Rewind to April 30th.
The Portland Trail Blazers all have their heads hung in defeat. They've just been beat, bruised, and broken for the fourth time in six games against the Tracy McGrady-less Houston Rockets and had their entire summers to think about it.
That is ancient history as far as Portland is concerned. Oh, they remember it, but the Blazers and their leader, fourth-year guard Brandon Roy, are the type of team that will feed off of last season's disappointing outcome.
At first glance it wouldn't seem that Portland did much in the offseason to improve the team. They signed an aging, although still very capable, point guard in Andre Miller and picked up a few role players in free agency and the draft. However, Portland adds two more key contributors it did not have last season as well.
Martell Webster returns from foot surgery which cost him all of last season. While Webster isn't the type of player that would have swung the Houston series last April, he is a valuable asset, starting or coming off of the bench, to make some three pointers, something that the Blazers lacked in their 2008-2009 campaign. He will struggle for playing time, competing against Travis Outlaw and Nicolas Batum, but when Webster is on the floor he can be a difference maker.
The other contributor that the Blazers has last season, but did not contribute greatly to the team is none other than former No. 1 overall draft pick Greg Oden. Oden is clearly a new player this season, now healthy and experienced, and will be a much, much bigger factor toward the direction of this basketball team. He has dominated in the preseason, both offensively and defensively.
While it is impossible to judge a player by preseason games, there have been many other outlets reporting that Oden is a new player. He now has a kick in his step and will be playing without as much pressure and with a chip on his shoulder. Don't underestimate Oden this season—he is poised for a breakout season. An improved Oden would mean wonders for this team for the 2009-2010 season.
So what will people be saying about the Trail Blazers this year?
So far they've been disrespected by most "experts," for the most part being projected as fifth in the West, even with them having the tied for second best record in the West last year. What would make anybody think that the Blazers wouldn't improve drastically yet again this year.
How is Portland worse than Dallas? Does an injury-prone run and jump forward that cannot create his own shot (Shawn Marion) really make them a better team than Portland, who adds a point guard who can dish it out and play defense better than Steve Blake? Can Chauncey Billups create the same magic in Denver, despite turning 33 recently? San Antonio is a better team and should be better than Portland this year, but can they be relied on to stay healthy?
The Blazers have fewer question marks that perhaps anybody in the league with, perhaps the exception of the Lakers. And the question marks that the Blazers do have, will only make them better (Will Greg Oden improve? , How will Andre Miller fit in?) if they end up being fulfilled and cannot make them a worse team than last year.
A bold prediction for Portland this year: They will be the No. 2 seed in the West. Greg Oden will have everybody buzzing with a much improved year where he actually stays on the floor. LaMarcus Aldridge will continues his year-by-year improvement.
Brandon Roy will show why he is one of the best players in basketball. Portland's top of the rotation (Oden, Aldridge, Batum, Roy, Miller) and bench (Rudy Fernandez, Joel Pryzbilla, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Steve Blake) can hang with anybody any given night. The Rose Garden is impossible to win in (Lakers haven't won their in over three years).
All of these factors point towards another big improvement for Portland, possibly even a 60-win season and a run at the Lakers in the playoffs.