FUNNY, THE DIFFERENCE a year makes. A dozen months back, the Blazers faithful were staggering drunk with optimism, staring to the rafters of the Rose Garden as they eyed out the final resting place for the championship banner this team was destined to win. The Blazers were the pride of the league, a youthful team built the right way by a young front office run by Kevin Pritchard—the slickest-haired leader since Pat Riley brought "Showtime" to the NBA—and an owner who paid for it all from his solid gold yacht, floating upon a vast sea of money. The Lakers—why, they were the old lions of the pride, but Portlanders knew that as Kobe's championship sheen dulled, the Blazers would claim the Western Conference as their own.
Or perhaps not. Turns out that the weight of an entire franchise's hopes and expectations were too much for Greg Oden to bear, and as his knee buckled last December it triggered a series of teamwide injuries that progressed from just bad luck to a level of cruelty akin to a pincushioned voodoo doll. From the frontcourt to the front office, no one was spared—even Blaze the Trail Cat came down with a nasty case of pinkeye. The Blazers did recover, barely, winning an impressive 50 games, but not before being hastily escorted from the playoffs in the opening round. Again.
As the brief yet bitter postseason taste lingered into the offseason, soon a power struggle left Pritchard—the widely fawned-upon architect behind this franchise—out of a job. Then there was the realization that Oden's future with the team (if you so much as mouth the words "Sam Bowie" right now, I will cut you) is as reliable as the battered ligaments that barely keep the man upright. While Portland was licking its wounds, the Oklahoma City Thunder usurped the Blazers as the youthful up-and-coming darlings of the NBA; couple this with the fact that Portland's longtime foils the Lakers somehow won another championship and found a way to get even better in the offseason. That sound you hear? It's Blazers followers everywhere shuffling towards the nearest ledge.
UPSIDE THAT FROWN
But don't take that final step, Blazer fans. This team is quite good. In fact, as their dilapidated shape redirects the spotlight away from the expectations of championship rings—let Oklahoma City carry around that "future of the NBA" albatross—it leaves this Blazers team to do what it does best: take teams by surprise and win games they shouldn't. Last year the Blazers opened the season with Steve Blake and Martell Webster in their starting lineup and with Travis Outlaw as their leading scorer, and the team still won. When compared to the current Blazers roster, none of the aforementioned players could find their way to the court with a map, compass, and Sherpa guide—proof that this team has learned to adapt and evolve along the way, getting better when they should have been getting worse.
Keep in mind that Brandon Roy is only entering his fifth season in the league, and he took one for the team last year, letting Andre Miller run an offense that used to entirely orbit around him. This year his preseason demand of "I want the ball a lot more" is a good sign, as Roy's usage rate plummeted last year, falling from third best among guards in 2008-09 to 16th overall last season. When Roy touches the ball, good things happen for this team.
That might not apply to starting small forward Nicolas Batum yet, but it will. While Blazer fans finally turned on Rudy Fernandez after he and his agents spent the summer requesting more absurd demands than a Somali pirate with a boatful of hostages, Batum was quietly leading the French national team in the FIBA tournament. Unlike the woefully transparent skill set of LaMarcus Aldridge—soft jump shot, moderate rebounding abilities, fourth-quarter disappearing act—Batum is still coming into the game, as a 21-year-old with only about a season and a half under his belt. Now with Martell Webster shipped off to the last-place tundra of Minnesota, Batum will finally get his chance to have a breakout season.
Did the team add an extra zero to Wesley Matthews' bloated free-agent paycheck? Probably. But they had the money to spend—all $34 million of it—and of all the potential free agents the Blazers have seriously flirted with over the past few years (Hedo Turkoglu, Paul Millsap, Jordan Farmar), Matthews is easily the best fit for this team. He has the intensity of Jerryd Bayless sans the recklessness, and he's a disciplined defender with a knack for shutting down big-name players (*cough, Kobe, cough*) when it counts. Last year Matthews played with a mammoth chip on his shoulder after going undrafted, and this year he'll do the same as he defends his bank account balance. Smart money is on Matthews becoming the new Rudy; watch as he wins the hearts of Blazers fans in just a few short months.
Injured on the court, and in the shower, Joel Pryzbilla has defied the odds and recovered nicely from a pair of crippling injuries. His expiring contract, coupled with Andre Miller's deals, will make for interesting trade bait for new GM—and unapologetic braces wearer—Rich Cho. Look for the Blazers bench to feature Bayless hurling himself at the basket with all the stubborn persistence of a fly repeatedly crashing into a window; the dependability of Dante Cunningham; sharpshooting rookie Luke Babbitt; and the shocking athleticism of fellow rookie Armon Johnson.
TOTALLY RANDOM AND PROBABLY FACTUALLY INACCURATE PREDICTION
57 wins. Everything hinges on the health of Roy, but if the team's lone all-star can stay healthy, Portland will capture the Northwest Division and head to the postseason. What happens after that is anyone's guess.