First of all we are fucked, people. Panic. Sell your Trail Blazers season tickets, trash the "Number One" foam finger, and invest in a Seattle SuperSonics Kevin Durant replica jersey. Now.
When it was announced that number-one draft pick, gift from the gods, Greg Oden wouldn't be suiting up in Blazers red and black until next season (if not later), it was comforting to blame the seductive power of Dance Dance Revolution (the interactive videogame incorrectly blamed for his knee injury), the curse of Sam Bowie, or the most likely culprit—the double jinx of being prematurely thrust on the cover of the Willamette Week and Portland Monthly's "Best of Portland" issues.
Wait, Portland's best highlight is a crippled 19-year-old? Again, we are fucked. But shrill complaining and frantic David Stern conspiracy theories aside: Acceptance is the key to being a Blazers supporter for the '07-'08 season. Accept the fact that this team is young, fun, and will lose a whole bunch of games—and you will enjoy yourself as a fan. If not, then keep panicking.
INSIDE THE INTENSIVE CARE UNIT
While the sprawling Blazers Tualatin practice facility does resemble a hoops-related intensive care unit—with a frowning Oden on crutches, his buddy Josh McRoberts sporting a bandaged lower leg, and Brandon Roy wearing a special boot for his heel troubles—take comfort in knowing that it's a young intensive care unit. While their bones and ligaments have taken an unfortunate pounding as of late, this team is about as young as they come. So youthful, in fact, there are only two players on the entire roster not born in the '80s—with almost half of the team born in Reagan's second term. The body heals, and maybe with the exception of Darius Miles (the only player whose year-ending injury was met with elation from Blazers fans last year), the worst is over for the team.
But enough about the Blazers' wounds, what about those who can actually play the game free of dehabilitating pain? It's all about LaMarcus Aldridge. Those who caught the quick glimpses of the lanky Aldridge during last season's final few garbage games saw a player blossoming at a staggering rate. Same goes for the practice pick-up games and the handful of pre-season matches the team has played—every moment of which, Aldridge is the best player on the court. Aldridge's size begs for him to camp low beneath the basket—which he will as the team's starting power forward—but his speed and soft outside shooting touch will do the most damage. Far from his usual perch under the hoop, Aldridge's shooting range now stretches far from the key to the three-point line, where, in practice, he routinely downs long-distances shots with the same ease of fellow big man—and former Blazer great—the drunken Lithuanian badass, Arvydas Sabonis.
But the big Texan can't do it all—and by "all," I mean not let the team spiral into a winless mire—so Coach Nate McMillan will be adding four additional players to the starting lineup that are not Aldridge. Brilliant move! This includes the maybe-he's-hurt-maybe-he's-not Brandon Roy, fresh off a Rookie of the Year season, where he ponied up as the team's leader and best option in the waning seconds of a close game. Ice in his veins, yet without a collar-popping ego, Roy is the grinning face of the franchise, proof that the Blazers' future has more to do with well-rounded young athletes than with former players like Qyntel Woods, who dumped his fight-damaged pitbull (adorably named Hollywood) in front of this writer's house. Seriously, right on my block. Imagine the thrill of looking out your window to see a wounded pitbull—scratch that, a celebrity wounded pitbull—on your lawn. I felt truly blessed.
Joel Przybilla joins Roy and Aldridge as the only confirmed starters, getting the starting center job for sure once Oden's knee was wounded while the giant was breaking wooden boards at his karate dojo (I'm systematically adding untrue rumors to the Dance Dance Revolution story). In team scrimmages, and during the pre-season, Przybilla looks to be in the best shape of his life. In fact, my bafflingly homoerotic notes from an October 5 practice confirm just that, as they read, "Przybilla—ripped, firm, looks really good." Notes like that don't lie. Przybilla might not set the court aflame with points and boards, but his improved physique will lead to increased blocked shots, less fouls, and justification for his untouchable nickname, "The Vanilla Gorilla."
For the Blazers, the point guard position is its usual clusterfuck, as Jarrett Jack and old friend/newcomer Steve Blake battle it out, while Sergio Rodriguez and Taurean Green fight for the scraps and blow-out game minutes. All signs point to it being a point-guard-by-committee setup: not a bad idea when none of the above are ready to completely take charge, and the skill differential between Blake and Jack is nearly nonexistent. Meanwhile, the small forward position belongs to beanpole Travis Outlaw—unless, of course, former first-round Blazers pick Martell Webster continues his pre-season streak of gracefully draining every shot he hurls in the general vicinity of the hoop. Webster is an interesting case, as he suffered through a bout of the upside-down smiles last year, and his downright emo behavior and lack of mental toughness were often questioned. Now that he's no longer donning the Blaze the Trail Cat mascot outfit as a safe haven to cry in when no one's around—this never happened—Webster looks like a real player, the same talented shooter who the Blazers drafted instead of such scrubs as Deron Williams and Chris Paul.
The biggest concern for the breakaway pants dwellers on the Blazers bench is scoring—especially since there aren't a lot of guys on the bench who can do it. Channing Frye, who went from blossoming superstar to expendable trade-bait in one short year for the Knicks, has a legitimate chip on his shoulder and if he plays to his potential, the team is in luck. Josh McRoberts is wildly unproven, but he does get Mercury points for allegedly dating one of the vapid blonde creatures from The Hills, so if he can't hold it down on the court, he's at least sure to regale his teammates with all the lurid details that ended up on the MTV cutting-room floor.
Thirty-six wins for the '07-'08 Trail Blazers. That's my safe prediction. I wanted to say something outlandish like, "67 wins and sparkly NBA Championship Rings for all," but I'd get too much hate mail, and since I already commented on the firm and muscular physique of Joel Przybilla's chest, I figure I'm already going to get a lot of it as is. So, Blazers fans: Breathe deep, chill the fuck out, and enjoy the team for what it is—a flawed, charismatic, hard-working, young basketball team that will surely lose more games than they win. For now.
The Trail Blazers' season starts Tuesday, October 30 in San Antonio, see nba.com/blazers for more information.