A LOOK BACK AT DECEMBER

January 1, 2008 – It is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions and it would be hard to blame any Trail Blazer fan with making his or her’s to not rush to judgment. Then again, they have probably learned their lesson by now. The past six months has been a bit of a roller coaster and it all started with the bounce of some ping pong balls.

Once the Blazers won the NBA Draft Lottery and took Greg Oden with the top pick in June’s draft, it seemed like Portland had secured a future star and even if they wouldn’t be in the running for a playoff spot in the competitive West this season, the team’s fans would at least get to watch Oden develop this season.

It would have been easy for Blazers fans to give up on the season after Oden underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee before even taking the court. After losing nine out of 10 games to fall to 5-12 on Dec. 2, it looked like Portland would once again be the frontrunner for the top pick. But then the roller coaster soared from its lowest point all the way to the top.

The Blazers won 13 straight games before falling at Utah on Dec. 31 – the second longest streak in franchise history behind a 16-game run in 1990-91 - and instead of thinking about lottery balls, Blazer fans are thinking about hanging a Northwest Division title from the rafters. In honor of Portland’s winning streak, I offer 13 reasons for their improvement in no particular order.

1. No Flash in the Pan - Brandon Roy proved he had plenty of potential when he could stay on the floor last season, taking home Rookie of the Year honors despite playing in just 55 games. The 6-foot-6 guard has emerged as a legitimate star and a team leader in his second campaign, averaging 19.2 points a game.

2. Youth Movement - Who said age is only a number? The Blazers have the youngest team in the league with an average age of 24, but they are not letting that slow them down. Nine of the 15 players on Portland’s roster have less than three seasons under their belts

3. Nate the Teacher - With such a young squad, the team needs a steady hand and that is exactly what coach Nate McMillan has provided. The eighth-year head coach stressed the fact that his team had to play together instead of going in different directions and once they bough in the results have been hard to argue with.

4. Pivotal Point - Steve Blake and Jarrett Jack competed against each other in the ACC when Blake was a senior at Maryland and Jack was a freshman star at Georgia Tech, but the two competitors have combined to form a terrific tandem. Blake has started 28 of 31 games, but Jack provides a burst off the bench.

5. Everyone’s Favorite Outlaw - Travis Outlaw is in his fifth NBA season, so it is hard to remember that he is just 23 years old. He has finally started to live up to the potential the Blazers saw when they took him in the first round out of high school in 2003 this season, emerging as a super sub and clutch player in the fourth quarter for Portland. The 6-9 forward is averaging over 12 points a game and had five 20-point games in December.

6. Mr. Jones - James Jones is with his third team in the last four seasons, but he may have finally found a home in the Pacific Northwest. The 6-8 sharp-shooter is averaging a career-high 10.1 points off the bench for Portland while leading the league at a .550 clip from behind the three-point line.

7. Seizing OpportunityZach Randolph was a terrific player for Portland, but the offseason trade that sent him, Fred Jones, Dan Dickau and the draft rights to Demetris Nichols to New York in exchange for Chaning Frye, Steve Francis and a second-round pick in 2008 has paid off for the Blazers. Francis was bought out, but Frye has been valuable both as a starter and in a reserve role. The departure of Randolph and Co. also created opportunities that other players have taken advantage of.

8. Versatility = Success – Portland’s roster is full of interchangeable parts and McMillan has made good use of them this season. Eight Blazers are averaging over 20 minutes a game and three more are over eight minutes a nght. There are rugged inside players like Joel Przybilla, three capable point guards and a host of dangerous outside shooters and swingmen.

9. The Biggest Cheerleader in the League – Of course Oden would like to be helping his teammates on the court. The 7-foot centerpiece out of Ohio State has been working out furiously to get ready for next season and is a regular presence on the team’s bench when his rehab schedule allows, clapping it up for his teammates. Despite his progress, Portland officials insist they will not rush him back to court this season.

10. Home Sweet Home – The Rose Garden has always been home to a strong fan base and it is no surprise that most of Portland’s success this season has come at home. The Blazers are 15-3 at home and 10 of the wins on their streak came in front of the home crowd. "They're a great bunch, this is a great place to play and a great place to coach,'' said former Portland coach and current Philadelphia coach Maurice Cheeks after falling to the Blazers on Dec. 30. "If you've got good guys and you're playing good basketball, it's going to be like this.''

11. Second-Year Sensation - The Blazers won all five games LaMarcus Aldridge sat out with plantar fasciitis during their hot streak, but they will all admit they are a much better squad with him on the floor. The second-year forward/center missed 19 games as a rookie, but has quickly established himself as a future star this season by averaging over 17 points and seven rebounds a game.

12. Taking Advantage – You play with the hand you are dealt. The Blazers had a favorable schedule during their surprising streak, but they have done their best to separate themselves from the lower-echelon clubs. Ten of the wins were at home and New Orleans, Denver, Golden State, Toronto and Utah are the only teams currently with winning records that Portland topped in December.

13. Real Men Wear Pink – General Manager Kevin Pritchard is definitely one of the most prominent reasons for Portland’s turnaround, but lately his wardrobe has gotten more attention than his personnel moves. Pritchard started wearing a pink tie early in the winning streak and kept it going throughout the run of success. Let's take a look back at some of the other teams and players making news in December.

The Best of the Rest

An Unfortunate Farewell

It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Alonzo Mourning. The 15-year veteran and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year returned after battling kidney disease that eventually required a transplant to win the NBA title with the Heat in 2006 and was hoping to enjoy another playoff run after announcing this would be his final season. But Mourning suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right knee and a quadriceps tear in the same leg on Dec. 19 and his return to the court this season is doubtful at best. The seven-time All-Star had many career highlights, from teaming with Larry Johnson to make the expansion Charlotte Hornets contenders, to winning the Olympic gold in 2000 and playing a reserve role on Miami’s championship team. He was also recently named to the Heat’s 20th anniversary team.

Change Blows Through Windy City

A lot was expected of the Chicago Bulls after they advanced to the second round of the playoffs last season and pushed the Pistons to six games. With their nucleus returning and the offseason of acquisitions of veteran big man Joe Smith and versatile rookie Joakim Noah, many experts were picking the Bulls to make a run at The Finals. But after struggling to a 9-16 start, Chicago relieved head coach Scott Skiles on Dec. 24 and announced a few days later that assistant Jim Boylan would serve as interim coach for the remainder of the season. Skiles compiled a record of 165-172 in five seasons with the Bulls, including three straight playoff appearances.

Beasts of the East

Two months into the great experiment that is the 2007-08 Celtics, it seems that Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers have concocted a very successful specimen. Entering the New Year, Boston has already surpassed its win total from last season with a record of 26-3. Although the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce has Celtics fans dreaming of reaching the 70-win barrier, the Pistons have proven that Boston won’t have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. Detroit snapped the Celtics’ nine-game winning streak on Dec. 19 when Chauncey Billups hit a pair of free throws with 0.1 seconds to go for an 87-85 victory. The Pistons also finished the year hot, winning nine straight to close December.

A Month for Milestones

Kobe Bryant is accustomed to setting new standards. He was the first guard drafted directly out of high school and the youngest player voted to start in the NBA All-Star Game. He broke another barrier in December, becoming the youngest NBA player to score 20,000 career points when he netted 39 points in New York on Dec. 23. Kobe reached the plateau in 29 years, 122 days, eclipsing the previous mark of 29 years, 134 days set by Wilt Chamberlain. Bryant, who was also the youngest to 10,000 points and has won the past two scoring titles may not hold the record for long though. LeBron James became the youngest player to 9,000 points earlier in December and has his sights set on Kobe.

Heritage Week 2007

From NBA legend Bob Pettit celebrating his 75th birthday to teams wearing retro uniforms, Heritage Week offered fans and players a chance to learn about the league’s history. NBA.com did its part well, offering unique looks back at different eras in the NBA. Want to know who led the Rookie Rankings in December of 1984 – Jordan, Olajuwon, Barkley, Stockton, Turpin? Wonder who was leading Race to the MVP in 1961 – Wilt the Stilt, the Big O or Bill Russell? How about the Power Rankings from 1969-70? Interested in what George Mikan would be blogging about in the 1950s? Take a walk down memory lane and enjoy your trip.

Have your own thoughts on the month that was? Disagree with my picks? Send an e-mail and let me know.