We continue previewing the Northwest Division with the Portland Trail Blazers. You can read past previews here.
by Nima Zarrabi
It happened last year on a Thursday in September. Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard, fighting back tears, gathered up the local media for a presser and announced to the world that No. 1 overall pick and potential franchise savior Greg Oden would be out for the entire season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee.
The hoops world was blindsided. Oden’s summer league season had been dashed after two games a few months prior, with the team shutting him down so he could have his tonsils removed. We figured he would slam back several cases of pudding and be back in action by the time camp opened in October. It had been quite sometime since a No. 1 pick had received the hype and excitement of Oden. His sensational freshman season in leading Ohio State to the Final Four, coupled with his unique personality piqued many NBA fans’ interests.
The fans in Portland were revitalized after the drafting of the 7-footer. Hours after he was drafted, the Blazers held a rally on a rainy day in Portland to introduce Oden to fans. Thousands showed up, some actually screaming at the sight. Oden did a few dances on stage, signed autographs and flashed that millie smile. They were hooked.
Fast forward back to that press conference with Pritchard at the helm, flanked by coach Nate McMillan and Team President Larry Miller. We would go on to hear about “pristine knees” and bedside apologies from G.O. The Blazers season was doomed. Yeah, there was improvement in many of their young players and a nifty 13-game winning streak but 41-41 was all they could muster without their savior.
When I caught up with Brandon Roy this summer, he declared this year would be different. But he also told me that he was healthy and ready to go. He had knee surgery a few days later. Roy is slated to be healthy by the time the season tips and that will be critical for Portland. A supreme talent, Roy made his First All-Star game last year in his second season, putting up 19 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds per game. Unfortunately for the Blaze, they will have to worry about the health of a few more players throughout the season. I will highlight those concerns in my positional breakdown.
As much as I like Duke-killer Steve Blake, I’m not sure if he’s Portland’s answer at the point. He started 78 games last season, averaging 8.5 points and 6 assists while shooting a 40 percent from three-point range. At the end of several games, the Blazers opted for the versatile Roy at PG. The position will be upgraded significantly with the addition of Spanish League MVP Rudy Fernandez. Those who watched the Olympics this summer know exactly who this cat is. Fernandez dazzled throughout the tournament, capped by a superb display against the USA in the gold medal game where he will be remembered for putting an ill dunk down on Dwight Howard. After a nice debut in the Blazers preseason opener, Fernandez sustained an ankle injury last night. The 6-6, 185-pounder will be out the next few games—Portland has deemed it a sprained ankle. With Blake nursing a hamstring injury, they will have to go with Sergio Rodriguez and 1st rounder Jerryd Bayless at the position for the rest of the preseason. Rodriguez showed some promise as a reserve last year while Bayless scorched the Vegas Summer league in July, scooping up MVP honors after posting nearly 30 points per game. The 6-3 Bayless might be better suited for the off-guard position but look for the Blazers to experiment with him in the same backcourt as Roy.
Portland has a number of players who can play both the 2 and the 3 positions, giving them some unique versatility at both positions. Roy can essentially play three positions but is probably more comfortable at the two. He will be limited during the preseason while the Blazers monitor the rehab on his knee. Bayless will definitely get some run and the Blazers could potentially use rookie Nicolas Batum there as well.
The Blazers will miss the sweet shooting stroke of James Jones. They were hoping youngster Martell Webster—70 starts and 39 percent from three-point range—could fill the void. Webster broke a bone in his foot recently and could be out eight weeks. Travis Outlaw, coming off his best season, should step in nicely. His fifth season since entering the league straight out of high school, Outlaw was a key reserve for Portland last year, putting up 13 points and 5 rebounds per, while appearing in all 82 games. Batum could see some action at this position as well.
The Blazers are extremely deep in the frontcourt, led by emerging superstar LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge had a remarkable sophomore campaign, emerging as the Blazers low post threat. In 76 starts last year, Aldridge posted per game averages of nearly 18 points and 8 rebounds per game. He is expected to be even better this year with Oden next to him in the post. Channing Frye was slated as the backup PF, but he recently had bone spurs removed from his left ankle and will be out 2 months. His injury will open the door for Ike Diogu, a big bodied post who was acquired in the off-season from Indiana. A lottery pick in 2005, Diogu has always been considered a talented big man, but injuries have slowed his development. With Frye out to start the season, he will have good opportunities to showcase his skills.
Oden’s 13 point, 5 rebound, 2 block performance in the Blazers preseason debut has Portland fans predicting rookie of the year honors. Oden appeared to be moving well despite his limited game action. The Blazers are surely counting on his defensive presence—something they missed dearly last year. Fan favorite Joel Przybilla will serve as Oden’s backup. Aldridge and Frye can slide over to center if needed, but big man Raef LaFrentz will be gone for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum last month.
Barring injuries, Portland’s optimal starting lineup will consist of Fernandez at the point, Roy at the 2, Outlaw at the 3 to go with Aldridge and Oden in the post. That should be more than enough to get the Rose Garden rocking again. With some good depth on the bench and a great coach in Nate McMillan, I expect the Blazers to easily make the Playoffs this year. I’m not sure if they can get better than a No. 6 seed—the West is still the West. The lone team in the Pacific Northwest could be one of the most exciting teams to watch this year, but injuries will continue to be a concern. While Roy is the player this team cannot do without, the season will likely ride on the availability of Oden.