This is Part Four of our look back at the last decade's journey for the Portland Trail Blazers. You can see the previous parts here:
Coach: Nate McMillan
Additions: Steve Blake, Channing Frye, Taurean Green, James Jones, Josh McRoberts, Greg Oden, Von Wafer
Subtractions: Dan Dickau, Juan Dixon, Stephen Graham, Fred Jones, Jamaal Magloire, Zach Randolph, Jeremy Richardson, Luke Schenscher, Ime Udoka
Draft: Greg Oden (1st overall), Josh McRoberts (37th overall), Derrick Byars (42nd overall), Taurean Green (52nd overall), Demetris Nichols (53rd overall)
Leading Scorer: Brandon Roy (19.1 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: Joel Przybilla (8.4 rpg)
Most Minutes: Brandon Roy (37.7 mpg)
The feel-good era of the Portland Trail Blazers was off to a roaring start as David Stern announced them the winners of the 2007 Draft Lottery. At the top of the draft class stood two giants, one literal and one scoring. Greg Oden was a legit 7-footer destined for stardom since his high school years. Kevin Durant was an amazing point producer, tabbed by some to be the next scoring king of the league. Shunned for years by anyone with any practical or aesthetic sense of the game, the Blazers were now the belle of the ball, choosing between can't-miss prospects. The organization took the opportunity to further bolster its once-abysmal public image, pasting billboards all around town reading "Oden or Durant?" The hype became frenzied leading up to draft day itself as local and national observers wondered if front-runner Oden would be the pick or whether upstart Durant would get the call.
In the end the Blazers went with Oden, a move which made sense on multiple levels. Portland already had scorers in Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Each like the ball, Roy up top, Aldridge in the post extended away from the bucket. Durant would need touches and room to operate. Were he up top he'd take Roy's space. From the strong side wing he'd have Aldridge's. The only scenarios that made sense would be putting him on the weak side or making a trade, either a waste of a superb scorer or an incremental gain rather than the massive boost a first-overall pick should provide. Oden, on the other hand, operated in the low post, an area occupied only by forward Zach Randolph, and even he had taken more to a face-up game. Oden also provided rebounding and defense. He was by far the more able of the two to contribute without touching the ball. The choice was never crystal clear. Pundits from all corners debated the issue ad nauseum. But at the end of the day Oden was a Blazer while Durant went to northern rival Seattle.
The night's business was not complete, however. With Aldridge having come on strong in the latter half of the previous season and Oden coming in to occupy the post the Blazers had much less use for Randolph. Despite his gaudy stats he had continued to prove a headache off the court and a difficult companion in the locker room. He never saw eye to eye with Coach McMillan and had sparred with Brandon Roy. Mounting injuries, suspensions, and softer play sealed the deal. The Blazers all but closed the book on the pre-Pritchard era by dealing Randolph, along with guards Dan Dickau and Fred Jones, to the New York Knicks for Channing Frye and Steve Francis. Francis would never suit up for the team. Frye would never figure prominently in their plans. It was a salary and personality dump, clearing the way for young players now and future moves later.
Lost in all of the hubbub of the draft lead-up and execution that spring was another announcement of near-equal importance. Owner Paul Allen had repurchased the Rose Garden from creditors. The shadow of franchise relocation and the questions about Allen's commitment to and enthusiasm for the team had been answered in one fell swoop. It was a good time to be a Blazer fan.
With the last major strings to the Bad Old Days cut those fans signaled clearly that they were now prepared to root unabashedly for their hometown heroes. Oden drew thousands to a downtown rally in Pioneer Square as he was introduced to the Portland public. Everyone, from fans to players to management, seemed eager to set sail on a new era of (hopefully eventual) domination. There was no reason to think that the rise would be anything less than meteoric.
Players gathered early and began to practice in earnest for the upcoming season. It was during informal workouts two weeks before training camp was to begin that word filtered out of the practice facility. "Something happened to Oden." That "something" turned out to be cartilage damage to the right knee requiring season-ending microfracture surgery. The Blazers' hopes for a dominant season ended on September 14th, before even a single pre-season game had been played. Now they would have to compensate.
As it turned out Portland's Plan B was pretty decent, as "B" stood for "Brandon". Roy, healthier, more confident, and playing more minutes than he did in his rookie season, averaged 19 per game with 6 assists and 5 rebounds. More importantly he loaded the team on his back and carried them through fourth quarters time and time again, providing game-winning buckets whenever necessary. His co-sophomore Aldridge had his back, swinging between power forward and center, going into the post when necessary to fill the void left by Randolph and Oden, averaging 18 points and 7.5 rebounds himself. Aldridge's minutes at center opened up more time for Travis Outlaw at power forward where he began to excel against defenders who were neither as quick nor agile has he. Outlaw attempted the third most shots in the rotation, often joining Roy in fourth-quarter heroics. Also assisting was a new/old pick-up, the returning Steve Blake who fit the bill as a point guard who would defer to Roy yet be able to hit open perimeter shots when his teammates' offense provided. Stalwart Joel Przybilla stepped in seamlessly at center, as he had done for Theo Ratliff a couple years prior. Striking another blow for the veterans was James Jones, a three-point shooting specialist who feasted from the shadows, making opponents pay night after night for trying to stop the main scorers.
Of the two other guys in the main rotation, one rose to grace and one fell from it. Martell Webster overcame his reputation as a non-defensive player, committing to moving his feet and taking the challenge of guarding the opponent's best scoring wings. He was not built in the mold of Scottie Pippen or Ruben Patterson, but he did what was necessary. Jarrett Jack, on the other hand, though a hard worker also seemed to envision himself as a scorer...a vision which wasn't likely to come to fruition in a backcourt where everybody but Roy had their shots rationed.
The highlight of the season was unquestionably a 13-game winning streak which began on December 3rd when Travis Outlaw canned a buzzer-beating runner to lift the Blazers over the Grizzlies by a single point, continued through wins against the Jazz and Nuggets (twice each), and concluded on the 31st of December with a loss in Utah in the third game against the Jazz that month. Portland would go on to win four more in a row (thumping Utah again in the process) to make the final tally 17 of 18 games won. For a team that hadn't registered a winning month in years until this very month (they had gone 5-10 in November) it was heady stuff.
Unfortunately the bliss couldn't last as the schedule got tougher and fatigue took its toll on this young team which had yet to be involved in any kind of playoff race. The Blazers did manage to finish the season 41-41, their first non-losing year since the Wallace days. A 9-win improvement was nothing to sneeze at and things were looking up in Portland.
In April of 2008 forward Darius Miles was granted injury retirement. Not only did this remove the very last old-line controversial player from the team, it wiped Miles' salary from the Blazers cap, erasing the final vestiges of the horrible contract blunders of 2005.
With Oden scheduled to return in the fall, the rest of the team continuing to grow, and the hope of cap flexibility in the immediate future things could hardly have looked brighter for the franchise.
Coach: Nate McMillan
Additions: Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, Ike Diogu, Rudy Fernandez, Shavlik Randolph, Michael Ruffin
Subtractions: Taurean Green, Jarrett Jack, James Jones, Josh McRoberts, Darius Miles, Von Wafer
Draft: Brandon Rush (13th overall), Joey Dorsey (33rd overall), Omer Asik (36th overall), Mike Taylor (55th overall)
Leading Scorer: Brandon Roy (22.6 ppg)
Leading Rebounder: Joel Przybilla (8.7 rpg)
Most Minutes: Brandon Roy (37.2 mpg)
Portland's front office did not rest on its laurels in the 2008 offseason. Wheeling and dealing once again in the draft the Blazers parlayed shooter Brandon Rush and guard Jarrett Jack into Jerryd Bayless, a hard-nosed, intense penetrating point guard. They also burgled French forward Nicolas Batum out from under the noses of the San Antonio Spurs, acquiring a third first-round selection and continuing their pattern of building through the draft. Finally, they made an all-out blitz to convince one of last year's draft picks, Spain's Rudy Fernandez, to leave the well-paid confines of the Euro-Leagues and come to Portland to play with the best players in the world...a recruiting trip which ultimately turned out to be successful.
Expectations were soaring entering training camp as fans had seen Jerryd Bayless take Summer League by storm and Rudy Fernandez acquit himself well in the Summer Olympics playing for Spain. The team now appeared flush with talent, needing only a little gel time for the wins to come rolling in.
The first blow to expectations came in the early fall, when once again the Blazers lost a starter for the year. Martell Webster fractured a foot and his recovery, initially tabbed at a couple months, would take the entire season. This left Portland short-handed at one position where they had little redundancy. James Jones and Darius Miles were gone. Travis Outlaw had proven himself far more of a power forward than small. The one guy standing in the breach was the rookie Batum, a player who had such a miserable outing in the July Summer League that many had opined he was years away from contributing.
The second blow to expectations came on opening night in a much-anticipated showdown with the West's current top dogs and eternal thorns-in-the-side, the Los Angeles L*kers. Kobe Bryant and company had apparently read the news clippings declaring Portland a team to watch. Everybody who did watch that night saw the Blazers get their cans handed to them by a team that actually knew how to bring it on command. To make matters worse, center Greg Oden went down again, this time with a foot injury. The Blazers went on to lose 3 of their first 4 and with a brutal extended early schedule it looked like the rocket might not get off the launching pad.
Then in Portland's fourth game, in one of the most memorable finishes in team history, Brandon Roy played the hero by hitting a game-winning shot, then the goat by fouling Houston's Yao Ming on the ensuing last-second inbounds play allowing the Rockets to get ahead again, then the SUPERhero by hitting a wild heave with no time remaining to put the Blazers over the top. The emotional win catapulted the team's confidence. They won 12 of their next 15 games and never looked back. The winning ways were spurred by the play of Roy, Aldridge, and Outlaw as usual. But these were joined by a couple of surprises, one mild and one severe. Rudy Fernandez spent the season adjusting to the league and its style, particularly on the defensive end, but in doing so he set a rookie record for three-pointers made. The severe surprise came from Nicolas Batum, who quickly developed a reputation as Portland's best defender and one of the better complementary players the team had seen in years.
Not all was rosy for the Blazers, however. Forward Darius Miles, having played six pre-season games with the Boston Celtics and registered a couple more token appearances with the Memphis Grizzlies, was now back on the Blazers' cap list. In a move reminiscent of the older, clumsier style of Blazer management the team had sent out a league-wide memo in the midst of these developments threatening legal action should anyone sign Miles. Though the point was soon rendered moot by the Grizzlies paradise had taken a public relations hit.
What's more, when Greg Oden did return it was obvious that he had spent his rehab time during the last year lifting weights instead of doing cardio (as one might expect with knee and foot problems). He was huge. His strength was impressive but unfortunately earned him fouls as much as it did position. He was ponderous on the court, looking far more like an aging Arvydas Sabonis than the shot-blocking monster fans had envisioned. He would experience another injury in the spring--this time to his left knee--and his contributions were subdued even when he was healthy. However he faced little pressure as once again, like the girl in the "friend zone" who watches her guy date 100 other people but is always there when he needs her, Joel Przybilla stepped forward to save the Blazers' bacon.
That bacon was sizzling as Portland came down the regular season stretch. The Blazers won 13 of their final 16 games of the year, ending up with a 54-28 record, a tie for the Northwest Division crown, and admission to a group of four teams ranging from 2nd to 5th in the Western Conference separated by exactly one game. After years of drought and misery the Blazers had regained the playoffs and done so in style. In three years the Blazers had risen from the worst offense in the league to among the elite. Their defense was unspectacular, but even average was an enormous improvement as well. Attendance, once in the league cellar, was now ranked third overall. It was everything one could wish.
Almost everything, that is.
Unfortunately the Blazers would learn some harsh lessons about the playoffs in short order. These included:
1. Houston, with their premier (and huge) perimeter defenders and unstoppable center was a horrible matchup.
2. When teams come to get you in the playoffs they come HARD.
3. The margin for error in the post-season is incredibly small.
In a mirror image of the first regular-season game versus the L*kers the inexperienced Blazers got hammered by a vicious, motivated, hungry Houston team, losing by 27 on their home floor. Though they would come back to pick up the second game of the series and make it close in Houston--losing by 3 and 1 on the road--the best they could do was push it to six games, an outcome which suited the Rockets fine. Had the first game been different the series might have worked out differently as well, but the team also learned that "ifs" are the chorus of the losing side while the winners don't care. One bright spot in the series was the play of Greg Oden in the post, who actually held his own against the massive Yao Ming for stretches. Hope kindled again for the promise of next year.
Thus the decade ended as it had begun, with a trip to the playoffs. In '99 a first-round loss would have seemed pedestrian. In '09 it was legitimate cause for celebration given where the team had been. You'd be hard-pressed to find such a complete and hurried downfall in the annals of any sport as Portland experienced between 2000 and 2005. Blazer fans are hoping that the turn-around which began in 2006 will prove just as dramatic by 2011 or 2012. The decade provided much to remember and much we'd like to forget. It tested the franchise and its fan base, hardening us in some ways, scarring us in others, perhaps making us better in more. The decade certainly lacked nothing in the way of drama. But in the end it turned out rather well, which is all one can ask.
We'll do this again in 10 years. Hopefully there will be more exciting news and a little less heartache to talk about then.