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Trail Blazers quickly becoming the team to watch out West

By Dave McMenamin,
Posted Dec 23 2008 1:41PM

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Being the Hollywood "It" girl can be as fleeting as it is exhilarating. One week your smile and lovely locks are on the cover of Vanity Fair. The next your double chin and cellulite are all over the National Enquirer.

In today's NBA, that "It" team is the Portland Trail Blazers.

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All the pieces for stardom are there. A dynamic lead guard (Brandon Roy) coming off his first All-Star appearance. A versatile big man (LaMarcus Aldridge) who can hit from 20 feet out as well as he can crash the boards. A No. 1 draft pick (Greg Oden) who has been described as a "once in a generation" center. A Sixth Man of the Year candidate (Travis Outlaw).

An energetic bench player (rookie Rudy Fernandez) whose flair makes him a Ginobili-esque game changer. A coach (Nate McMillan) who was one of the two NBA coaches to be an assistant on the U.S. team that won gold in the Beijing Olympics.

This team is ready for its closeup. Right now.

"Brandon is emerging into the kind of player who is able to take control of the game when the game is close," McMillan said after another splendid outing by his 6-foot-6, 210-pound shooting guard last week. "What you are seeing is what stars do -- the Kobes, the Nashes, the Wades. I'm not saying Brandon is Kobe, but he's doing for our team what those stars do for theirs."

The play of high-flying rookie Rudy Fernandez is one of the components that has made Portland an exciting team.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Stars also get fans to tune in. Roy and the Blazers will be on national TV 13 times this season (up from seven a year ago), including on Thursday when they host the Mavericks (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT) as part of the NBA's five-game Christmas bonanza.

Portland is the type of team that basketball fans latch onto for the three Cs: character, cap space and ceiling.

Thanks to some savvy draft-night moves by general manager Kevin Pritchard (Tyrus Thomas for Aldridge, Randy Foye for Roy) and the purging of a few killer contracts (happy trails to Zach Randolph and Darius Miles), Portland has a lot of the first two Cs. There's no telling just how high the third C is for this team.

"Brandon and LaMarcus ... you look at those two guys and see they're great basketball players. But we sort of hang our hats on the fact that they're great people," Pritchard said. "When you have great players who are great people, it trickles down to the rest of the players, the rest of the organization."

Portland went 41-41 in 2007-08, including a 13-game winning streak that put the rest of the league on notice. A team whose lone starter over 25 was Steve Blake -- a backup for most of his career -- suddenly was at the front of the basketball world's collective consciousness when it came to preseason predictions for '08-09.

A few general managers picked the Trail Blazers to win the Northwest Division. and NBA TV experts liked McMillan and Oden for Coach and Rookie of the Year. And Bill Simmons wrote, "The 2009 Blazers will become the single most popular team in the history of the Internet."

Still, being the "It" team also means that there's no flying under the radar. The Blazers began the season 1-3 and the doubts immediately started to surface. The West was too deep ... the Blazers still needed more time to gel after losing Jarrett Jack and James Jones and trying to incorporate so many new faces ... without a healthy Oden, they were still just mediocre defensively.

After the slow start, though, the Blazers won 13 of their next 16 games. Now, two months into the season, Portland is right there with the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz for the division lead.

The Blazers' improvement is easy to see. They have gone from 27th to 15th in points per game while maintaining one of the league's stingiest defenses. Of Portland's first 10 losses, only two came against teams that failed to make the playoffs last year; the first to the Warriors with Aldridge battling foul trouble, and the second a double-overtime loss to the Clippers on the back end of a back-to-back earlier this month.

That's the sign of a young team gaining experience. That's a team worth watching.

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