-acceptable when nobody else merited the looks. With new, exciting players on the roster he seemed selfish, robbing opportunities from the stars of tomorrow. Like Rasheed Wallace a few years prior Randolph's offense started to drift outside while he simultaneously became disinterested in defending. As a result, nobody cared to see Z-Bo play anymore despite his impressive stats.
Meanwhile Aldridge, hampered by medical problems, turned in a shaky start to the season but came on strong in the latter half, solidifying himself as a future starter. Travis Outlaw finally showed signs of improvement, further bolstering the forward position. Jarrett Jack became an emotional leader for the team and improved his stats as well.
Marry all of those things with gritty play by Udoka, spectacular dunks by former Duck Fred Jones, and some fancy Juan Dixon scoring and all of a sudden you had a team fans were willing to watch again. The buzz was back in Portland.
For all of that, the Blazers still won but 32 games on the season. Their offense was anemic, hamstrung by a lack of reliable scorers and/or Randolph's lack of interest in finding reliable scorers outside of himself. Their defense was putrid, saved only by a slow pace. Nonetheless, the entire season was the breath of fresh air the franchise needed. Never had 32 victories looked so good. After years of steady demise dating back to the Conference Finals of 2000 the Blazers had finally made forward progress. An 11 game improvement was nothing to sneeze at.
The '06-'07 season ended with a couple of significant changes. First, Steve Patterson resigned from both of his positions. A new Favored Son haunted the halls and the writing was on the wall. Basketball operations were about to be turned over to young Mr. Pritchard whether Patterson was ready or no.
Finally shutting the lid on the Patterson/Nash regime was a pleasant experience for Portland fans. Despite plenteous gaffes, however, it's possible that history has judged them too harshly. The duo was hired to revolutionize a sick team. Resurrecting the Blazers from the cap and character hell in which they'd embroiled themselves in the early 2000's would have been a miraculous event. In the end it didn't happen. So Patterson and Nash did the next best thing. They put the old team to sleep and started a new one. They rid the franchise of onerous salaries and grating personalities. They just couldn't replace those outdated, unwanted players with anything but cheap, untested youngsters. As a result the team lost copiously for a couple seasons. Plus those youngsters had character flaws of their own. The executive duo didn't do a good job riding out the storm and in the end succumbed to the stress by engaging in media warfare and paranoia. But their (perhaps unintentional) scorched earth policy left the field clear for the regrowth that would follow. Had they held on to the last gasp--keeping Bonzi Wells and Derek Anderson and surrounding them with expensive, B-Level teammates--the Blazers might have won more games but they never would have progressed. Hired as headhunters, Patterson and Nash did their job. Their main fault was not avoiding collateral damage. That damage was almost enough to destroy the team's relationship with its fans. Fair or not, this turned out to be the most enduring part of their legacy. Thus derisive applause followed Patterson out the door.
Perhaps more importantly the relationship between the Blazers and their fans got a huge boost on April 2nd, 2007 when owner Paul Allen repurchased the Rose Garden Arena from bankruptcy limbo. Not only did this make him a good citizen once more, it eased fears of the team moving. Fans could now enjoy Roy and company without nervousness that their emotional investment could be ripped from them at any moment. Indeed, Allen himself cited team renewal as a major reason for his decision. Allen was "one of us" again, the team's #1 Fan. That felt good.
On March 29th Kevin Pritchard was officially named General Manager with much hoopla and smiling at Blazers HQ, all captured by cameras and disseminated to the fan base. The symbolism was clear. The old way of doing things was over. The new era of openness, hugs, youthful enthusiasm, and reasons to celebrate had arrived.
If only Blazer fans knew how big that celebration was about to get they'd have peed their pants on the spot. Utter craziness was less than a month away as fortune finally smiled on a downtrodden team.
Next Time: A Dynasty is Born
Feel free to share your memories of these good times in the comment section below.