The 2009-2010 Portland Trailblazers’ season has been a drama of epic, almost Biblical proportions. It’s the stuff of Greek Mythology, 19th Century Russian literature, 20th Century American Realism and the Book of Job all rolled into one.
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but at times it has certainly felt like all of these things.
The Blazers started the year as a favorite, along with the Spurs and the Nuggets, to challenge for the Western Conference title. Loaded with talent and seemingly unafraid of the Lakers, the Blazers looked like a lock to get home-court advantage in the playoffs for the second year in a row. With luck and the help of an experienced veteran like point guard Andre Miller, Blazer fans could realistically set their sights on the Conference Finals.
But then fate intervened.
Watching the Blazers this season reminded me of the film LEGENDS OF THE FALL. You remember that movie, don't know? You start off getting sucked in by the various characters and their little dramas. There’s a sibling rivalry. There’s a battle or two. There’s some camaraderie and some laughs. There’s even a romance. Then, about halfway through the story, just when you think everything is going to be resolved for the good of all, the author basically says "Now that you’ve fallen in love with these people, I’m going to kill them all off in horrible fashion." From that point on, LEGENDS OF THE FALL becomes something of a snuff film as one character after another is stomped into the ground by the fickle foot of fate.
That's what this year has been like for the Blazers and their fans.
They have endured preseason injuries to last year’s starting small forward Nicolas Batum and this season’s rookies Jeff Pendergraph and Patty Mills. These players were all sidelined for the first two months of the season.
But that was nothing. Blazer fans then endured a Portland-career ending injury to Travis Outlaw. They were forced to watch Greg Oden go down with a season ending knee-cap injury, followed rapidly by an even more serious (and possibly career threatening) knee injury to Oden’s backup, Joel Przybilla. That was followed by back surgery and five weeks of recovery for Rudy Fernandez. Shortly after Fernandez came back, All-Star Brandon Roy went out with a hamstring injury.
Yesterday, however, Blazer fans finally found some reason for hope. Portland completed a trade that sent back-up point guard Steve Blake and the aforementioned Outlaw to the Clippers for center Marcus Camby. Even though the Blazers might miss the clutch shooting both of these guys provided, and will certainly miss them in the locker room, this trade was a coup for Portland. Camby is one of the best defenders in the NBA and is, even at age 35, the second leading rebounder in the league. With Brandon Roy expected to return to the lineup this week, the Blazers were suddenly looking to make a serious playoff run this year, after all.
Then, in true LEGENDS OF THE FALL fashion, at the very moment things were looking up again, the Blazers season was fatally crushed by that Divine Jackboot. Brandon Roy tested his hamstring in last night’s game against the Clippers, and left expressing doubts that he will return at all this season.
Cue Aidan Quinn lying dead on the ground. Cue Anna Karenina jumping in front of a train. Cue George pulling the trigger on an unsuspecting Lenny. Cue every Jack London protagonist dying at the end of every Jack London novel.
That, at least, was my initial reaction.
However, Blazer fans can console themselves with this thought: the Portland Trailblazers are not Great Literature. They are not Epic Cinema. They have no particular cosmic or religious significance. They are not symbolic of anything, and they are not tragic.
They are an NBA franchise. They will be back next year.
In fact, in terms of a story arc, the Blazers might well be more like Frankenstein’s Monster or Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. Just when you thought the monster was dead, he turns up very much alive and kicking in an even more frightening sequel. No explanation need be given.
This being the case, the rest of the NBA should be afraid of the Blazers next year. They should be very afraid.
Rather than thinking in terms of 19th Century Russian Literature, we should be thinking in terms of 19th Century German Philosophy. As in Frederick Nietzsche. As in "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."
In my opinion, the only thing standing between the Portland Trailblazers and a future NBA championship is health. A healthy Blazer team would contend for a title as early as next year.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the roster.
Greg Oden, before he went down with his injury, was an absolute beast. He wasn’t just an impact player while he was on the floor: he was a top five impact player in the NBA.
To begin with, Oden was ranked Number 1 overall in Defensive Rating by Basketball-reference.com. He was leading the league in blocked shots and blocked shot percentage. He was leading the league in overall rebound percentage. He was fourth in the NBA in Defensive Win-Share while playing only 24 minutes a game! As a bonus, he was showing offensive skills nobody dreamed he had.
Imagine a healthy Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge backed up by a healthy Marcus Camby and a healthy Joel Przybilla. Just for a minute. Imagine it.
Now throw Juwan Howard in there just for fun. It may well be the most frightening front-court tandem anyone has seen since Bill Walton won the 6th Man Award for the Celtics.
Now, imagine that some combination of Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster are joining this front court. Both of these guys are still developing, but Batum’s arms are already as long as Oden’s and he’s Scottie Pippen quick defensively. Both he and a newly toughened Martell Webster provide a difficult defensive match-up, superior athleticism and streaky offense at the three spot.
Now, imagine that a healthy Brandon Roy and Andre Miller are running the offense. Neither of these guys is going to make very many mistakes. Miller is adept at passing to the big guys and scoring when you think he has no chance, and Roy can pick and roll or isolate other teams to death.
Then, imagine a healthy, streamlined bench of Rudy Fernandez, Jerryd Bayless (or Patty Mills), Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph joining Howard, Camby, Przybilla and either Webster or Batum.
That’s a starting lineup of Roy, Miller, Oden, Aldridge and Webster (or Batum), a second unit of Fernandez, Bayless, Przybilla, Camby and Batum (or Webster), and some combination of Howard, Cunningham, Pendergraph and Mills rounding things out.
This could be the best rebounding and shot blocking team in the NBA, the best defensive team overall, and a high efficiency offensive team as well.
Think about the possibilities. You could put a defensive lineup of Roy, Webster, Oden, Camby and Batum on the floor. Or you could go really big with Roy, Batum, Oden, Camby and Aldridge. That’s mind-boggling.
You could put out an offensive lineup of Roy, Bayless, Oden, Aldridge and either Fernandez or Webster. Or, if you need a three pointer, you could go Roy, Mills, Aldridge, Webster and Fernandez. Or you could just stick with the starting lineup, which looks to be pretty good at scoring.
The beauty of this roster is that it is Greg Oden foul-proof. If he picks up his third or fourth foul, no worries: you just plug Marcus Camby or Joel Pryzbilla into the lineup.
Now, I’m not saying that this roster is actually going to be on the floor next year. Obviously, the Blazers would have to re-sign Howard, Camby and Pryzbilla, but that could certainly happen. Beyond that, however, my entire argument is based on the assumption that everyone gets healthy and stays that way. If you swallow that horse-sized pill, you have to believe the Blazers are instant title contenders.
After all, they have everything a championship team needs: a perennial All-Star in Roy; potential All-Stars in Oden and Aldridge; truly great defensive players in Oden, Camby and Batum as well as solid defensive players in Przybilla and Aldridge; all the rebounding any team could ever want and then some; guys who have the ability to get to the foul line (Roy, Miller, Bayless, Aldridge); and, ironically, veteran leadership.
I say ironically because only last year Portland was seriously lacking in this department. Now, with Miller, Howard and potentially Camby, they have it in spades.
About the only area in which the Blazers might be lacking is clutch shooting. Of course they have Brandon Roy, who is one of the best closers in the NBA, but they will miss Blake and Outlaw.
However, Portland is not lacking for guys who are willing to take the big shot. Miller will take it. Bayless will take it. Webster will take it. Fernandez will take it. Batum will take it. Even Howard will take it. Whether the shot goes in or not is another question, but as long as Miller and Roy are around to create open shots, every one of those guys is willing to take them.
By next year, you would hope LaMarcus Aldridge would make this list as well. Which brings me back to the Nietzsche quote. What Portland has gone through this year has not yet destroyed them. In fact, the blessing in disguise with all of these injuries and the recent trade is that guys like Aldridge, Bayless and Webster will get opportunities to come through in crunch time, and that will only make them stronger. And that could help the Blazers become a championship team.
Provided, of course, the fickle foot (and knee) of fate stays out of the way.