April 9, 2008 -- Greg Oden was supposed to take a young, promising Blazers team to the next level and provide fans a glimpse of the future in 2007-08.
Instead, the 7-foot center, who was drafted ahead of leading Rookie of the Year candidate Kevin Durant, brought painful memories of Sam Bowie back to Portland.
Just weeks before training camp, the Blazers announced that the 20-year-old Oden would miss the entire season after having microfracture surgery on his right knee. And as quickly as he became labeled as the next big thing in the NBA, Oden became known as the second coming of Bowie, who was drafted one spot ahead of Michael Jordan in 1984 and averaged only 28 games per season during an injury-plagued five years with Portland.
Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard, however, remains confident in his decision of selecting the former Ohio State star over Durant with the first overall pick.
"We picked the right kid, he cares about his organization. And I can't (overemphasize) how bad he felt, and not because he had to go through the rehab and all that, but because he felt like he let us down,'' Pritchard said, "and he hasn't let us down at all.''
Oden’s injury was a setback, especially for a team looking for its first winning season in five years, but the Blazers appeared headed in the right direction even before beating the 5.3 percent odds and winning the 2007 Draft Lottery.
With reigning Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and former No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge as the cornerstones of the franchise, the Blazers were in position to move leading scorer and rebounder Zach Randolph to the Knicks in a six-player draft-day deal for reserve forward Channing Frye, Steve Francis’ contract and a 2008 second-round pick. They also inked starting point guard Steve Blake and re-signed swingman Martell Webster to complete the league’s youngest roster, which has an average age of 24.
Portland, which finished with 32 wins in 2006-07, opened the season 5-12. And thoughts of Oden and his knee were in everyone’s mind after each loss.
"We were definitely looking forward to having Greg,'' said Webster after a defeat in San Antonio on opening day. "That doesn't stop our journey. Our journey is to get to the playoffs. ... Can't say anything about championships. Mostly, we want to take this one game at a time.''
And that’s exactly what the Blazers did, turning their poor start into a 13-game winning streak – the second longest in franchise history - and moving into first place in the Northwest Division. Although their run at the top wouldn’t last long, a playoff-like atmosphere was brought back to a city that hasn’t hosted a postseason game since the 2002-03 season.
“This has been a spectacular turnaround season for the Blazers,” NBA Commissioner David Stern told The Oregonian during a visit to Portland on March 4. “The 23 sellouts, the extraordinary ratings, the promise of the future, but most important, the way that people have said to me, 'We're proud of the team again. We're glad that they represent us. They're doing everything good and well on and off the court.' That's music to a commissioner's ear and we're really very happy about it.”
The Blazers fell short of a berth but can hold their heads high after coming together as a team and remaining in an extremely competitive Western Conference playoff race until the final month of the season. Oden joined David Thompson and David Robinson as the only No. 1 picks since 1960 to not play in the NBA the year they were drafted, according to STATS LLC., but fans still have plenty of reasons to be excited for the future.
Roy continued his rise to superstar status by averaging 19.3 points and 5.7 assists while earning Western Conference Player of the Week honors twice and becoming the first Blazer since Rasheed Wallace in 2001 to be selected to the NBA All-Star Game. Aldridge, meanwhile, pushed his scoring average up from 9.0 points per game to 17.7 in just his second season. But confident team play was the ultimate reason for the Blazers’ success.
"This isn't about one person, never has been, never will be,'' Pritchard said. "This is about a team, about 15 guys going out there with a single vision, a single purpose.''