FOR THE THIRD consecutive year the Portland Trail Blazers failed to last longer than six games in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. Last week, the Dallas Mavericks unceremoniously dismissed them with a final score of 103-96. Season over.

Considering the difficulties of the regular season, it was either a matter of sheer fortune that the Blazers were able to piece together the functioning ligaments to limp into the postseason, or this repeat playoff performance signals a much bigger problem within the franchise (and that the Blazers will never be able to advance in the playoffs unless drastic changes are made). It's a dilemma that tugs at the very exuberance of the Blazers' faithful.

A few years back one could pin the team's lack of playoff success on their inexperience and a baby-faced roster barely old enough to order a drink at Schonely's Place. They were young, but next season was their year. That's no longer the case. The Blazers now start a 37-year-old center (Marcus Camby), a 35-year-old point guard (Andre Miller), and the best option of the bench (Brandon Roy) is a 26-year-old with the knees of a 72-year-old. Even the youngest of the Portland starters, Wesley Matthews at the age of 24, is still a few years older than the entire nucleus (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka) of division rivals Oklahoma City Thunder. As far as the NBA is concerned, the Blazers are too old to be considered youthful, yet too inexperienced to be considered savvy veterans.

Another major off-season issue haunting the team like a specter is what to do with the impending free agency of Greg Oden, a player whose most lasting moment as a Blazer occurred not on the court, but in front of a bathroom mirror. In previous years it was hard not to become intoxicated by the daydream of Oden's boundless potential, but over four seasons the former number-one selection in the NBA draft has played all of 82 games and his timetable for return is still a mystery. The Blazers are faced with a trio of options regarding Oden: (1) delay the inevitable and re-sign him for one year for about $9 million, knowing that he might not even play next season and if he does, his asking price will skyrocket. (2) Roll the dice and ink him to a long-term contract, which is a scenario that is somehow the most practical, yet also the most insane. (3) Kick him to the curb and pray that he doesn't spend the next decade punishing the Blazers as a member of the Thunder or (gulp) the Lakers.

Barring the invention of adamantium knees, Oden is likely to spend just as much time wearing a suit on the bench as he is a uniform on the court, yet the Blazers will probably try to sign him for at least one more season. It's not a matter of saving face—the franchise has already committed the past four seasons to Oden's promise of potential, and had their heart broken nearly every season. What's one more year?

Before the NBA stumbles into a lockout that could jeopardize next season entirely—which might happen—the Blazers' final order of business will be to exercise the third-year option for Andre Miller. While Miller is not getting any younger, or less surly, the available free-agent class could generously be considered depleted (Earl Boykins, anyone?), meaning Miller is the best (and only) option Portland has at this point.

After that, the Blazers will spend their summer months licking their wounds and trying to comprehend how their once-promising season came to such an abrupt close for the third year in a row, leaving yet another off-season where there are more lingering questions than answers.