As the season winds down, ETB is going to take a look at the state of a number of non-contenders. We’ll talk about what’s going right, what’s not, discuss their key personnel, look at team needs and size up their future.
Today: The Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers are ahead of their time. Nobody expected them to do what they’re doing. Nobody.
Not with a roster loaded with talented-but-unproven youngsters. Not after three straight losing seasons. Not with their prized rookie big man, Greg Oden, spending his first season rehabbing from microfracture surgery. And certainly not playing in a Western Conference that’s perhaps as stacked with mega-talent, top to bottom, as it’s ever been. (Just to nail that home, over in the top-heavy East only five teams have more wins than losses as we head into the final stretch run.)
But here they are, heads still above water and still, technically, in the playoffs hunt with a 29-28 record and 25 games to go. Oden’s unfortunate setback be damned, the Portland crew has brought the stagnating Rose Garden back to life, posting one of the league’s better home records at 21-8 and making their home court one of the few arenas that’s always packed with screaming, passionate fans on any random weekday night.
It’s indeed been a remarkable reconciliation betweens fans and team in Portland. The days of the “Jail Blazers” seem like a distant memory; is it any coincidence that success and team chemistry both arrived the season after Zach Randolph was sent packing? That ragamuffin batch of knuckleheads has now been exterminated (Darius Miles has to retire soon) and replaced with the kind of guys you can root for. Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, LaMarcus Aldridge, James Jones, Oden, and of course their All-Star leader, Brandon Roy, are the new faces of this franchise… and the nucleus that is going to make a lot of noise and turn a lot of heads in the years to come.
Kevin Pritchard deserves all the credit in the world. It’s hard to imagine where they would be without either of the draft-day trades from last season, where they netted team leaders and cornerstones LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy in exchange for mercurial Tyrus Thomas and apparently injury-prone Randy Foye. It also took some balls and vision to just dump a 20 and 10 guy like Zach Randolph for next to nothing.
In other words, a franchise that hasn’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since the 2000/01 season — or even qualified for the postseason in 5 years — has finally turned a corner. This season, however, the Trail Blazers will have to settle for being one of the best feel-good stories of the year… because the playoffs are not in the cards this time. No way, no how.
More on the Blazers’ renaissance and why they won’t make the playoffs after the jump…
Understand that condemning the Blazers to yet another lottery isn’t a criticism. It’s not. If they played in the Eastern Conference I have no doubt that they could do some postseason damage, and perhaps even lock down home-court advantage in the first round. But they don’t, so they won’t, and are instead left to tangle with the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, and (now) the Sacramento Kings for the West’s final two postseason berths. And given their recent struggles, their overall team health (or lack thereof), their youth and inexperience, and their big Achilles heel — road games — leapfrogging the Warriors and Nuggets will be no small task indeed.
The Blazers have been a streaky team all year. After dropping their first three games of the season, they rebounded by winning four straight… then lost nine of their next ten… then won 20 of their next 22. Then the injury bug started biting — Roy is currently out with a sprained ankle and Jones a sore left knee — and the losses have begun piling up, with Portland now 2-8 in their last 10 contests. In the West, any extended slump spells D-O-O-M, as they’ve now fallen off the postseason pace and head into tonight’s match with the LA Clippers a full 5.5 games back of the Warriors and the 8th seed; division rival Denver has 4.5 games on them.
That’s a tough mountain to climb for any team, much less one whose average roster age is just 24 years old. Of their remaining 25 games, the Blazers have 11 against likely-playoff bound Western teams, including a particularly brutal schedule in April that includes games against the Spurs, Suns, Mavericks, Rockets, and Lakers (twice). They’ll also face the improving Sactown Kings, on the road. The one thing going for them is that five of their last seven are home games.
To me (and others), the tough schedule, the mounting injuries, and the inexperience all add up to this team ending up on the outside looking in. But honestly, this season was never really about making the playoffs, although of course it’s been a realistic goal since that incredible stretch in December. The Blazers shouldn’t feel too down when April 17th arrives and their season has come to a close. They’ve made remarkable strides towards developing that ever-elusive “team identity:” as Larry Brown would (nauseatingly) say, these Blazers “play the right way” and now have a talented core to build around. And that’s going to pay off in the coming seasons.
Brandon Roy Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Here’s what Blazers fans have to look forward to (and what will be giving opponents a pounding headache): a bonafide leader in Brandon Roy, who’s that somewhat rare breed of player with all the requisite tools to become one of the league’s very best floor generals and the cool head to take over late in games. Along with Chris Paul and Deron Williams, Roy is part of a remarkable crop of young West guards that will be perennial All Stars for the next decade. There’s simply nothing unlikeable about the guy. LaMarcus Aldridge, the second-overall pick of the ’06 draft (traded to Portland for Ty Thomas), seems capable of averaging something in the neighborhood of 20 points and 10 rebounds. His ability to knock down shots outside of the paint should prove an excellent match with the seven-foot Oden prowling the blocks. History has seen its fair share of highly touted big man have their once-promising careers derailed by injuries or poor work ethic (Sam Bowie, Michael Olowakandi, Kwame Brown come to mind), but you get the feeling that Oden won’t join that list of busts. I hope.
That’s as fine a young, talented core as you’ll see in the NBA. Add in the uber-athletic swingman tandem of Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw (they’re averaging a combined 24 points and 9 rebounds this season, and Webster is still only 21 years old), as well as solid role players in James Jones (shooting 48% from three-point land), Jarrett Jack, and Steve Blake, and you see that GM Kevin Pritchard has done a wonderful job of putting together a team that compliments each other’s skills. When healthy, there are no glaring weaknesses on this roster.
And, of course, Pritchard is not done yet. Veteran Laef LaFrentz and his eye-popping $12 million salary will come off the books following next season, which translates to either huge cap relief in the summer of ’09 or a valuable expiring contract trade asset before the deadline. And while Pritchard has been stockpiling draft picks for some time now — and still has a few players developing overseas, not to mention one (Sergio Rodriguez) waiting for his turn on the bench — they’ll also have a lottery pick and three second-rounders in this summer’s entry draft. Again, perhaps he’ll use them, perhaps he’ll trade them. But one way or the other, the influx of talent in Portland is far from over.
This turnaround for the Portland Trail Blazers this season has been nothing short of remarkable. They’re fun to watch again, and they’re a team that any basketball purist can enjoy and root for. They’re not a playoff team yet, but that’s okay. Nobody expected it. That’ll be a whole different story next year. And the year after.
For looks at other NBA teams and the state of their franchise, click on over to read ETB’s takes on: