With the retirement of star player Brandon Roy, the latest face of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise, it could be tough for the beloved basketball squad in the Pacific Northwest to cope with and make it back to the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
Roy appeared in only 47 games last season because of the issues with his knees and averaged 12.2 points and 2.7 assists. He was able to play against the eventual NBA-champion Dallas Mavericks in a first-round exit, averaging 16.3 points at home in three games and 9.3 points overall in the series. It was the third straight season in which the Blazers were bounced in the first round. Roy issued a statement with the Blazers regarding his status:
"This is a very difficult and painful day. I love the game, I love the Portland Trail Blazers and I love our fans, but after consulting with my doctors, I will seek a determination that I've suffered a career ending injury, pursuant to the rules of the collective bargaining agreement.
"My family and health are most important to me and in the end this decision was about them and my quality of life. I want to thank Paul Allen, Larry Miller, Coach McMillan, the entire Trail Blazers organization and our fans for all of their love and support during my time in Portland. It was a great ride."
The sixth overall pick of the 2006 NBA draft and three-time All-Star, Roy and the Blazers were lucky they had savvy veteran guard Andre Miller to rely on. Miller led the Blazers with 7.0 assists in 81 games and average 12.7 points per game. Miller is with Denver now, leaving Raymond Felton as the primary quarterback for a Portland team trying to establish a strong voice in the Northwest Division.
Portland had to be excited with shooting guard Wesley Matthews, who exceeded all expectations in his second year in the league and first with the Trail Blazers. He has never missed a game in his career and averaged 15.9 points, one year after putting up 9.4 ppg as a rookie with Utah in 2009-10. But the big headline maker for head coach Nate McMillan is power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge led all scorers with 21.8 points and grabbed a team-best 8.8 rebounds per game in 81 contests last year.
Aldridge is a premier big man in the league and is known around the league as Portland's top guy. The lanky Aldridge was one of three players ranked in the top 15 in points and rebounds (Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin) last season and will have even more pressure on his shoulders with his sidekick Roy supposedly ready to call it quits. At least Aldridge will have a healthy Greg Oden back in the fold for 2011-12. Oden signed the Blazers' $8.9 million qualifying offer and should feel lucky to have that opportunity since he's played a total of 82 games since Portland made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2007.
Much like Roy, Oden has been plagued by injuries and is looking to prove all naysayers wrong with a productive campaign. That remains to be seen, of course. Oden missed all last season after microfracture surgery on his left knee. An earlier microfracture surgery on his right knee postponed his rookie season. The Blazers are counting on Oden to be ready for their season opener Dec. 26 versus the Philadelphia 76ers.
"As far as his timetable for return, we're going to support Greg. When he's ready to play, he's ready to play," Blazers GM Chad Buchanan said in a report. "We're not going to put a date on his return."
Buchanan pulled some strings by acquiring bench phenom Jamal Crawford. Crawford spent the last two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and averaged 14.2 points and 3.2 assists in 76 games last year. He won the NBA's Sixth Man award in 2009-10 after averaging 18.0 points and 3.0 assists in 79 contests.
Putting a timetable on Portland's success should be rather easy since the franchise has enjoyed the thrill of victory under McMillan. McMillan has been running the show since 2005 and has a chance to make run in 2011-12.
2010-11 Results: 48-34, third in Northwest, lost to Dallas in Western Conference quarterfinals
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
KEY RESERVES: C Greg Oden; SF Nicolas Batum; PF Kurt Thomas; G Jamal Crawford; F Craig Smith
FRONTCOURT: Aldridge is one of the more talented big men not only in the Western Conference, but in the entire league. He can score at will and led the Blazers with 21.8 ppg in 81 games a season ago. The Shot-blocking specialist led the Blazers in points (20.8) and blocks (1.67) during the playoffs and finished the regular season one of three players ranked in the top 15 in points and rebounds (Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin). Aldridge, however, gave his team and the fans a scare this month when he underwent a procedure to treat Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a condition which causes the ventricles of the heart to contract prematurely. He should be ready for the team's opener on Dec. 26. Center Marcus Camby, the second overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft behind Allen Iverson, is back for his third season with the Blazers with 10.3 rebounds per game in 59 contests a year ago. His skills may be diminishing, but Camby can still move around with ease and his size is still intimidating. Camby has average double digits in rebounds for nine straight seasons. Gerald Wallace appeared in a productive 23 games last season after being acquired from Charlotte and posted 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. In the playoffs, he ranked second on the team in points (15.2) and rebounds (9.2), tied for second in assists (2.8), and tied for the team lead in steals (1.33).
BACKCOURT: The Blazers enjoyed success when Roy was dealing with his balky knees, but losing a top player to injury prematurely is something no organization wants to deal with. Roy has stated in the past he's been playing with no cartilage between the bones in his knees and had arthroscopic surgery on both knees last January. Roy averaged 12.2 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds in 47 games a season ago. With Miller gone to the Nuggets, Felton gets a chance to shine for the Blazers as their starting point guard. A defensive specialist, Felton spent time with both the Knicks and Nuggets a year ago, posting 17.1 points and 9.0 assists with New York and averaging 11.5 points to go along with 6.5 assists in 21 contests with Denver. Felton has a nice battery mate in Aldridge to hook up with and can also set the offense in motion via pick-and-roll and charging the lane. Matthews, meanwhile, was the only Trail Blazer to finish the 82-game regular season schedule unscathed and ranked first in three-pointers (154), third in points (15.9) and third in steals (1.24) among second-year players. The unit will take a hit at first with no Roy, but will move on just lime it did without him.
BENCH: It's difficult to say if Oden will ever live up to his No. 1 pick status and the latest news on the former Ohio State star isn't so refreshing. Years of rehabilitating balky knees were thought to be in the past, but a recent MRI on a surgically-repaired knee didn't reveal promising news. The Blazers are hopeful Oden can return to the court sometime in January, and the two sides agreed to a restructured one-year contract. Oden hasn't appeared in a game in two years and is averaging 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds in 82 career games. The Blazers signed veteran Kurt Thomas to beef up the bench and spell Aldridge or Camby at time down low. Nicolas Batum is arguably McMillan's most energetic piece coming off of the bench and average 12.4 points in 80 games. Guard Patrick Mills finished his sophomore season in the NBA with averages of 5.5 points, 1.7 assists and 12.2 minutes after averaging 2.6 points, 0.5 assists and 3.8 minutes in his rookie campaign. Here's to a better third year.
COACHING: McMillan has failed to get Portland out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the past three years, and there's no telling where this team will end up by next summer. With Roy retired, Oden still bothered by knee ailments and Aldridge recently having a procedure on his heart, it will be tough sledding out of the gates for McMillan's squad. The veteran coach and former NBA player must count on the younger guys maturing early and being able to produce right away. McMillan has been able to get his players ready to play at home, as they went 30-11 at the Rose Garden a year ago for the third-best home record in the conference. The Trail Blazers allowed 91.2 points per game in wins and 99.8 points in losses, an average of 94.8 overall that ranked seventh in the NBA and second in the West. Talks of making a statement in the Northwest or even capturing a low seed in the playoffs will be put on hold until the Blazers can show signs of stability. And that starts from above.
OUTLOOK: Portland could shock the naysayers with a strong start to the season, but the Northwest Division will most likely be won by Oklahoma City. Denver will make a strong case for division bragging rights as well, leaving the Blazers fighting over third place with Minnesota and Utah. Both the Timberwolves and Jazz are beginning the season with new head coaches, while the Blazers will start the campaign on the wrong foot because of health issues. The Blazers have the makeup to be a contender with Aldridge, Wallace and Matthews as the top trio. Once Aldridge is at full strength Portland can make a case in the conference, but until then it's anybody's guess how the team will perform.