By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
Posted Dec 23 2011 9:49AM
This was supposed to be the start of the title defense, maybe even of the back-to-back championships. At the very least, the start of the push to bust through after the couple years of heartbreak in the Western Conference finals.
LaMarcus Aldridge should be the third-best player on the team, after the shooting guard who could score and handle and the anchor center who would dominate the rim and all those who foolishly dared trespass down the lane. Coach Nate McMillan was scheduled to be deciding which ring to wear, not how to ration minutes to keep centers drafted in the mid-1990s fresh. There were people to meet around the Rose Garden, Washington branch.
The reality Portland gets instead is just wrong. Whiplash wrong. There is cruelty at play, because a lot of teams come close only to fail, including the previous generation of Trail Blazers, and others were a glimmer in the eye that didn't develop according to plan, but these guys took a cheap shot to the groin. Title hopes are gone and there is no one to blame.
Brandon Roy was forced into retirement by knee problems about the same time it was revealed that Greg Oden, or what remains of him, had suffered a setback from his latest knee procedure and is expected to be out until around mid-season at the soonest. Out the entire season is a possibility. Out, period, is an ever-increasing possibility.
The dynasty was taken away before being given a real chance, a growing suspicion that became official with the medical bulletins early in training camp. What remains as the regular season begins is a roster no one could have seen coming even two years ago, the possible transition to more of a speed game, and Aldridge attempting to fill the void by progressing into a power forward with All-Star possibilities, but mostly a lot of question marks.
That the uncertainty goes far beyond the roster is a sad indication of the depth of the problems. This is all of basketball operations wobbling, the way Portland is opening the new season in the same manner they finished the last one with an interim general manager after finding through the summer that the potential candidates they wanted to hire were not interested. Kevin Pritchard, once credited for helping guide the franchise out of the regrettable Jail Blazers era and later targeted as a problem in a nice moment of revisionist history, was fired on draft night 2010, successor Rich Cho didn't make it to the next draft, and suddenly the image of interference from the corporate bosses was all around the league.
Meanwhile, Marcus Camby is 37 and in the final season of his contract, reserve big man Kurt Thomas is 39 and on a two-year deal, Raymond Felton becomes a free agent after 2011-12, and Gerald Wallace and Jamal Crawford will be as well if they don't pick up player options. Oden signed for one year, except that contract status is the least of his problems.
It is not possible that the Blazers, once set up perfectly for a beast of a future behind Roy, Oden and Aldridge, with Pritchard as an aggressive and successful general manager backed by the deep pockets of owner Paul Allen, are living month to month. Not the franchise of the future.
Yet here they are, trying to cling to the back of the playoff pack.
"We really like where we're at right now," Chad Buchanan, the interim general manager, said at the press conference when free-agent signees Crawford and Craig Smith were introduced. "We like the identity of our team.... We've got some tough, hungry guys who feel, I think, we're kind of overlooked in the West right now. I think our guys are going to come out there with a chip on their shoulders. I think the identity of our team will ultimately reflect Nate and his toughness and his business-first approach. We feel really good about where we're at right now."
Wherever that is.
1. The recovery. Not players from injuries. The entire team needs to come back emotionally from the health setbacks to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.
2. The leader. LaMarcus Aldridge has risen to All-Star heights, and now he needs to be able to carry the team offensively after it finished 24th in shooting and scoring.
3. The other leader. The Trail Blazers open the season with an interim general manager and indication that any experienced candidate will take the job.
1. The two candidates for backup point guard, Nolan Smith and Armon Johnson, are both very inexperienced. At a time they have already lost Roy, a primary ball handler, the Blazers need someone to help Raymond Felton.
2. There is no timetable for when Oden will play again, only that the Blazers are, in the words of president Larry Miller, "less confident" than before that Oden will be in uniform this season.
3. Look for the Blazers to become more up-tempo this season after acquiring Felton in a draft-night trade with the Nuggets and as part of the transition away from Roy and Andre Miller.
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LAST YEAR: 48-34, 3rd in Northwest
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
RAYMOND FELTON, POINT GUARD
15.5 PPG | 8.3 APG | 1.7 SPG
Felton has been dealt often of late, but he's a solid, All-Star-type guard. If he performs for Portland like he did for New York last season, the Blazers may have struck gold.
WESLEY MATTHEWS, SHOOTING GUARD
12.2 PPG | 2.6 RPG | 2.7 APG
The departed Brandon Roy clears the path for Matthews, who started 69 games last season. A solid defender and shooter, Matthews blends in well with practically any Blazer lineup.
GERALD WALLACE, SMALL FORWARD
15.7 PPG | 8.0 RPG | 2.4 APG
"Crash" wasn't too happy to be traded to Portland, but he didn't play like it. Along with the wiry Nicolas Batum, he gives the Blazers a unique defensive tandem on the wings.
LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, POWER FORWARD
21.8 PPG | 8.7 RPG | 2.1 APG
Was he an All-Star snub last season? We'd say yes. He's finally realizing his potential as a go-to guy and the Blazers are better off long term because of it.
MARCUS CAMBY, CENTER
4.7 PPG | 10.3 RPG | 1.6 BPG
The 15-year pro has been a godsend defensively for the Blazers, who have annual Greg Oden drama. He'll slow down this season, but there are worse options out there at center.
|Nicolas Batum||6-8||200||F-G||Early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, but also a possible starter.|
|Kurt Thomas||6-9||230||F-C||Oldest player in league (39) heads to his ninth team and 17th season.|
|Jamal Crawford||6-5||200||G||Averaged 18.0 and 14.2 points a game off bench for Atlanta in last two seasons.|
ADDED: G Nolan Smith, F Jon Diebler, G Tanguy Ngombo, C Kurt Thomas, G Jamal Crawford, F Craig Smith
LOST: G Rudy Fernandez, G Andre Miller, G Brandon Roy (amnesty)
GREG ODEN, CENTER
A candidate for the Man on the Spot Lifetime Achievement Award. The eyes and the snickering follow his latest comeback just like all the others, with teams believing Oden can still make a positive impact if he ever gets healthy and fans wanting to pick apart the former No. 1 pick all over again.
On Thanksgiving day NBA.com will feature a beautiful article on the one and only Craig Sager.
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