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As recounted in our last installment a tornado of fresh air blew through the Portland Trail Blazers franchise during the 2006-07 season. Rejuvenation started with the arrival of Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and his partner in crime, LaMarcus Aldridge. They had set the performance bar higher than any first-year Blazer players in years, whether drafted or traded for. Fans used to players under-performing related to expectations drank up the positive play of their dual rookies. The team registered an 11-game increase in wins. The grand total was a modest 32, but again forward momentum led to positive morale. In March of 2007 Portland's front office got a facelift as President/GM Steve Patterson resigned and Kevin Pritchard was named the new General Manager. Pritchard was widely rumored to be the architect of the 2006 draft, bringing Roy and Aldridge to town. Defying all odds Patterson had actually ended up a greater villain that his predecessor, the reviled Bob Whitsitt. Fans cheered the change.
Positive hopes for Pritchard morphed into near-idolatry as he took to the airwaves to cheerlead for the long-maligned organization. In retrospect his pronouncements were almost banal. "We have a book on every potential draftee. Our scouts work together to sort the wheat from the chaff. We have the best owner in professionals sports." These could have come out of a Media Relations 101 handbook. They applied to every team in the universe. But Blazer fans couldn't get enough of Pritchard's pronouncements. For more than a decade the Blazer front office operated as if its followers were mindless sheep: parsimonious with information unless they wanted to sell you tickets or a bill of goods. The message seemed to be, "You don't need to know until we tell you, and then you'll believe what we say." Portland fans were used to head-scratching moves, tersely-worded rejections for more information, and flowery excuses for misdeeds that wouldn't convince the speaker's grandmother, all followed by astonishment that more tickets weren't being purchased. Pritchard didn't have to leap very high to clear that bar. He was the first GM to take advantage of new media sources, talking directly to fans via the internet and podcasts instead of reserving his words for the stodgy print media. Without saying anything revolutionary he conveyed the idea that he was talking with fans instead of at them. "I'm as big of a fan as you" was a constant early talking point. Long-suffering Blazer fans swooned. Finally someone understood. Finally something was going right.
If Portland's fan base needed any further proof that the stars were aligning for this franchise, it came three weeks into Pritchard's tenure. Even though the Blazers had been in the lottery for three years they always seemed to get bumped a space or two below the position their record would merit. It was random, dumb luck but worrisome nonetheless. The last team to run consistently cold in the lottery was the Minnesota Timberwolves. They suffered for years in lottery hell because of it.
The Blazers rightfully held the 6th spot in the 2007 draft. The slot was decent but a far cry from the #1 selection. The lucky team who pulled that pick would get a crack at the next Center of His Generation, Greg Oden. Currently a pivot at Ohio State, NCAA champion runners-up, Oden had lost maybe half a dozen games total since high school. He was a legit 7-foot beast with incredible agility, muscles upon muscles...everything you could dream of in a big man save that his offensive game needed polish. Scratch that. How much do you need to polish "Dunk Dunk Dunk Dunk Dunk Dunk Dunk"? In any case, Oden was probably going to Memphis or Boston. Grizzlies fans waited in the corner with fingers crossed. Celtics fans, in their typical way, somehow assumed Oden was their by birthright.
On May 22nd, 2007 Blazer fans huddled around their televisions and computers to watch the festivities. Having been a year under new writer-ship, Blazersedge was just on the cusp of viability as a legitimate media source. Several folks gathered here to talk in our open thread, which we commemorate in the sidebar to this day. As you can see scrolling through its comments, folks were antsy. A 5% chance at the jackpot isn't great, but what a jackpot! The placards came out one by one from 13 to 7. The Blazers' spot was up next. If Portland's logo didn't come out of the next envelop it meant they were in the final three. But that would never...OH HOLY SAINTS AND ANGELS IT'S MILWAUKEE!!! PORTLAND GOT SKIPPED! THE BLAZERS ARE TOP THREE!
Stomachs churned as Boston and Memphis were revealed after the Bucks. All of them got screwed...usually Portland's role. Then they went to commercial. Torture! Now they're back. Number three is...ATLANTA! Blazers are top two! There's no way it could be...SEATTLE! SEATTLE IS NUMBER TWO! BLAZERS WIN THE LOTTERY! PORTLAND GETS ODEN! PORTLAND GETS ODEN!!!!!
There's no way I can re-create the emotion here no matter how many caps I use. You'll just have to read the thread. It was one of the purest, most joyous, totally spontaneous moments of release ever. In ten seconds four ping pong balls erased decades of futility and anger and grumpy feelings. Even the basketball gods were smiling on the Blazers now. Could there be a clearer sign?
Suddenly Kevin Pritchard's books of theoretical knowledge on drafting and draft picks became immediate and tangible. Not that much study was required, mind you. The two names at the top of everyone's draft board this year were Oden and an upstart from Texas named Kevin Durant. Durant was lanky, skilled, as graceful as an angel. Oden was a brute force tank. The Blazers brought in both for workouts. Their public assessment was that Durant would become an All-Star and perhaps a scoring champion but Oden was a priceless commodity, a center who could bring NBA championships. They played coy enough to run a billboard campaign to play up their perch as the belles of the ball choosing suitors. Fans were encouraged to honk once for Oden, twice for Durant. In reality the choice was all but made. Much as it had been in 1984 the Blazers were strong at the smaller positions and had plenty of scoring potential. They lacked a center, a posting, rebounding, dunking machine providing the yang to the yin of Roy's penetration and Aldridge's smooth face-up game. Oden had been tracked for years. Oden had proven his success. You might be able to find another 20 ppg guy but never would you have another shot at a guy like Greg Oden outside of winning the lottery again in the exact right season. With a Rookie of the Year in tow and that #1 overall selection Portland wasn't planning to see the lottery for a good 15 years at least.
And so on June 28th, 2007 David Stern approached the podium and said those fateful words, "With the first selection of the 2007 NBA draft the Portland Trail Blazers select Greg Oden of Ohio State University."
Somewhere in the southern suburbs Ben Golliver honked twice. The sound was lost in the overall cheering.
The Oden pick was not the only bit of draft day business for the busiest GM in Blazer history, though. Pritchard's next move could be categorized as "mild surprise, major relief". The Blazers sent troubled forward Zach Randolph to the New York Knicks along with Dan Dickau and Fred Jones for forward-center Channing Frye and guard Steve Francis. The Blazers would eventually buy out Francis' contract leaving the swap as a three-for-one deal to rid themselves of Z-Bo. This cleared the way for Aldridge to start. It also cleared out the last troublemaker from the Jailblazers era. The Blazers would start the '07-'08 season with a clean slate.
Portland's final significant move of the 2007 Draft was purchasing a pick from Phoenix for the second year in a row, once again taking a Spaniard. This time the prize was Rudy Fernandez, tabbed by some as the most exciting foreign player in the universe.
Brief debate over the loss of Randolph's 20 per game ensued, but that was soon lost in Oden Mania. Thousands of fans showed up in Pioneer Square to welcome him to Portland, a scene not enacted since the heyday of the Drexler-Porter era. Blazer fans were openly drooling over the lineup not just next year, but three years from now when everybody hit their stride. Between Oden, Roy, Aldridge, and the supporting cast of Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, Jarrett Jack, Joel Przybilla, Frye, and perhaps Fernandez this team had an incredible balance of skill, scoring, defense, size...it was everything you could wish. This was going to be GOOD!
Sadly the train would be derailed before it ever left the station.
Blazer fans went on summer vacation in 2007 with visions of sugar plums and future trophies dancing in their heads. They re-convened just about the time the players did, waking up to pre-season workouts before what was sure to be the most exciting campaign in years. Then the thunderclap hit. Greg Oden was wheeled out of a pick-up game on a stretcher. The verdict was microfracture surgery. He'd be out for the season. Suddenly a lot more people felt the urge to honk twice.
Disappointment or no, the season still beckoned. Folks threw their support behind Oden, said, "We'll catch you in a year" and got ready to play ball. This would be the first year without the Randolph crutch. How would the young guys respond?
As it turns out, pretty well. Roy proved his rookie season was no fluke, averaging 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists. He won acclaim as one of the best all-around players in the game, a guy that basketball insiders loved. Aldridge also came on strong with 18 points and 8 rebounds. Envisioning those two with Oden backing them up still made Portland fans' toes curl.
Behind the two stars, Travis Outlaw showed substantial improvement in three-point shooting and fourth-quarter scoring, threatening to become the star his talent had long promised. Jarrett Jack drifted more towards the shooting guard position than point, hurting his cause a little as Roy had a throttle on the two spot. Steve Blake showed a deadeye three-pointer and the good sense to stay out of the way otherwise, providing a capable set-up man. James Jones also added distance shooting to a suddenly powerful perimeter team. The Blazers lacked the inside punch and defense necessary to win consistently, however. Joel Przybilla did what he could but even his blue-collar labor wasn't sufficient.
Portland covered their inexperience and lack of big men by slowing down the game and funneling shots through their stars in the halfcourt. This was effective but predictable. The Blazers did bust out a glorious 13-game winning streak early in the year but even winning a baker's dozen in a row left them with an 18-12 record...nice but hardly earth-shattering. They could not duplicate that success, winning and losing in similar measure to finish the season 41-41. The 8th-seed Denver Nuggets won 50 that year, a reminder of how good the West had become. Durant's Supersonics won but 20, a reminder that things could be worse.
The overall impression of the '06-'07 season was hopeful. The victory total grew for the second year straight, this time by 9. Portland's stars were advancing. The supporting cast showed promise of sprouting a breakout star or two. The team was wholly likable, charismatic, a joy to root for even if occasionally painful to watch because of the slow pace. Attendance, two years ago languishing in the 20's out of 30 teams, had leaped to 3rd in the league. Portland was excited again. And the dream...that luscious, amazing dream that whispered, "If they're this good without Oden, what will happen when he returns?"
Next Time: The Trial Run
Share your memories of the '07-'08 season below!