Now that the season is done it's time to look back over where we've been, the better to transition into where we're going. And looking back it's easy to see this has been a year of remarkable change. The difference between 21 wins and 32 is not that great on the face of it, but we've seen developments this year that belie the modest record improvement. To start our season review here's a baker's dozen of the most significant events on the Blazer timeline for 2006-07.
13. Travis Grows Up
At the beginning of the year Travis Outlaw had truly earned the nickname "The Leaping Enigma". His athletic ability was unquestioned. He could jump as high as anybody in the NBA and get his shot off over any defense. Despite that, he had never developed a go-to move, didn't seem to know how to take advantage of any quickness he possessed, and looked lost on defense 90% of the time. Nate spent much of the first two months of this year yelling at Travis in public, flat out screaming during games and yanking him repeatedly. Despite that, he and the coaching staff continued to express confidence in Travis by giving him minutes. Oftentimes you would see assistant coaches passionately describing things to him on the bench during games. Near the end of the season the persistence appeared to pay off. Hobbled by injuries to the rest of the front line, the Blazers employed Travis more and more, especially at his new-found position, power forward. He was able to use his quickness and leaping ability to good advantage. He scored in double figures in 9 of his last 11 games, including 22, 26, and 36 in the final three. His jump shot started falling with regularity and in his last two contests he threatened, then set team records for free throw efficiency. The Blazers have to be ecstatic about the possibility of him becoming a foul-drawing machine. It remains to be seen whether he can actually play the power forward position for significant minutes. His rebounding still leaves something to be desired and his one-on-one defense is porous against speed or size. But the team has a lot better handle on him this April than they did last April. You don't see a complete player yet, but you get a glimmer of what that player could look like.
12. A Triple Shot of Espresso
In my season preview I opined that if Sergio Rodriguez gave us anything significant on the court it should be counted a pleasant surprise. The year started like that for Sergio and finished like that as well, but in between there was a whole lot of mojo being worked out on the court and a whole lot of love being poured his way from the stands. Sergio averaged only 12.7 minutes per game for the season. He still managed to finish third on the team in assists with 3.2 per game. He topped seven assists 10 times during the year. And oh how pretty those passes were. Though somewhat misplaced in the halfcourt offense at this point Sergio is already a natural on the break. In fact even in his infancy few in the NBA are his equal. He literally picks up the tempo and energy single-handedly every time he's given rein to. Though his defense, leadership, and decision making all need more development it's easy to see where his natural gifts could turn him into an amazing player someday. He may turn out to be everything you wanted in an offensive point guard, which is not bad for a guy you bought for cash.
11. Joel Takes it in the Przybillas
In a summer where, for all intents and purposes, team talent and morale were at a nadir, the one, huge bright spot was the decision of Joel Przybilla to eschew offers from Detroit and San Antonio in favor of re-signing with the barely-winning Blazers. Not only did it shore up a badly-rent front line (with previous injuries to Zach Randolph and Darius Miles) it was a sign of love and respect for a team that was desperately short on either. Joel became an instant fan favorite--even more so than previously--and threatened to become a genuine cult hero. This was before the season started, however. To all appearances Joel showed up into camp a little heavy. His rebounding and shot blocking were not as dominant as they had been in years past. He was prone to drawing fouls. In the second game of the season Joel took a hard shot from Troy Murphy to his manly parts which swelled painfully, causing him to spend three weeks away from the team, helping neither his conditioning nor the team's confidence in him. Upon his return Coach McMillan kept him as the nominal starter, but seemed more comfortable with Jamaal Magloire playing the bulk of the minutes, even though Magloire was a pariah among fans for his on-court gaffes. And injury to his knee in mid-January finished his season altogether. He ended up averaging 2 points and 4 rebounds for the year, leaving the Blazers to question whether they're back to square one at the center position when they thought they had it solved. With the emergence of Lamarcus Aldridge as a possible replacement there's speculation that Przybilla may not start for the team again. This is a far cry from what people expected ten months ago.
10. Martell Emulates Hugh Jackman, Pulls World-Class Disappearing Act
Coming out of the horrible '05-'06 campaign no player gave Blazer fans reason to smile more than Martell Webster. The rookie sharpshooter had struggled early that year but had come on late in the season, treating fans to a barrage of three-point shots and sweet jumpers off of curl screens, amassing several decent scoring efforts including some 20+ point games. He also proved to be very charismatic. He was the Blazer who addressed the fans before the game on fan appreciation night at the end of the year. He was the guy who gave them hope. A little bit of work on dribbling, a few defensive drills, up that shooting percentage a tick or two, and we had a star to build around...so the thinking went. Martell himself seemed to embrace the idea, talking about wanting to stand among the league's elite and leading the team to bigger and better things. Then reality hit. Martell was given more minutes this year overall. He played 1064 in his rookie campaign. He played 1747 this year. Those increased minutes did not lead to proportionately increased production. His total points increased only from 404 to 574, hardly the near-70% growth you'd expect from his minutes. His already sub-40% shooting percentage actually went down. Many games he was missing shots that he could hit in his sleep. You could see his confidence wane before our eyes. Far too many nights you didn't even notice him on the floor. The coaches praised him for his willingness to get better on defense and his rebounding improved, but it was hardly the next step people were hoping for. Even his charismatic charm was eclipsed by the rookies on the squad. He looked more like a fifth wheel than a sixth man. Granted he's still very young and fan expectations were probably way too high for this early in his career, but you have to think both he and the team will be looking for significant strides next season.
9. Clark Kent Emerges from the Phone Booth
The feel-good, PR-blessing, surprise story of the year this season was unquestionably Ime Udoka. Blazer fans know the tale by heart. He was a last-minute camp invite, called when Aaron Miles couldn't go because of his foot. He was expected to help the real prospects work up a sweat, collect his per diem, and say, "Thank you for the opportunity" after he got his pink slip. With his defense, his outside shooting, and his grit and heart he ended up making the team. And not only did he make the team, he became the opening night starting small forward...a position he kept until injuries shut him down in April. And not only did he start, he became the team's most reliable three point shooter and its designated defensive stopper, drawing the best scorer on the opposing team routinely. Sadly his father passed away just as he was making the team, but this only showed more about his heart and character when he made it. The advent of Ime also confirmed that the team was at a turning point. For most of its recent history the team's M.O. has been signing big-name, big-ticket players who tend to play beneath expectations. Ime, the original "glue guy" that not 1 in 100 people knew before the season started, was one of those players who played well above and beyond their name value or salary. The change was welcome and long overdue.
8. That Ain't Just Pie, that's Quality Pie
In 2005-06 the Blazers didn't win against anybody, anywhere unless the other team just mailed in the game. In 2006-07 we not only got more wins, we got more wins against really good opponents. This season saw victories over the Lakers (twice), Nets (twice), Pistons, Raptors, Rockets (twice), Clippers, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Wizards (twice), Jazz (twice), and Warriors...all playoff teams (or darn close in the case of the Clippers). These teams weren't laying down either. We played with heart, hustle, and occasionally smarts and just came out and beat some people. Obviously we still lost more than we won overall and that also held true against good teams, but we did prove this year that you couldn't just take us lightly and expect to walk out with a guaranteed "W". We at least made you prepare and sweat a little. For a team that could be steamrolled by a reasonably-sized Tonka truck last year, that's an accomplishment.
7. Miles To Go
Darius Miles had a career year in '05-'06 when he was able to play. He was obviously our starting small forward when injuries weren't keeping him down. He was also on his second straight year of being a major distraction to the team. Rumors had him at or near the heart of a subtle mutiny against Nate and his authoritarian ways. That was a non-issue this year as he started the season injured and never recovered, finally getting microfracture surgery to correct his problems. While reports that he had been banned from team practices were exaggerated (he was kicked out once I believe) there was no doubt that his absence was addition by subtraction, not only allowing the younger players minutes on the court but a relatively calm and unified practice and travel environment. There was no shadow on the team this year as there had been in years past and it's hard not to attribute that somewhat to Darius' absence.
6. Nate Takes Control
Perhaps not coincidentally this follows on the heels of #6 just above. Nate's rookie season was marked by struggle and dissention, notably with his star players but also evidenced in on-court demeanor. Many times in 2005-06 Nate would call a timeout, yell, and it would be like he was talking to a wall. Media reports had the same thing happening in practice. The shift in personnel this year also shifted the team's relationship with Nate. Media reports now have him more at ease in practice and getting more of what he wants from his players, even his stars. Even more encouraging you can see the results after time-outs on the floor. Several times this year you could identify the team playing poorly, then Nate would call a timeout, and all of a sudden they'd go on an extended run. He always called timeouts for crucial plays down the stretch and a disproportionate amount of the time those plays worked. It's not an accident that Brandon Roy became the Clutch-o-Matic. Somebody put the ball in his hands all those times. This was no mean feat with players of greater seniority and bigger ego on the floor. You could see the heart in this team. You could see the fight in this team. Even when it was evident the players didn't know what to do you almost always got the feeling they were trying to do something. That has not always been par for the course around here. It's a refreshing change and Nate's fingerprints are all over it.
5. Lamarcus Gets the Start
Between injuries, the rookie learning curve, and playing behind talented veterans Lamarcus Aldridge didn't get much burn in the early part of the season. Coach McMillan complimented him on his work ethic and assured us that his time would come, but prior to January he seemed like more of a project than the second overall pick in the draft. Injuries to our frontcourt players coupled with a decision to try Lamarcus at center changed all that. He made an immediate offensive impact when he first got minutes, showing a buttery-smooth turn around move in the post and face-up range out to 20 feet. Opposing centers had a hard time guarding him in the halfcourt, let alone when his gazelle-like gait carried him down the floor far ahead of them. He also managed to help on defense with some shot blocking and his position defense improved throughout the season. More minutes equated to more success, culminating in a 24 point, 17 rebound effort against Denver on March 13th and 27 point, 14 rebound outing against Atlanta ten days later. Not only was Lamarcus becoming part of the game, he was becoming a reliable part, and no doubt a part that opposing teams had to plan for. By the time his heart condition shut down his season at the end of March he had clearly become one of the better multi-faceted rookies in the league and Blazer fans were marveling at the truly outstanding draft we had.
4. Zach Proves Everybody Right
Hands down the biggest question coming into the season was the fate of Zach Randolph. The once-promising young scorer/rebounder had devolved into a morass of on and off-court issues. Recovery from microfracture surgery had left him a shell of himself on the hardwood...slow, heavy, and more ground-bound than ever. In addition wave after wave of personal troubles, culminating in an off-season accusation of rape at a downtown Portland hotel--had soured his relationship with the majority of Blazer fans. Some insisted it was worth riding it out with him because we were about to see an on-court renaissance as his knee recovery was complete. Others claimed that he would only lead us to more misery and embarrassment. Clearly the first group was vindicated as we saw Zach average a career-best 23.6 points per game this year along with 10.1 rebounds, putting him in elite company among his peers statistically. Zach came to camp in shape, his scoring prowess had returned and then some, and he became the kind of low-post go-to guy that old-school coaches dream about. On the other hand he also retained the bad habits of playing indifferent defense, of concentrating on his own scoring above all else (he did pass more and better than at any previous point in his career but even then it wasn't so grand), of not getting down the floor on defense, and of repeatedly frustrating his coach to the point of getting benched once or twice. Nate was able to talk him through much of that and Zach's effort remained fairly consistent. Still, the group of doubters could also lay claim to being somewhat vindicated. This feeling intensified when, after being granted a somewhat generous bereavement leave to attend the funeral of a relative of his girlfriend Zach was discovered in a local strip club, causing the Blazer PR department to have to cover for him once again and bringing up old, to this point buried, wounds in the team-media-fans relationship. Zach started the season the subject of decidedly mixed feelings. Zach ended the season the subject of decidedly mixed feelings with a lot better stats. He's likely the strongest candidate for team MVP, meaning Most Valuable Player, but he's also the team MVP, Most Volatile Player. It remains to be seen what kind of stomach the team has for the latter, or how much of it they'll be willing to take to get at the former.
3. Paul Allen Buys Back the Rose Garden
At the beginning of the year this was the single, biggest issue facing the team and its fans. Last off-season was one of the worst in memory as loyal Blazer fans, for the first time in history, had to confront the possibility that their beloved team may not be theirs forever. Fractured negotiations between Allen's Vulcan Inc. and creditors Portland Arena Management, the entity responsible for managing the defaulted Rose Garden, had reached a frenzied and poisonous pitch. PAM was screaming loud and long against Allen's poor negotiating practices and bull-headedness. Allen was railing back about PAM's financial irrationality and...well...bull-headedness. This culminated in Allen's aborted courtship with selling the team, the abandonment of which sent the PAM people through the roof. In the course of the battle several intimations were made about the team's future, perhaps in another city without the Rose Garden. Whether this was a bluff, a semi-bluff, or a real threat thankfully we'll never know. But it cast a shadow over all of the positive momentum surrounding the team. It was hard to cheer for fantastic rookies when you didn't know if those rookies would be playing in Oklahoma City in two years. When the future's all you've got to hang your hat on and the future is insecure in that way it makes for rough sailing. That's why almost everyone in the Portland area (save a columnist or two) breathed a huge sigh of relief when the news was announced that Allen had made an offer to purchase the arena again. The offer has since been accepted which is a huge weight off everybody's shoulders. Nobody was completely clear on the logical repercussions of all of this in the first place, but emotionally the buy-back signified to most people that Allen was interested in the team again, that he was committed to doing what was necessary to make it work, and that the Blazers' status as Portland's team was cemented for the foreseeable future.
2. Turnover at the Top
Hands down the most confusing thing about the Blazers pre-2007 was their management structure. Lead by the two-and-a-half-headed monster of President Steve Patterson, General Manager John Nash, and Assistant General Manager Kevin Pritchard, the hierarchy was, to outside appearances, a mess. Even under the best of circumstances an NBA team is going to field its share of controversy--from draft picks to trades to press releases, somebody's going to want to know something about everything you do. The last four years for the Blazers have hardly been the best of circumstances. During most of that time nobody could get a straight answer about those circumstances...or at least not the same straight answer. President Steve Patterson was deemed evasive and aloof. John Nash was supposedly straightforward but people questioned how much influence he really had. Even more so with young Kevin Pritchard. Most often when something happened we were treated to a round of subtle self-absolution from management folks, to the point where media and fans alike began speculating whether certain moves were "Nash moves" or "Patterson moves" or "Allen moves" or what. By most accounts the atmosphere around Blazer headquarters reflected this fractured situation. You never knew from one moment to the next what kind of reaction you were going to get, until in the end Blazer Central seemed like a commune of the terminally paranoid.
The end of last season saw the exit of John Nash, leaving old-guard President Patterson, now also acting GM, and young Kevin Pritchard. The centralized power helped consolidate and sharpen fan and media opinion and access. As the year progressed and both management figures became more familiar through interviews and moves, Patterson became more and more associated with the old-guard, divisive, troubled years while relative newcomer Pritchard was seen as accessible, congenial, and in some quarters visionary. He talked a brilliant line about changing the culture of the team, with bullet points like working hard, playing smart, and being unselfish--all but a blueprint for the manual of classic Blazer fan talk. As this year's crop of draft picks fired fans' imaginations and word leaked that young Mr. Pritchard was largely responsible for those acquisitions, word like "genius" started to be appended to his name. Meanwhile Patterson's disconnect with the public became more pronounced with every word he or Kevin spoke. By mid-season it became evident that the winds were changing and that Patterson's contract would not be renewed at the end of the year. That became official after the All-Star break when Patterson stepped down voluntarily. The position of General Manager was nominally vacant but there was little doubt in most quarters who would be tabbed to fill it. Passionate, savvy, charismatic, and communicative almost to a fault, Pritchard was the only real choice for the job.
As soon as it became evident that Pritchard would be named General Manager, funny things started happening in Blazerland. After an enormous barbeque of Patterson for the copious mistakes of the past few seasons, the positive stories in the local media started picking up steam. They had been generally more positive this year anyway, but some of the pieces, especially those about Pritchard himself, were positively glowing. The formerly-fractured Blazers office was said to be united in smiles and applause following the announcement of Pritchard's appointment. A little bit of sunshine had come out over Blazer Nation and the sounds of Kum-Ba-Yah were heard from coast to coast (metaphorically, of course).
Naturally many of the good feelings will only last as long as the good draft picks, trades, and wins keep coming. But in some ways it seems like part of the Blazer culture has already changed. Certainly the relationship between fans, media, and team--so oddly discombobulated since the turn of the century--is at its highest, most peaceful point in years. For that alone this was among the most significant moves of the season, and hopefully one that will bear fruit for years to come.
1. Now That's Spelled R.O.Y. Right?
Before the summer of 2006 Blazer fans were accustomed to thinking of draft picks in terms of potential and dreams. Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Zach Randolph, Sebastian Telfair, Qyntel Woods, Jermaine O'Neal...underclassmen and high schoolers were the order of the day. It had been a long, long time since we had burned a high pick on somebody who had spent four years in college. We had forgotten what an impact a rookie could make. All of that changed with the acquisition of Brandon Roy. Roy was deemed the most NBA-ready rookie in the draft, but even as people said that there was a subtle undertone of disparagement. If he were really that good he would have come out sooner. If you got him you'd prosper this year but watch him get passed up by the people you should have picked in years to come. He couldn't shoot that well. He was a little skinny. He wasn't as athletic as some. Ain't nobody saying that anymore. All he did in his rookie season was average 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists while showing ball-handling ability, passing good enough to make people wonder aloud whether he's a point guard, decent defense, unselfishness, an incredible knack for scoring in the clutch, quickness in all four directions with the ball, and the ability to score from just about anywhere on just about anyone. He averaged 46% shooting overall, 38% from the three-point line, and 84% from the free throw line. (So much for not shooting well.) Most impressively of all he became both the emotional and on-court leader of this team and the instant consensus favorite with its fans. He fits the new "culture" of the Blazers like a hand in glove and is already starting to resurrect the passionate relationship between the team and its fans. He has the confidence of everyone he meets, from Blazer executives to his coach to his teammates to the media to every blinkin' person on the street. Oh...and he's going to be the Rookie of the Year as soon as they can get that trophy engraved. If you asked around it's a sure bet that Brandon Roy would be voted the single biggest thing to happen to this team not only this year, but in the last decade. Not bad for a first year, eh?
That's it for now. Next up: an assessment of how this year went...the good, the bad, and the ugly...and what it all means for our big-picture future.
P.S. If you think I missed something that should have been on the list or that I listed something too high or too low, feel free to mention it in the comments below.