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The Decade Retrospective: Part Three...Everything Turns Around

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This is the third of our four-part retrospective on the Blazers in the last decade.  You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.  Enjoy!

2005-2006

Record: 21-61

Coach:  Nate McMillan

Additions: Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, Jarrett Jack, Voshon Lenard, Sergei Monia, Brian Skinner, Charles Smith, Martell Webster

Subtractions:  Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Derek Anderson, Maurice Baker, Geno Carlisle, Richie Frahm, Damon Stoudamire, James Thomas, Nick Van Exel

Draft:  Martell Webster (6th overall), Linas Kleiza (27th overall), Ricky Sanchez (35th overall)

Leading Scorer:  Zach Randolph (18.0 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Zach Randolph (8.0 rpg)

Most Minutes:  Zach Randolph (34.4 mpg)

The fall of 2005 saw a franchise at its rock bottom.  Previous seasons had been progressively more disappointing.  Roster changes brought fewer wins, not more.  The franchise rid itself of old discipline and public relations problems only to find its new crop of young stars creating the same or worse issues.  Payroll was high.  Attendance had never been lower.  Small-town Portland had always supported its teams, leaving the franchise perennially among the top drawers in the league.  This year attendance would rank 30th among 30 franchises.  The bankruptcy battle at the Rose Garden continued with creditors managing the facility.  Blazer staffers, up to and including owner Paul Allen himself, refused to reassure anyone that the team's future in Portland was secure.  The relatively few faithful fans who remained looked hounded and harried.  The Trail Blazers name brought eye rolling and cynical derision when mentioned in public, a far cry from the glee and passion of decades past.  In every way imaginable this team was in trouble.  As though the franchise were coma patient on a hospital bed, observers looked for any sign of hope.  Few were forthcoming.

Into this mess stepped the one positive to which Blazer fans, perhaps the franchise itself, could cling.  180 miles north of Portland the Seattle Supersonics had been in a running battle with their coach, a former swing guard from the heyday of the Payton-Kemp era, a tough-minded defender on the court, a blue-collar guy who had worked his way into his role, a guy who was reportedly just as tough on the bench as he had been on the hardwood.  Though Nate McMillan had brought the franchise more success than expected, including a run to the playoffs with what many considered a patchwork roster, management had never been comfortable with him nor rewarded him financially.  During the summer of 2005, on the heels of a 50-32 season and the aforementioned playoff run, McMillan left his home franchise and joined the Portland Trail Blazers as their new head coach.

Coaching changes are hardly rare, but this one signified more than most, at least to fans desperate for something to hang their hats on.  First, McMillan seemed like a fit in style for this team.  The squad had gone from veteran-laden rebellion against Mike Dunleavy to the permissive Maurice Cheeks.  But during that transformation the team had also gotten younger and was now populated with guys who had little or no idea of the sacrifice that winning basketball takes.  The influences they did have were ignored.  The no-nonsense McMillan would be called upon to bend (or beat through brutal practice) the team into shape.  Failing that, he at least would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  His character was impeccable and had been since his playing days.  He was everything fans hoped their wayward players could become.

The fact that McMillan, considered a rising star among coaches, would come to Portland also provided a shot in the arm.  Miracles being scarce, most everyone figured that a turn-around would take time.  That was not an issue.  The issue was that from the franchise's current position nobody could see a practical path to a turn-around.  Forget the light at the end, you couldn't even see the tunnel.  McMillan coming on board meant that he, at least, saw hope for progress.  More cynical observers cited the large contract the Blazers offered to draw him among the reasons he came, but even this was a positive sign.  In an era of cost-cutting and financial peril management had finally made another investment in building the team instead of tearing it apart.  If they were willing to commit multiple millions to a head coach maybe they still cared.

The sudden windfall for the new coach did not herald a general change in policy, however.  Management's mandate was still clear:  cut back everything.  The Great Purge that had started with Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells now extended to other veterans:  Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Derek Anderson, and most significantly the hometown hero once tabbed as the final piece to a championship puzzle, Damon Stoudamire.  All three had their ups and downs in Portland.  None of them were mandatory moves as Wells and Wallace had been.  The failure to retain any of them signaled well and truly that the franchise had cut all ties with its past, that it was no longer trying to win every game it could but was starting anew, for better or worse.

Part of the new start came in the form of the highest draft pick the team had seen in decades:  a shiny, new #3 selection.  The Milwaukee Bucks selected Andrew Bogut first overall in the 2005 draft followed by the Atlanta Hawks with Marvin Williams at #2.  This would have left the field wide open for the Blazers to draft any number of point guards available:  Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton.  But prior to the draft the Blazers decided to trade the 3rd pick to the Utah Jazz in exchange for the 6th and 27th.  The Jazz took Williams and the other point guards went 4th and 5th respectively.  Project center Andrew Bynum was yet on the table as was scoring small forward Danny Granger but Portland opted instead for shooting swingman Martell Webster, another draftee right out of high school, making this the fourth straight season the Blazers had used their top pick on a player without college experience.  Portland bartered the 27th pick for #22 selection Jarrett Jack.

It quickly became apparent that the new era was going to involve losing.  A lot of losing.  The backcourt was populated with smaller guards including Sebastian Telfair, Jack, and new acquisitions Steve Blake and Juan Dixon.  None of these players was known for defense and none topped 6'4".  Darius Miles and Zach Randolph weren't going to pick up the defensive slack.  Both were struggling in their early relationship with Coach McMillan for that reason, among other things.  Defensive centers Joel Przybilla and Theo Ratliff each missed 30 games to injury.  To make matters worse, Randolph was the only proven scorer in the rotation.  The Blazers couldn't score, couldn't rebound, couldn't defend, had no healthy veterans in the main rotation, and weren't all on the same page.  The result was a 21-61 record, an all-time franchise low.  The only saving grace?  Since last season had been so futile and so offensive only the bare minimum number of fans saw this on-court debacle.

May of 2006 saw General Manager John Nash's contract come up, which the team declined to renew.  He had done his job, cutting the fat out of the lineup and the office, taking a wrecking ball to the team.  But that role made him an unpopular figure.  The fact that two of the three point guards the Blazers could have selected in the 2005 draft looked like future Hall-of-Famers after their rookie years sealed the deal.  Few blinked when Nash was let go.  Replacing him was the other main executive already in the front office, Team President Steve Patterson.  This was a mixed blessing as Patterson had presumably also had his finger in the decisions for which Nash was released.  Also Patterson had a habit of grating local media members, especially those employed by the Oregonian, which at that time provided the lion's share of the team's coverage.  New start or no, the script remained unchanged.

2006-2007

Record: 32-50

Coach:  Nate McMillan

Additions: LaMarcus Aldridge, Dan Dickau, Stephen Graham, Fred Jones, Raef LaFrentz, Jamaal Magloire, Jeremy Richardson, Sergio Rodriguez, Brandon Roy, Luke Schenscher, Ime Udoka

Subtractions:  Steve Blake, Viktor Khryapa, Voshon Lenard, Sergei Monia, Ruben Patterson, Theo Ratliff, Ha Seung-Jin, Brian Skinner, Charles Smith, Sebastian Telfair,

Draft:  Tyrus Thomas (4th overall), Joel Freeland (30th overall), James White (31st overall)

Leading Scorer:  Zach Randolph (23.6 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Zach Randolph (10.1 ppg)

Most Minutes:  Zach Randolph (35.7 ppg)

Given the previous year's record the Blazers were looking at major changes before they could make forward progress.  The most obvious off-season trend in 2006 was ridding the franchise of everyone who predated the current regime.  This included the last of the Whitsitt-era veterans in Ruben Patterson plus Nash-era men like Theo Ratliff and draft picks Viktor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, Ha Seung-Jin, and even Sebastian Telfair.  Despite the hype and the pre-made documentary, it soon became apparent that Telfair had a flair for his own game and absolutely no passion for defense.  Combine that with the utter lack of an outside shot and he was pretty much the antithesis of a Nate McMillan point guard.

The second major trend that became evident in 2006 was a commitment to rebuild through the draft.  The Blazers made six draft-day trades, maneuvering many of the players mentioned in the last paragraph plus their own draft picks to acquire players they had targeted.  Included were:

  • LaMarcus Aldridge, the second overall pick...a 6'10" forward from Texas who could score and had agility to go with his size
  • Brandon Roy, a 6'6" four-year shooting guard from Washington who was considered the most NBA-ready player in the draft
  • Sergio Rodriguez, a young point guard from Spain whose wizardry reminded many of Jason Williams of Sacramento fame

In the off-season itself, however, when few had seen first-hand what Roy and Aldridge could do, the feel-good story revolved around another Blazer, Joel Przybilla.  Picked up as a speculative free agent two years prior, Przybilla had gone above and beyond the call of duty filling in for the oft-injured Theo Ratliff, providing rebounding and defense that the team lacked elsewhere.  He had made a name for himself not only locally but nationally and his services were reportedly requested by teams such as San Antonio and Detroit, both championship-caliber squads at that point.  After surveying the landscape Przybilla opted to remain with the Blazers.  The prior off-season brought a coach who believed a turn-around was possible.  Even if it was in a small way, Przybilla staying brought a player who believed the same...someone who actually chose Portland, warts and all.  Between the draft day dealing and Joel staying the buzz surrounding the team was actually positive as the season drew near...quite a change from recent years.

Progress was modest on the floor, but progress of any sort had been absent since 1999 so even a 32-win season looked splendiferous by comparison.  Lacking experienced point guards to run the offense the Blazers' strategy became simple:  All Zach, All the Time.  Every halfcourt set (and the Blazers didn't run much) started, and usually ended, with Randolph.  He ate his fill at the buffet and everyone else got leftovers.  He responded with a career year and the Blazers' offense improved overall.  The defense was another matter entirely.  The same guy who was doing all the scoring was also nonchalant on the other end, foiling almost any scheme devised by sheer indifference.  Przybilla did his best to make up the difference as did a surprising veteran small forward, former Portlander Ime Udoka, whose outside shooting and strong position defense made him the Blazers' version of San Antonio's Bruce Bowen.

Also creeping up the depth chart as the year progressed was rookie LaMarcus Aldridge.  It quickly became evident that he could score.  While not on a par with Randolph in this area he could hold his own, making everyone feel easier when Zach sat.  He also moved quicker on defense than did Randolph, which was not hard as the same claim could be made of the hoop stanchion.   The more games he got under his belt (and, to be fair, the more it became evident that Portland would be out of contention again this year) the more respect and time he earned.

The story of the season by far, however, was Brandon Roy.  It quickly became evident that he belonged in the offense.  He could score from anyplace on the floor save perhaps the three-point line with regularity.  He would move any of four directions with the dribble, the most important of those being towards the hoop.  Portland had not seen a guard get to the rim with such scoring ability since the Isiah Rider days, though Brandon was a different guard than Rider or Clyde Drexler, being far less powerful and far more slippery.  Roy also averaged 4 rebounds and 4 assists, looking like a team player as well as an offensive wizard.  Combined with the team's 11-game improvement it was enough to win him Rookie of the Year honors, an achievement which sent Blazer fans through the roof.  They had not had a trophy for anything for years.  Portland's drafts had ranged from disappointing to abysmal.  Now all of a sudden they hit the jackpot, perhaps twice if you count Aldridge.  This was heady stuff.

As Roy's accolade-filled march progressed much of the credit for it was given to the same bright, young executive who had briefly coached the team two years prior:  Kevin Pritchard.  Pritchard was said to have his hands all over the draft day moves, to have been given the keys to the car on that day with owner Paul Allen in the passenger seat and President/General Manager Steve Patterson in the back offering advice.  Pritchard was also rumored to have championed Chris Paul in the draft prior.  Reportedly he could also walk on water, cut tomatoes with his bare hands, and stop a charging rhino with a glance.  In the spring of 2007 the media noted high-level conferences among Steve Patterson and Paul Allen.  The last of these resulted in Patterson, for reasons unknown, stepping up to a podium and announcing his resignation.  The media rejoiced as by this time he had made himself a pariah around town, acquiring level of disdain that even Bob Whitsitt in all his glory had never achieved.  If newspapers allowed smiley face and heart fonts that's how his executive obituary would have been printed.  Fans, too, were happy to see him exit, reminder as he was of an era of tearing down...obsolete and unwelcome now that the era of building up had arrived.

In Patterson's place stepped the obvious choice, Kevin Pritchard.  He began a campaign of unabashed cheerleading for the team, exuding confidence and charm on radio, television, in print, and all over the internet.  His "just one of the guys" demeanor and his mantra of "culture plus talent" endeared him even more to Blazer fans, who all but erupted in spontaneous applause every time his name was mentioned.  If the momentum from '05-'06 to '06-'07 had looked good, the momentum from '06-'07 to ‘07'-08 appeared excellent.  The rocket was fueled and on the launching pad and the commander was at the controls.  All it needed was a spark to send it into orbit and beyond.

That spark--no, a flamethrower--erupted on May 22nd, 2007 when, in front of thousands of Blazer fans live and tens of thousands virtually via the internet, Blazer Nation experienced its biggest event since entering the 1992 NBA Finals:  Portland won the #1 overall pick in the draft lottery in a year when the dominant center and the dominant scorer of the next decade were both available.

Forget respectability.  The Blazers were beginning to think about being really, really, REALLY good again.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)