WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
Following a surprising season (54 wins!) and a disappointing postseason (getting Yao'd upon by the Houston Rockets), the Portland Trail Blazers entered the off-season in the glorious position of having a bevy of youthful talent perched atop a large pile of expendable cash. But parting with all that money—in an effort to improve the team and dethrone the Lakers as the top team on the left coast—proved to be a difficult endeavor.
The Blazers were unable to lure hulking Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap (his current team matched the Blazers' offer and lined his pockets with $32 million). Then the Blazers notably failed to woo the wife of Hedo Turkoglu (her husband, the Turkish mound of pasty mediocrity who had a career run during last year's playoffs, was on board to join the Blazers' ranks), and the Turkoglu clan skipped town to play in Canada for a team named after a dinosaur. So the Blazers brass dusted off their novelty-sized checkbook and forked over $21 million to veteran point guard Andre Miller (the check's memo line read: "Anyone but Steve Blake"). The deal was worth it, considering that Miller is a master at distributing the ball—unfortunately he's had the poor fortune of making a career of doing just that on teams where the recipients of his passes have been the scrubs of the NBA (my apologies, Marreese Speights).
Now on a team littered with scoring landmarks—the sunrise reliability of Brandon Roy, the pinnacles of Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge, the casual ease of Rudy Fernandez—the arrival of Miller should been seen as a very good thing. The team gets the veteran leadership it so desperately craves, while locking down the point guard position to a player who is not named Steve Blake; a true win-win scenario. And the static and concern that accompanied Miller, when he set foot in Portland: Will he be a backup to the perennial redheaded stepchild that is Steve Blake? (No.) Did he flunk a team-wide conditioning test by answering every question with the word "fudge?" (Probably not.) Will his 33-year-old body fall apart over the course of the season? (Doubtful, he hasn't missed a game in years.) All doubts are easily snuffed out by a casual glimpse of him on the court. Miller can pass better than any player in the NBA not wearing a Chris Paul jersey, he can score at will, and he has nearly 30 games of playoff experience. Welcome home, Dre Miller.
WHERE THEY ARE GOING
It's a challenge to peer at the Blazers' ridiculously talented roster and not swoon at the very possibility that this team teeters on the cusp of entering the NBA's elite—not next season, or next decade, but right fucking now. In their home conference, Portland has only a pair of foes ahead of them; the older-than-dirt, yet notably improved San Antonio Spurs, and a Los Angeles Lakers team that somehow got better on the court, while simultaneously getting significantly crazier off the court. (Khloe Kardashian: These two words will haunt that team worse than the presence of Adam Morrison.) In fact, the Blazers' depth is so staggering that the team no longer possesses a handful of bench trolls, players stuck deep in the dregs of the roster who are normally good for little more than a laugh and a few useless garbage time minutes: Michael Ruffin, Ha Seung-Jin, Sergei Monia, Richie Frahm, I miss you all so much it hurts.
Even more impressive than the Blazers netting 54 wins last season, was that it happened courtesy of a roster where the three highest-paid players were Steve Francis, Raef LaFrentz, and Darius Miles, in that order. (Feel free to read that again if you want your head to explode.) Roy got paid—excuse me, paid—in the off-season and the team is currently backing up the Brinks truck to sign Aldridge's check as well. The future is not going anywhere anytime soon.
This season also welcomes the return of a non-hobbled Martell Webster, bench veteran guidance courtesy of Juwan Howard (A player so old that he, more or less, invented the baggy shorts look. Seriously.), and NoPo's very own Ime Udoka. Plus, another season of court time for Oden will help his debilitating case of travelitis, and will do wonders for Nicolas Batum, Fernandez, and trade bait Travis Outlaw as well. Throw in a couple rookies—Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph—blessed by the anointed hand of General Manager Kevin Pritchard, and all of a sudden you have the deepest roster in the entire NBA.
This current crop of Blazers is nearly god-like when compared to their expected division rivals, the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz. The Nuggets are an inked-up house of cards with a level of team chemistry that rivals the stability of a mobile meth lab. (That wasn't a Chris "Birdman" Andersen joke, I swear.) Meanwhile, Utah lacks depth outside of a few elite players, which means barring a complete meltdown, a series of catastrophic injuries, or a Joel Przybilla on-court rage killing (do not rule this out), another division championship banner should be gently swaying from the Rose Garden rafters by next summer.
TOTALLY RANDOM AND PROBABLY FACTUALLY INACCURATE PREDICTION
I'm saying 58 wins. On the grand scale of talent the 2009-10 Blazers are considerably more than four wins superior than their predecessors, but last year the team was a lucky bunch—a NBA best, with 9-1 in games decided by three points or less—and it's hard to see such fortune repeating itself. Plus, that team snuck up on more than a few opponents last year, since over the past few seasons a NBA travel day to Portland was synonymous with easy victory. Well, not anymore.