Today we bid a final adieu to the 2008-09 campaign by looking at the season as a whole. Whereas the statistical posts focused on small details today we're going to take one last fly-over of the big picture. Hopefully we're far enough away from last week's playoff ouster to put things in perspective without too much leftover pathos getting in the way yet still close enough for the memories and significance to be fresh.
Few people questioned Portland's talent or potential going into the season. With Brandon Roy seemingly on a path to jersey retirement from the moment he laced on sneakers, LaMarcus Aldridge continuing to develop, and first overall pick Greg Oden returning, the most stacked lineup the Blazers had fielded since the days of Rasheed Wallace was all but a guarantee. The critical pre-season speculation revolved around assimilation and rotation. Questions included:
- How would Greg Oden look? How quickly could he adapt to the league?
- How would Joel Przybilla take to a reserve role, assuming that happened?
- Would this be a breakout year for Sergio Rodriguez or would Jerryd Bayless reprise his Summer League tour de force and take over Sergio's spot?
- Would either reserve point guard eventually displace Steve Blake as the starter?
- Would we finally see a consistent season from Travis Outlaw? And exactly what position would he play?
- Would Rudy Fernandez just set the league on fire or would he actually nuke it into oblivion?
- Had Martell Webster paved over the final potholes in his game?
- Was the Channing Frye we saw during the last few weeks of 2007-08 real?
- What would happen with Raef LaFrentz's Expiring Contract?
The sentiment going into the season was that the Blazers were being dealt 9-10 cards playing five-card stud poker. You didn't know exactly what hand would be made, but chances were it would be good. It was just a matter of putting the cards in the right order.
The bigger challenges looked to be the twin gaps of inexperience and unfamiliarity. Between Oden and Fernandez being new altogether and the point guards and forwards taking on increased roles the Blazers were looking at a new rotational incarnation. They also fielded one of the youngest teams in the league...as it turned out THE youngest if you only considered people actually playing. The early-season schedule involved repeated road games against the previous year's playoff teams. Would the Blazers be able to survive that early schedule with confidence intact? The concern was that Portland's talent could get buried in a wash of emotional letdown should the first two months play out as brutally as they looked to on paper.
The first sign that it wasn't going to be easy came in the pre-season when Martell Webster went down with what would turn out to be a season-ending foot injury. Now all of a sudden the Blazers didn't look as deep. They had bodies to fill in but none seemed ideally suited. Travis Outlaw looked out of position as a small forward. Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez were brand new to the league.
The second and third blows came on opening night. Fresh-faced and excited for the revolution to begin the Blazers faced off against the conference champion L*kers in Los Angeles. They were quickly disabused of any notions of contention as Kobe and company took them to the woodshed. Brandon Roy's game looked rusty and forced. Everyone else looked shell-shocked. Worst of all, Greg Oden was lost to injury again after playing only 13 (scoreless) minutes of the new season. Echoes of last season's disappointment with their star-center-in-waiting reverberated throughout Blazer Nation and never truly subsided throughout the year.
The first week of the season played out as discouraging as advertised. After a skin-of-the-teeth victory against San Antonio in the home opener the Blazers dropped two more, leaving their overall record at 1-3. Then Portland faced Houston at home in a hard-fought contest ending with the game being won, then lost, then finally won again in the last second with a miracle shot from Brandon Roy. His spot-on Leonidas of Sparta impression at midcourt after the final horn, surrounded by his incredulously cheering teammates, remains one of the indelible images of the season, perhaps of the decade.
That victory would spark four more wins following, beginning a 13-3 overall run and a 19-9 dash through the remainder of November and December. When Portland entered the New Year with a 20-12 record and the toughest part of their schedule behind them it became clear that something special could happen this season.
Portland followed up its riotous early success with a 9-5 January, a 7-5 February, and an 11-5 March. For a team that hadn't seen a winning month before this year these records were gaudy in the extreme. However the Blazers still showed inconsistency in the midst of winning. In particular they found themselves struggling to win against decent teams on the road, sometimes against not-so-decent teams as well.
Along the way several of the early-season questions had been answered. Greg Oden was ready to contribute on the boards but not anywhere else consistently. He struggled with foul trouble and confidence. Joel Przybilla did not have to deal with the reserve role as he took over and retained the starting position, turning in one of the best seasons of his career. Neither reserve point guard made any lasting bid for more minutes and the position remained in flux and a point of frustration throughout the year. Steve Blake, suddenly freed to shoot stand-still threes in the offense, quietly compiled one of his best seasons. Rudy Fernandez had spectacular moments, especially beyond the three-point arc, but he was not taking the league by storm. He was, in essence, a rookie with significant bonuses rather than a ready-made contributor. Travis Outlaw's game seemed to be stuck on a plateau instead of growing. Channing Frye's had found a sinkhole. In a reversal of pre-season expectations, the Blazers were not quite as deep as advertised but they were producing wins from their mental acuity, poise, and teamwork. Perceived strengths became slight weaknesses. Perceived weaknesses became strengths.
One of the pivotal moments of the year came at the trade deadline, where the RLEC made the Blazers the debutante at the Trader's Ball. Several established veterans were reportedly in play at the deadline. The team elected to stand pat. They were going to win or lose with this group of guys, for this year anyway.
Several observers noted that Portland's play in the weeks leading up to the deadline had become less consistent, more fractured. After the deadline passed the team went on a roll again, culminating in the aforementioned March blitz. They had put themselves in position to make a serious bid for a mid-level playoff position, an achievement which would have been considered a long shot going into the season.
In their way, though, was a nasty little coda to the regular season: a stretch of 11 games against Western Conference opponents, 6 of whom sat directly in the tight-packed race with Portland. Only 5 of those 11 games were on the road, however, and only 2 of those road games were against playoff-caliber teams. Nevertheless the Blazers were walking a razor's edge. A couple losses meant the difference between 2nd place in the conference and 8th. The Blazers would have to dig deeper and pull out an amazing run to stay in the hunt.
Portland responded by winning 10 of those final 11 games, capturing a 54-28 record, tied with San Antonio and Denver behind only the conference-leading L*kers. Their sole loss in that stretch came on the road to the Houston Rockets, an event which would prefigure the coming post-season. Tiebreaker rules put Portland third in the triangle with the Nuggets and Spurs, leaving them the 4th seed with homecourt advantage in the first round against 5th place Houston.
Portland managed their astonishing record through fairly basic means. Their identity started on the boards, claiming defensive rebounds to limit opponent possessions and offensive rebounds to bolster their own scoring. They played an extremely efficient, though hardly high-octane, offensive game. They keyed off of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge putting pressure on the defense. If they were defended straight up the Blazers' stars scored. If the defense shifted to help, Portland's outside shooters made them pay or the centers got the team another possession off of the suddenly-available rebound. Everybody worked hard. Everybody trusted each other. Everybody hit the open shot.
On defense the Blazers relied on interchangeability and help. Few outside of the centers and rookie Nicolas Batum (now firmly ensconced in the starting lineup because of his defense) possessed overwhelming defensive ability. The guards in particular struggled with any scheme more complex than simply staying in front of their own man. So the Blazers switched often on picks and clogged the paint on all penetration, ceding jumpers and three-point shots, playing the percentages. Though the defense was not as effective as the offense the combination of length, rebounding, and occasional grit sufficed to get them through.
When in doubt, the ace in the hole remained as it had been since that glorious finish against Houston so early in the season: get the ball to Brandon Roy and depend on him to score. Time after time Brandon lived up to the challenge...almost to the point of giving Portland an air of invincibility. With more comeback wins under their belt than any team in the league, the feeling was that you could knock the Blazers down but you couldn't keep them there. Somehow, some way this team would find the path to the "W".
In a mirror image to the start of the regular season, the wide-eyed eagerness surrounding the team's prospects was quickly disabused in the first playoff game versus the Rockets. The Rockets were as big as or bigger than the Blazers, just as talented, far more experienced and hungry, and they had superior defensive chops. Teams that rely on offense run hot and cold while teams that rely on defense can play the same way forever. Such was the case here. The Blazers, perhaps over-amped, perhaps flustered, missed shots they had been making all season. The Rockets shut down the Portland rebounding attack with disturbing ease, finding it as easy as bumping the Blazer centers around or taking them out of position with penetration. On the other end they bullied and slashed the Blazer defense. The end result was a stunning 27-point blowout on Portland's home floor, where much of that air of invincibility had been built.
Portland managed 107 points behind Brandon Roy's 42 in a victory in the second game but lost a pair on Houston's home court, continuing the string of road futility. The Blazers had a chance to win each of those two games but, in another reversal of fortune, seemed to come up with the wrong play instead of the right one at critical moments. Late-game turnovers, missed rebounds, and forced shots did them in as well as the lack of a third scorer to break the Rockets' defense bending to guard Portland's stars.
Though Portland mustered one last hurrah in Game 5 as both main scorers went for 25 points they got manhandled again in Game 6 in Houston, falling by 16 and ended the series and the season.
The aftermath of 2008-09 is a lot of joy and appreciation mingled with a little bit of concern. The joy comes from the fantastic record, the amazing achievement of finishing 4th in the West, and the way the Blazers not only met but exceeded every goal they set for themselves during the course of the year. The New Era Blazers haven't exactly arrived but we've had a sneak peek and they look good. There is no standard by which you can consider this season anything less then a wild success. The only complaints would be of the "We could have been slightly more successful" variety, but those are akin to complaining they don't have thirty-TWO flavors at Baskin-Robbins.
The mild concern comes from some of the developments in the post-season which were less revelatory than extensions of nagging problems all year getting exposed in the focused spotlight of the playoffs. The Rockets were a difficult matchup for Portland but the way they were so easily able to counter the Blazers' strengths was disturbing. The loss of rebounding, the linchpin of Portland's success, was dramatic and simply achieved. Where is more rebounding going to come from when you're already at or near the top of the league? Brandon Roy's heroics, an enormous asset during the regular season, looked to be a weakness when he was the only Blazer who could score. Just because he is capable of handling the pressure of taking over a game doesn't mean the team is best served by ceding him those responsibilities, particularly when that involves standing around and watching him score. LaMarcus Aldridge didn't emerge until late in the series. Several Blazers never emerged. Portland was not able to contain Houston on defense either. It's hard to see where improvement will come from there without personnel changes. A team that started the year assuming it would have extra cards to choose from now faces the reality that it may be drawing from a short deck. The Blazers will not be satisfied with another 54-win campaign and first-round exit next year. They want more. Where will that "more" come from?
The good news is that time, cohesiveness, infrastructure, and even some measure of cap flexibility are all on Portland's side. Though the questions aren't answered yet the Blazers have ample resources to address them. The lack of movement at the trade deadline, possibly costing Portland a chance to win their playoff series, may not extend through the summer. 54 wins is a flashing neon sign announcing that the days of potential for this team and its players are drawing abruptly to a close while the days of consistent success as the primary concern are nigh. The Blazers no longer have the luxury of making decisions as a young and growing team alone. They must make decisions as a playoff team and as the contending team they hope to be soon. That's a far different mindset than we've seen in seasons past. That could make this off-season as interesting as any we've seen in the past few years.
The final summation of this season is a positive one. This was simply the best, most exciting, and most effectively executed campaign since the 1999-2000 season. Even then people more or less expected that All-Star conglomeration to do well. We have not seen a sense of wonder like this since the late-80's Drexler-led teams started to emerge. That's quite an accomplishment. This was quite a season.
Next Up: A player-by-player rundown of each current Blazer (one each day) including this season's performance, what it indicates, what the team will be looking for and needing from them in the off-season through next year, and guesses at future prospects with the team. This will be followed by the voting for the Blazersedge end-of-season awards and then it's on to the draft.