The 2008-2009 Portland Trailblazers: A Review

Pro basketball fans from Astoria to Zigzag can take heart: the Blazers are back.  For those unfamiliar, here is a brief history of the team.  Born of fire and steel in 1970, the Portland Trailblazers have seen their share of ups and downs over the years.  The original team of Geoff Petrie, Rick Adelman and Sidney Wicks gave way to the Walton/Lucas Championship year.  Then came the Billy Ray Bates years, then the Sam Bowie draft. 

It wasn't until the late 1980's, when Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen, then-GM Geoff Petrie and then-coach Rick Adelman built another contender around hall-of-famer Clyde Drexler.  The final piece, Buck Williams, was added when he was acquired from the New Jersey Nets for Bowie.  After two trips to the finals in three years, the Blazers struggled for most of the 1990's until it put together the so-called Dream-team Northwest, featuring Scottie Pippen, Ardvydas Sabonis, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace and stocked their bench with former all-stars like Detlef Shrempf and Shawn Kemp.  They were arguably the greatest NBA team to not make the finals.  They ran into the Shaq/Kobe/Phil Jackson-led Lakers on their way to their first NBA championship and lost in a conference final game 7 that will forever live in infamy in Trailblazer nation. 

After that team dissolved, the "Jailblazers" of Zach Randolf and Darius Miles made more headlines off the court than on.  Then, a former Supersonic named Nate McMillan accepted the position of head coach.  Lamarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden were drafted.  Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez were acquired on draft-day deals and a new era in Blazer history began. 

The Natural, Roy Wonder Quietly Dominates

Brandon Roy was the headline of the season.  The Seattle Native and former University of Washington Husky has Blazer fans thinking of a bright future for the first time in nearly twenty years.  In his third season as a pro, he has already scored more points in a regular season game (55) and a play-off game (42) than Clyde Drexler ever did.  He also scored more points (42) than any player in NBA history ever scored in their first or second play-off game.  He hit a buzzer-beater in a nationally-televised game against Houston that became a league highlight, with video of him running up the court tugging at his own jersey playing over and over again on TNT. 

After slipping from sixth in the final week, he finished the season as the number 10 scorer in the league and fourth highest scoring guard (22.6ppg).  This is even more amazing considering the 9 players ahead of him were THE focus of their respective teams.  Minus Carmello Anthony and Danny Granger (who both missed a substantial number of games during the regular season), the 9 players ahead of him led their team in scoring an average of 10 times more than Roy and averaged 3 shots per game more than Roy.  He also went to the line less than any player in the top ten.  The Blazers offense was run around the two-man game of Lamarcus Aldridge and Steve Blake.  Roy would only look for his shot when the team needed it during the game.  Most of the game, he would be the de facto point guard, directing the offense while Blake handled the ball. 

Off the court, he is a paragon of citizen-athlete.  On the court, he seems to do things he's not capable of.  He doesn't look quick enough to get past his defender.  He doesn't appear to be fast enough to get all the way to the rim.  He doesn't seem to be big enough to get his lay-up over the opponents' big men.  And yet, there he is.  He gives Rip City great reason to be confident.

With the bizarre departure of the Sonics to Oklahoma City (don't most things move from Oklahoma to Seattle, and not the other way around?), the Blazers debuted this year as the most remote team in the league.  It's nearest neighbor--the Golden State Warriors, are over 500 miles to the south.  Look for the Roy to continue to fly under the radar in the national media.  Although a few more moments where Roy "happens" will make that harder and harder.  Also, with no local team, look for the Seattle Newspapers to continue to cover Roy and the Blazers for the time being at least and perhaps until 2018

Greg Oden is no Sam Bowie and Kevin Durant is No Michael Jordan... Yet

On page two, the story of Greg Oden was mixed, but still positive.  Despite reports that his selection with the number one pick is an epic blunder, his stock is still rated buy, rather than sell.  Unlike the aforementioned Bowie, who had a history of injuries during his college years, there is no reason to think that Oden will not be able to get healthy, stay so and become the dominant bigman he was in college.  That said, his continued injury problems this season are reason for concern.  This season, Oden was more about the future than the present.  The Blazers were a better team with Pryzbilla on the floor.  but it is far too early to claim Oden's a bust.  He averaged 9 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block while shooting 56% from the field.  These numbers are promising.  The verdict is still out on the wisdom of taking him number one overall ahead of Kevin Durant.  Durant is putting up nearly 25ppg for a very crappy team.  There are a lot of players in the league who could do the same.  A dominant big man is something rarer, and worth taking a chance on--even if he takes more than a couple of seasons to come into his own.

And the Rest...

The other veterans continued to deliver.  Blake kept shooting shots, Pryzbilla kept rebounding rebounds, Outlaw kept... coming off the bench.  The team spent the entire season without Martel Webster, allowing Outlaw, and French under-19 star Nicholas Batum many minutes at small forward that won't be there next year.  Assuming he's back next year, the small forward rotation will be up in the air.

The Blazers rookies, including Oden, Batum, former European basketball player of the year Rudy Fernandez and University of Arizona star Jerryd Bayless make the future look bright.  Fernandez hit more 3-pointers than any rookie in history--despite coming off the bench.  The so-called "Spanish Connection" Fernandez and fellow Spanish national team starter Sergio Rodriguez proved to be a better nickname than on-court combination.  Apart from the very occasional alley-oop (is that "ali-up" in Spanish?), Rodriguez's best contribution was doing no harm.  He was not a net negative, but he was hardly a positive.  Bayless could become the second string point guard next season.  His ability to penetrate could be devastating against opponents' benches.  If he works over the off-season on playing under control, I would look for Rodriguez to be demoted to 3rd string or get traded. 

Nate McMillan got utterly robbed in not getting the coach of the year award.  He added 11 wins each of the last 3 years over the prior year's totals.  He also took the team with the youngest roster in the league to a tie for the fifth best record.  A team with four rookies, and three third year players in the rotation finished with the same record as San Antonio and Denver.  The Blazers won 25 games more than the Golden State Warriors, a team about as young as they are.  His ability to change his personal style to better accommodate his players was a big reason they did as well as they did this year.

Not the Ending We were Looking for

After playing all season like the veteran team they are not, the Blazers played the playoffs like the young team they are.  They drew the Rockets in the first round.  The same Houston Rockets who had frankly dominated them in the regular season, winning 3 of 4 (it would have been a sweep, but for Roy's all-season OT buzzer beater at the Rose Garden).  They played tentative for most of the series, no more so than the opener, when they spent most of the night looking for someone else to take a shot.  They over-passed continuously, ending up with worse shots rather than better ones, en route to a 27-point drubbing.  It got a little better, they won 2 out of the next 5, but the Rockets' unsung supporting cast of Scola, Battier, Wafer, Lowry and Former University-of-Oregon star (and Brandon Roy's fellow Seattle native) Aaron Brooks made their Blazer counterparts look like the inexperienced group that they are. 

Still, they got what they really needed out of the playoffs:  actual playoff experience and the bitter taste of reaching out for something and having it snatched away.  They also didn't have to go deep in the playoffs to get it.  That should mean less injuries next year.

Overall, the Blazers deserve a high grade for the year.  They will be back and better next year.  There is every reason that someday soon, Rip City will once again be Red Hot and Rollin'.

Comments to Joe Hubris.