Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 7
The Portland Trail Blazers are the sad example of what can happen to an up and coming team if they don’t seize their opportunities presented to them. It is a cautionary tale to any young club with aspirations – that if they do not take advantage of their progress, they will die out before they reach postseason glory. You only get a few shots as a unit before changes must be made – the NBA landscape is constantly in flux. An NBA title is too difficult, too fleeting, too unattainable unless the pieces all fit together in a precise way. Linger for too many years as a team expected to win without actually doing it, and it spells the end of an era.
For the Blazers, who have been up and coming for about 3 years now, their time might have passed and their window to seize a position atop the West may be almost shut. They had a golden opportunity a season ago to capitalize on their potential, with 54 wins the year before, but injuries, ineffectiveness from Oden, and unrest from role players (like Fernandez) slaughtered the Blazers’ chances of vaulting into elite status.
They finished a disappointing 6th in the West and geared up for the postseason against the Suns, bowing out meekly without much help from their injured star Brandon Roy. Instead of building on their once promising prospects, the team dropped from a year ago. And with failure, there is internal player evaluation and management evaluation and changes.
Already under fire at the beginning of the season because the Portland area moratorium on anti-Oden talk had subsided, combined with the rapid improvement of budding super-duper star Kevin Durant (who came one pick after Oden in the 2007 draft), GM Kevin Pritchard was put under heavy pressure to build a winner and justify his one huge personnel decision to draft Oden. It isn’t that Greg Oden was particularly bad, but he couldn’t stay healthy and even when he showed potential a season ago, it was short lived – he went down with another season ending injury soon after. His lack of dominance is also emphasized by the brilliance of Durant, a bonafide franchise guy who is the unquestioned leader of the Thunder, and a player the Blazers could have had.
With this huge misstep, the Blazers showed their short leash with Pritchard, who, by all accounts, is a great personnel man and one of the few GM’s in the league who knows what he is doing. But one gigantic bad decision and some bad luck can lead to a loss of trust, and the Blazers fired Pritchard’s right hand man, Tom Penn, in midseason, signaling a regime change on the way.
Because the Blazer team couldn’t capitalize and show the progress that pundits had predicted they would enjoy, with inconsistent play all throughout 2009, the team got one of their top management people fired and created a front office controversy – especially because Penn was very strongly connected to Pritchard.
Into the offseason, more changes were made, and the official turmoil in the front office was confirmed with the firing of Pritchard, who was building a winner and had done a great job in reversing the “Jail Blazer” fortune with (mostly) smart pickups and moves. But his decision to draft Oden and sign Andre Miller ultimately led to his downfall.
The Blazer’s reluctance to seize opportunity not only affected their front office, but created controversy within the locker room, with disgruntled employees like Miller and Fernandez; when the team isn’t winning, the players can’t swallow their pride and buy into the team. Miller was never a good fit for the club, and though he signed for a big deal in the offseason, the Blazers found themselves playing Steve Blake ahead of him, leading to a point guard controversy. The Blazers overpaid for Miller and overestimated his value to them, as the move was more of a mindless free agent splash than a well thought out acquisition. He was just ok in his first season with the team, and was dangled in some trade proposals, but no other team would take the length and money still attached to his name.
With Fernandez, the unhappiness stemmed from a decrease in playing time, and although he at one time seemed to be a player on the rise, like his whole team he could not convert potential into production. He didn’t play as much in his second season with the team and this offseason expressed his displeasure with his role, not returning coaches’ phone calls and threatening not to show up to the facilities. At this point, he is more of a locker room cancer and his destructive tendencies outweigh any of the meager good he can bring to the team.
And with losses, it is time to also evaluate the abilities of LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, who, for a time were thought of as the no-brainer building blocks of the team. Aldrige is skilled and effective, but he is limited in some respects and his offensive moves often consist of long jumpshots. I don’t know whether he can be the second best player on a championship squad. He seems to shrink in big moments and his ancillary traits aren’t so amazing, like defense or rebounding.
And then there’s Brandon Roy; he is often called a superstar, and he has the skill set and clutchness to justify such a ranking, but doesn’t show the consistency or ability to stay healthy that is required. He plays well when he is healthy and produces efficiently considering the team plays at such a slow pace, but injury concerns have dogged him since he entered the league. Last year’s missed time, which affected the team’s Playoff chances, do nothing to assuage the doubts.
The Blazers tried to recoup in the summertime by signing Rich Cho to be the new general manager, but because of the questions surrounding Roy and Aldridge, the unhappy players in the locker room, the front office turmoil, and injury concerns from some key guys on the team, I see the team being just a better version of the Bulls from a half decade earlier – on the rise but never quite there. This season, I think they will be on the decline once again, and only get a 7th seed in the Western Conference with around 50 wins, lingering in this general vicinity of mediocrity for the time being.
They were on the rise just a year ago, but with the uncertainty and missed opportunity, they are now downgraded and can no longer be viewed as a sure team on the rise. After all, their architect, Pritchard, was dismissed, throwing off their whole management plan. They will face the Mavs in the first round of the Playoffs and be promptly dismissed, leaving another summer to dwell on a Portland team which could have featured Kevin Durant.