The last time the Trailblazers made the playoffs, Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Dale Davis and Damon Stoudamire were on the roster.
A multi-year makeover later, things are once again looking rosy in Portland.
Thanks to some savvy roster changes by GM Kevin Pritchard, a solid coach in Nate McMillan and a plethora of young studs, Portland should make a long-awaited return to the postseason in 2008-09.
McMillan, Roy will steady the ascension
Former Sonics player and coach Nate McMillan is in the most enviable position in the NBA. He’s got a roster full of well-behaved young talent, a smart GM, and experience coaching USA basketball.
McMillan’s first-hand knowledge will be a calming influence to a team that features an average age of less than 24 years (that’s including the 32-year-old Raef LaFrentz, who won’t play this season due to injury).
Third-year phenom Brandon Roy is the perfect on-court extension of leadership for McMillan (an antidote to years of Rod Strickland, Damon Stoudamire and Sebastian Telfair). Able to play both guard spots, Roy is mature beyond his years, having garnered a 3.16 assist-to-turnover ratio last season that bettered Deron Williams, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.
McMillan and Roy provide the quintessential coach/player tandem to lead Portland through the growing pains they’re bound to go through.
Backcourt stocked with hungry talent
Aside from Roy, the Blazers can also roll out Jerryd Bayless, Rudy Fernandez and Steve Blake, giving them the option to use any combination that is most productive on any given night.
Bayless follows a never-ending line of great guards from Arizona, including Gilbert Arenas, Mike Bibby, Damon Stoudamire and Steve Kerr. The pedigree alone demands playing time.
If the summer league is any indication, Bayless should address a glaring need for Portland: free throws. The Blazers were 26th in the league last year in freebies attempted per game, thanks in large part to being mostly a jump-shooting team. Bayless’ fearlessness in attacking the basket should bump that stat up significantly, raising point production along with it.
Fernandez could, if given playing time, become the annoying foreign guy that almost every team needs to win (see: Ginobili, Parker, Vujacic, Kukoc, etc.).
McMillan got an up-close encounter to Fernandez’s game in Beijing, watching helplessly from the bench as the Spaniard shredded Team USA’s defense for 22 points, 15 from 3-point range in the gold-medal game. With sharp-shooter James Jones moving to Miami via free agency, 3-point shooting will be at a premium for Portland this season.
Blake is the reliable backup point guard that McMillan will need when his team starts getting impatient or inconsistent. His assist-to-turnover ratio last season was even higher than Roy’s last season (3.65, good for 7th in the league).
The best thing about the Blazers’ stable of young guards? All four of them are good enough that they all feel they deserve playing time. Their motivation, and subsequently their performance, should skyrocket thanks to the competition.
Oden provides anchor on defense
In a March 19th game against Phoenix, Portland’s interior was blasted apart by Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O’Neal, who combined for 41 points and 22 rebounds.
At one point in the game, Blazers’ center Joel Przybilla attempted to get into it with Shaq, staring him down and jawing with him. While he averaged over eight rebounds a game, Przybilla is by no means an intimidator to the big men in the Western Conference.
Replace him with Greg Oden. Despite the fact he hasn’t played in over a year, despite the fact he had only one decent year at Ohio State, he gives Portland something they don’t have: a defensive big man with a reputation.
That rep alone will deter guards from penetrating with little-to-no regard for the consequences. The paint will no longer be the personal playground to the likes of Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Deron Williams. Oden will give opposing centers and forwards a second thought before attempting to bull their way inside, giving growing pains to guys like Andrew Bynumand speeding the departure of Shaq.
On offense, Portland is able to give Oden a smooth transition to NBA thanks to forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge already provides the bulk of the Blazers’ scoring on the front line, allowing Oden to maximize his defensive talents without rushing his offensive development. The majority of Aldridge’s scoring comes from a mid-range face-up game, which will give Oden the space he needs to operate underneath when needed.
Other west teams take a step back
Portland’s improvement couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Last year’s #8 seed, Denver, traded away their only line of defense (Marcus Camby) to the Clippers for nothing more than fiscal breathing room.
Golden State lost their two best guards in the off-season, one to free agency (Baron Davis’ own escape to L.A.), and the other to injury (Monta Ellis in a no-one-knows-how-yet injury).
Sacramento gave up on Ron Artest for nostalgia (Bobby Jackson’s heralded return), and Phoenix and Dallas got even older.
At least one, if not two or three playoff seeds will be up for grabs come April. The young Blazers should be able to snatch one of them from another team’s failing clutches this season.