How incompetent is Portland management? The GM firings, the health issues, the years of aimless restructuring make my answer "totally". Maybe Kevin Pritchard was bad. Maybe Rich Cho was. Maybe Paul Allen is the worst of all. I think it's probably all of them. You?
Before I answer the question, let me bring you The Preview That Wasn't.
Coming off their modest (by elite standards) but heady (by their own) success in the 2010-11 playoffs the Portland Trail Blazers are now ready to seize the league and impose their will upon it. Last season saw the final major adjustments among this young group of players. Brandon Roy stepped back slightly, making room for old pal LaMarcus Aldridge and new dynamo Gerald Wallace to shine. This development was far from unfortunate. By his own (reluctant) admission Roy had been carrying too much of the offense, playing too many minutes, perhaps even handling the ball too much. Though neither contributes at the all-NBA level that Roy does, solid contributions from Aldridge and Wallace make this team diverse, bullet-proof, and ultimately as dangerous as any you'll find in the league. Casual observers will note the modest scoring averages among the three. Roy notched only 20.3 per game last year, Aldridge 19.9, and Wallace 18.4. "Where's the true star?" will come the cry. "Is this just a repeat of the ill-fated 2000 experiment with a bunch of good players and no great ones?" It is not. Rather think late 80's Drexler teams when Clyde stepped back his prodigious scoring to make room for Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and friends. Where's the true star? All of them are. They're just more invested in making each other and the team better than in making All-League teams. The honor that matters is that big, gold trophy at the end. The rest of the accolades will follow in its wake.
And yes, the Blazers have more than a legitimate shot at that trophy this season. Why? Because we haven't even mentioned the most critical factor in their development yet. Ladies and Gentlemen, on your feet. Gregory Wayne Oden has just entered his prime. Oden has been among the most misunderstood players in the league since he entered as the #1 overall pick in 2007. Early injuries took him out of the limelight and even when he returned his stats haven't been gaudy enough to draw notice. Last year's 11 points and 13 rebounds, by far the best of his career, paled in comparison to Kevin Durant's 28 and 7. Snickers echo throughout the league. But the Blazers neither needed nor envisioned Oden to be a 30-point man. Instead they wanted just what he gives them: double-digit rebounds, plenty of blocked shots, intimidation in the lane, and the ability to score without needing the ball. Consider that Greg's 11 and 13 came under these circumstances:
- 25.5 minutes per night.
- Two plays run for him a game because assimilating Aldridge and Wallace were higher priorities.
- 5 offensive boards per outing.
- The team playing eight points per game better when he was in than when he was out.
Coach McMillan has already praised Oden's game and his effect on the team, promising that this is the year when the big guy breaks the 30+ minutes mark and plays like a true starter. Without further health concerns, without limitations because of familiarity, game development, or those nagging fouls, Oden is going to let loose. He'll not get more touches but that extra 33% of court time will throw his stats into the stratosphere because unlike a Durant, who can't possibly affect the game more than he already does no matter how many minutes you throw at him, Oden can play the exact same game he's already playing in those extra minutes and succeed proportionately as much. 16 points per game, 16-17 rebounds, and 4-5 blocked shots seems pretty decent, doesn't it? That's doubly true when all he has to do in order to achieve those numbers is clean the boards and police the lane. The best testament to Oden's ability came midway through last year when teams began shading extra men towards him even when he never touched the ball. Greg worries defenses. That's going to open the floor for everybody else.
Oh...and did I mention that Oden will be playing with BRANDON ROY, LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, and GERALD WALLACE? This is going to be good.
But wait, there's more. Portland still has a strong bench featuring Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Marcus Camby. Between those three the Blazers can defend every position on the court...multiple times over in the case of the smaller positions. Batum and Matthews both have a decent shot and offensive skill, so it's not like you're throwing specialists out there. Either one could start for this club, and many around the league, in a heartbeat. Both played new roles last season--Batum coming off the bench, Matthews as a Blazer, period--but each sparked around the 2/3 mark of the campaign. They'll start farther ahead this year than they did last training camp. You never have to worry about Camby. Oden's ascension is perfectly timed with Marcus showing his mortality. He should be able to handle the 20-ish minutes he gets at the center and power forward positions, providing rebounding and shot blocking that shadow Greg's.
Organizing all of this will be newcomer Raymond Felton. He isn't a clear upgrade over the recently-departed Andre Miller in anything but age. He does have a little bit better shot and a strong ability to make plays. Then again the Blazers don't need the next coming of Magic Johnson to make this team click. How can you miss a charging Wallace on the break, Aldridge setting up on the wing for a post move or jumper, Roy ready to make his flash tell in the halfcourt, sharpshooters on the outside in case the opponent double teams, and Oden in the middle ready to jam home the offensive rebound in the unlikely event that somebody misses? Felton may well look like Magic before this season is over. He should be a kid in a candy store out there.
The Blazers have few worries on offense, less than no worries on defense, and will rebound with the best of them because of Oden's presence alone. Portland has depth. Portland now has experience...paling in comparison to a Boston or L.A. but good enough. Portland is ready to step out as the Emma Stone of the NBA while the Lakers and Celtics play Jim Carrey, wistfully labeling the Blazers "all the way beautiful" and wishing desperately they were age-appropriate to run with us. The Blazers may yet get stopped but nobody in the Western Conference will be able to do it. Portland should clearly take the conference crown this year for the first time since 1992. The Blazers, having fallen prey to experience in the past, do have to worry about the concentrated star power in Miami. Those great Drexler teams were never able to overcome Isiah Thomas or Michael Jordan. The next few years will be spent trying to exorcise those ghosts. With most of their core hovering around 25 years of age, the Blazers will have plenty of attempts at it. It's hard to imagine them not succeeding even once. And that "even once" could well be this year. Don't be surprised, league. Get yourselves ready. The Blazers are coming.
That's what should have been. Obviously that's not reality heading into 2011-12. How, then, should we answer the question? Is Portland's management incompetent? The plan was good. The players were right. If you credit Roy, Aldridge, Batum, and Oden to KP with Wallace going on Cho's ledger and Matthews to the rest of the upper management staff there's not a ton to argue with there. Those are solid players, solid moves, amassing great potential. I can't think of a single guy among them I wouldn't want on the surface. The big problem has been health, of course. So it boils down to the same old question: How much did management know about those issues? Probably it comes down to the Oden pick above all. You can see them taking a risk on Roy in the dark days of 2006, especially since Brandon was the second star they took a swing at in that draft. But they had to get the Oden pick right. If they knew completely about his health or they knew nothing about his health they were probably negligent to the point of idiocy. But if they took a calculated risk, green-lighted by doctors, that's understandable.
Absent intimate knowledge of those deliberations it's impossible to attribute the correct amount of incompetence to this group. All I can say for sure is that I love the lineup they've put together, but it's broken. I guess in the end if that nifty RC car you got for Christmas doesn't work it's a crappy present. Maybe you're right to look at mom and dad and ask, "Couldn't you even check it first?" But dang...it sure looks pretty sitting under that tree. If only it ran right. You can see where it would have been an exciting purchase. And for that it's hard to blame them.