How did it come to this? A mid-season meeting against the near-expansion Oklahoma City Thunder, where the relocated remnants once known as the Seattle SuperSonics are actually ranked higher in the Northwest Division standings than the Portland Trail Blazers. If the season ended on Wednesday morning, February 10, the Blazers would barely secure the final Western Conference playoff spot, with an ominous first round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers. So how did the Blazers dream season derail 54 games into the year?
Well, injuries, of course.
You hate to pin the Blazers' inconsistencies on the team's unprecedented streak of shredded knee ligaments, mangled hamstrings, and broken metatarsals, but it's hard to ignore the fact that the dusty 37-year-old bones of Juwan Howard are one of the few healthy options this team has had throughout the year. While you might need an abacus (ask Juwan for one) to add up all the games missed due to ailments, the team arrives at the All-Star break a wounded shell of their former selves.
Brandon Roy has missed 14 of the team's last 15 games, and he'll probably miss even more since the franchise has not set a concrete return date for their lone All-Star. Even the team's once-vibrant and exuberant lot of youthful limbs has dulled as the season trudges on. Nicolas Batum has yet to fully recover from an off-season surgery that caused him to miss the first 45 games of the year, while Jerryd Bayless—forced to play the under-qualified understudy to Brandon Roy—has faltered and been inconsistent since suffering a left thigh injury. For Portland, lingering health issues hamper even the healthiest of players.
Outside of General Manager Kevin Pritchard's secret-feelings diary (he keeps it under his pillow, with a tiny lock on it), few know if the team will make a much-needed trade before the league-wide February 19 deadline. The team is desperate for a big body to replace the massive void left by Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla's season-ending injuries, perhaps looking for a viable scoring option with a bloated contract that another franchise wants to clear off their books. Portland has money to spend (thanks Paul Allen) and enough expendable young talent to make rival team's salivate (thanks Rudy Fernández). But Pritchard—who can wheel and deal like no other on draft night—is not known to pull the trigger on big moves as the trade deadline looms. If the team refuses to acquire a large body to stand under the basket and act like a temporary Oden stopgap, it's a sign that the franchise would rather pack it in for the year and look forward to next season; thus waving the white flag and hoping for a speedy merciful first round playoff exit at best, a draft lottery visit at worst.
That seems to be the future the Blazers are headed toward, as Kevin Durant contributed an effortless 33 points and 11 rebounds as Oklahoma City easily toppled Portland 89-77 on Tuesday night, February 9. Durant is the Jacob Marley of Portland's draft days past, haunting the team that unwisely chose Oden instead of him as the first selection in the 2007 lottery. The Blazers' 77 points on Tuesday marked a season low, and their 24 turnovers weighed heavy on an exhausted Nate McMillan. "We embarrassed ourselves," the Blazers coach admitted before hinting that the team might already be focused on the upcoming All-Star break. "We were just flat," he added. "We weren't sharp at all."
The Blazers only have a dozen games left this year on the Rose Garden court, meaning they'll be forced to play out the remainder of the season on the road, where they have a losing record. As Portland desperately fights to avoid a freefall tumble down the standings, Oklahoma City are on the ascent. The Thunder are a younger, healthier version of the Blazers, following a similar trajectory to last season's Blazers. Funny how in one year and countless injuries later, everything can change.