Portland Trail Blazers vs. New Orleans Hornets (non-) Preview: Cheer Up, Folks!

Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW

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Update: Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that Portland Trail Blazers starting point guard Raymond Felton has returned from South Carolina following his mother's heart procedure and is expected to be available for Thursday night's game.

The New Orleans Hornets announced that forward Trevor Ariza will not play against the Blazers on Thursday night due to a "sore right ankle."

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I'm sitting down to write a preview of New Orleans-Portland but let's face it: it's New Orleans. And...well...it's Portland. The Blazers should win via Aldridge-ness alone. That's not even counting New Orleans' utter lack of firepower. They've scored 100 or more only four times this year...and lost all four. That's sad. Score 90 and play any kind of defense and the game is yours.

Instead, I've been struck more by an e-mail reflecting a sentiment I'm finding increasingly common over the last couple of weeks. To wit:

Dave,

I don't know anymore. The Blazers are down so far. Will they ever get back up or is this what we'll see for the next ten years? Whether you blame it on bad front office moves or bad luck like Mike Barrett does, it's hard to handle. Give me a reason to believe. Anything!

--Sarahn

Psssh. That's easy, my friend.

First of all, let's all get a dose of perspective. I hate to keep bringing it up but it IS part of Portland's story in the last couple years. They lost Brandon Roy (All-NBA, All-Star, heart of team) and Greg Oden (most disastrously gone-wrong #1 overall pick in league history). Plus they just traded Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace for draft picks and decoration. The fact that they're not on their KNEES right now, slumming in the NBA cellar and getting sand kicked all over them by everyone they meet, should amaze you. Any other franchise this happens to is not only dead in the water, they're under water. Portland is having a rough season. Portland won't be favored in too many more games either. But they're out there, they're playing, and they're even winning a few.

Let's get another dose of perspective on the season. People were going crazy at the beginning of the year with a lot of dreams that were never going to amount to anything. This was a transition year. It started that way, it's going to end that way. Nothing has changed. Raymond Felton was an experiment. Jamal Crawford was an experiment. The Blazers were rolling the dice on single-year contract guys. It was worth a shot. Those dice crapping out (for the most part) didn't cost the Blazers anything they would have gained otherwise. Even more established players like Wallace and Camby were experiments of sorts. The Blazers didn't lose anything that important trading for them. They got service, got rid of them, and in Wallace's case got a potential future key pick in return. That's exactly what you want in a transition season.

Could this year have gone another way? Sure. Personally I expected the Blazers to be a lower-tier playoff team. That's not going to happen after the trade-deadline moves. They're underneath expectations as far as wins and losses. But they're not that far underneath. It's not like there were hundreds of reasons to believe before and none now. There were no (or almost no, if you must) reasons to believe this team could make a sustained run this year before. There are still none. There were some hopes of making the playoffs. Those are all but gone. Fine. There were also hopes that this season could open a door to growth in the future. Most everybody, including Portland's front office, hoped that could happen through players they acquired this season. That didn't work. But now the door is open in another way, through better draft picks and cap space. In some ways it's open wider now. There are more reasons for me to believe in this team's future right now than there were at the beginning of the season right after Roy retired and they signed Felton and Crawford. Frankly, the best I expected then was a decent season leading to years of mediocrity bound up in slightly-misplaced contracts. Now that ain't gonna happen. Now we're going to see some real change, which is what the team needed in the first place.

And what change there could be! Everybody should be gearing up for this year's draft and summer signings. I don't think the team can be remade in a day or a single off-season, but a few steps now and a few steps in 2013 and this team could be amazing again. It's not guaranteed. They're going to have to draft right, make some nice signings, maybe make a bold trade. But this team is in position to do all of those things! Two immediate lottery picks would be a great start. Even if that's all you manage this year, with maybe some place-holder or speculative talent coming into the fold, that's a beginning. If you make the lottery again next year, so be it. That's another pick. That's a potential Big Three right there, or close to it, through the draft alone. What can you get in trade? Who can you sign? You know how many teams are light years away from re-shaping themselves? The Blazers have the potential to do it in two summers with only one intervening season. Having just suffered the greatest set of disasters in the modern NBA, that should not only surprise but thrill you. By all rights there should be nothing but an empty, smoking crater here. Instead we look and find the blueprint and part of a foundation for a whole new house, potentially just as exciting as the last.

Reasons to believe? Why would you not? Or at least, if not exactly believing, there's still plenty of reason to hope. Combine that with the chance to watch a few more NBA games in the meantime and life is actually pretty good. We got a few less wins than expected but we've got a whole lot more draft potential and cap room than expected. Those balance out. We'll talk more after the season about how to use the new leverage effectively. For now, just be glad the Blazers have it. This is going to be a lot better off-season than it might have been.

It's quite possible that two years from now Mike Barrett will be crowing about Portland's good luck, the hidden fortune that came out of what looked like disaster. It's also possible that in a few years the Blazers are looking to knock somebody else--OKC or whomever--off the perch instead of those other teams chasing the Blazers. Either way, if they end up in the race it will have been worth it no matter how painful the road to get there.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

At The Hive will talk about this game.

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