By John Hareas

It is this season’s unlikeliest NBA success story, unlikely, that is, to everyone except the 12 players and coaching staff of the Portland Trail Blazers. The youngest (and hottest) team in the league (average age is 24) is breathing down the neck of the first place Denver Nuggets in the Northwest Division and winning by an average of 7.2 points in the month of December.

The Blazers torrid win streak (nine and counting) is a total team effort led by the emergence of second-year guard and reigning Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and a roster in which 10 players are virtually averaging double digits in minutes. While No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden rehabs his right knee, third-year Blazer coach Nate McMillan is doing a masterful job dictating the tempo of the games with his offensive and defensive schemes and in-game substitutions. McMillan checked in on a number of topics, from the Blazers’ streak, Roy’s All-Star level of play, Travis Outlaw’s breakthrough season and the status of Oden.

What is the mindset of this team during the win streak? No one predicted the Blazers to do anything once it was determined that Greg Oden would be out for the season?

McMillan: The main thing is we know we have a lot of potential. We’re building our team, lay a foundation that is strong for future success. We can be patient with this group as far as developing because we know we are the youngest team in the NBA. At the same time we don’t want to necessarily use that as an excuse. We feel that we have some talent and a lot of potential that can one day win in this league. That’s what we’re trying to do each and every day we take the court. We’re trying to improve.

Losing Greg Oden was a setback in a sense. He doesn’t have the opportunity to grow with this core from the start. We have to put that off for another year, but we look at it as we should be better when he comes and joins the team next year.

Is the team playing with a nothing-to-lose mentality?

McMillan: The expectations for us were not low. I don’t like to get caught up in what fans and what media says about us. We don’t really talk about it. We know what we are. We know what they’re saying and the focus is us improving and getting better. Wherever that may end up, we’ll deal with it. We dropped a few games before starting this stretch and what I try to get our guys to understand is that we can’t get too low when we lose and too high when we win. This is a process with us where over time we want to be one of the top teams in the West.

What is the team’s identity because outside of Brandon Roy and maybe LaMarcus Aldridige, there is a feeling of, who are these guys?

McMillan: That is part of the development and shaping of this team and really seeing who can become part of that nucleus. Travis Outlaw has emerged as a go-to guy that can provide scoring. I think you need three guys that can put points on the board and Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge are two guys we are working on developing that and also Travis Outlaw has become a third option. We are kind of shaping this team as we’re putting it together and allowing it to kind of play out. As we do that this year we’ll get a better feel of what we need to add to it during the summer.

Talk about the development of Travis Outlaw and assistant coach Monty Williams’ role in working on his game?

McMillan: The organization felt that he had potential when they drafted him. Because of a number of players in the small forward position, he really didn’t get that opportunity his first couple of years and I basically made him a power forward. I felt like we could use him and take advantage of his skill at the power forward spot. Basically he has gone from a small forward to a power forward and we’ve been able to take advantage of that matchup. Very athletic player.

Monty Williams kind of took Travis and a couple of our young guys – Martell Webster – under his wing when we took over as a staff. He’s basically mentored those guys our three years in Portland. You’re starting to see these guys grow and develop and improve. Each of our assistants we kind of assigned them to a couple players throughout the years and those two guys because of the small forward position – Monty played it, and knows how to play the four position – he kind of adopted those guys and he works with them.

Talk about Brandon Roy’s emergence this season.

McMillan: The one thing that Brandon has and he came into the league with is a calmness about him. Whenever you have your stars or your go-to players who plays with the ball late in the game and they have to make decisions, those guys need to have a calming effect about them because it calms everybody else down. He has that. He came into the league with that. As a rookie we noticed that late in ballgames he was under control. He made a few mistakes, but he made more plays than mistakes. He made good decisions with the ball. The pressure of the game, the pressure of the defense, whether they were pressuring him or trapping him, you didn’t see panic on him.

This year he is starting to see more double teams and he’s seeing the best defenders every night – a Josh Howard, a Bruce Bowen, a Ron Artest, a Kirilenko. He’s seeing those guys every night now. He’s not seeing the player who is playing his position defend him most nights. So he is starting to grow and improve even more because he’s starting to see that type of defense and he still remains calm and makes the right decision under pressure.

How has he grown as a leader compared to last season?

McMillan: He was one that came in last year even though he was the go-to guy and the guy that the organization was building around, he basically worked himself into that position. He didn’t want to come in and act like it was his team. Everything is done by example. He speaks when it’s necessary. He doesn’t talk a lot but he’s starting to understand the position he’s in and he’s been a little more vocal. He is a great guy both on and off the floor. I’ve known Brandon since he was in middle school when he used to attend my basketball camps. He’s just a mature, very grounded young man.

If Roy continues at this pace, do you see him making the All-Star team in the loaded West?

McMillan: I think if he continues to do what he has done the last couple of weeks, I mean for him to win Player of the Week honors back to back, what you’re saying is he’s the best in the West right now and you would definitely have to consider that. If our team continues to win and we have success and he continues to do what he’s doing, there is not question you have to consider him to be there.

How is Greg Oden’s rehab going and how close is he with the team?

McMillan: He is with us. He travels with us some games. His rehabbing is going great. He’s out on the floor shooting free throws and a few lay-ins. Everything is on schedule and he looks good. We are happy with where he is at.

Offseason acquisition James Jones has provided some offensive punch off the bench, especially from three-point territory.

McMillan: We’re so young and the one thing that we were missing was players that had experience and the know-how as far as how to play the NBA game. And having a guy who knows how to spread the floor, who knows how to police the locker room for this young group, help prepare this locker room, help prepare guys who were coming off the bench to play, he’s been able to help with that. He is shooting the ball extremely well which having a guy like that takes the pressure off Brandon Roy.

Teams have to respect James’ shooting. He knows that teams are starting to double team Brandon. He gets himself to the open spot. It takes the pressure off Brandon and the rest of our guys because he is helping them with their spacing and he just has the know-how that they don’t have because of lack of experience.

Recently, you changed the designation of the practice teams from first and second unit to white and black. Why?

McMillan: A lot of guys on our team can start and a lot of guys get caught up in that and coming off the bench as if coming off the bench is an embarrassment. Both units are equally important, that you have a solid first unit and a solid second unit. But when you talk about first unit, and you have players who are about the same – Steve Blake and Jarrett Jack, either one can start, it just depends on how you want to start the game and how you want to shape your bench.

So as opposed to getting caught up in first and second units, we say black and white units because I think they both are equally important to our team. It’s really taken the pressure off of these guys as to who’s first and who’s second. You’re not a starter or back up, you’re units. You both are very important.

Talk about the improvement in LaMarcus Aldridge’s game this season.

McMillan: The decision was to trade Zach Randolph so that LaMarcus, Brandon Roy, and Greg Oden would be the future of the franchise and LaMarcus could get those minutes at the power forward spot and develop into our power forward for the future. He didn’t get those touches last year because Zach was the guy we pretty much ran our offense through.

Brandon Roy was the second option and LaMarcus kind of played off those guys. We really want LaMarcus to be one or two as far as our options on the floor and get that time and experience playing at that position. He’s gotten more opportunities and he’s developing a back to the basket game, being able to play with the ball, make decisions with the ball. That is what we want from him for the future. He is getting more opportunities and we’re seeing that potential we thought he had start to show.

In seven plus years of coaching in the NBA, how much fun are you having coaching this group?

McMillan: Right now the big thing for us is we’re trying to shape this team and create a franchise that will be successful for a long time. This group of guys that we have, they absorb what you say to them. You don’t have that in the NBA a lot. Normally you have veterans or some guys that you don’t want to be a part of are playing for a contract. We had a group of guys come in together and we’re starting from the ground and building our way up. They are on board with what we’re trying to do.

The future is what we’re building towards. So it’s fun to be able to build with a group of players that have a lot of potential, they listen to what you say, they try and do what you tell them, and you see them improving each game.