There's something oddly reassuring about a seven-foot African American man with an Amish beard.
It's comforting, actually. Greg Oden exudes this comfort when he strolls into the media room during the opening days of the preseason, not on crutches, or with an awkward hobble, or even in street clothes—but instead in a glistening red-and-white uniform adorned with the Blazers logo that drapes his massive frame. This kid—those knees, that ridiculous beard—is who props up the swelling ambition of this enthusiastic franchise. So with the "Rise with Us" sloganeering reaching a feverish pitch, and playoff dreams looming on the horizon... why is Oden always so damn calm?
BY THE BEARD OF ODEN
The source of Oden's tranquility is revealed days later when he initially takes the court in a game that isn't practice, summer league, or on my PlayStation console. He absolutely dominates. His scoring line was modest, but the stark black and white of the following morning's box score failed to paint an accurate description of the sheer terror plastered upon the stunned mouth-breathing grill of Sacramento Kings center Spencer Hawes—a man who had the unfortunate task of being posterized by Oden repeatedly. What Hawes realized that night, and countless other lanky NBA players are about to witness: Oden doesn't score on you as much as he dunks over you, atop you, and when he so pleases, right through you. Portland's great shimmering hope—the wounded kneed "man child" from the Midwest who was supposed to save the franchise last year, before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury which rendered him meek and vulnerable—has arrived, and to be honest, it's a damn scary sight. Scary for the Spencer Haweses of the world, scary for the rest of the NBA who is used to penciling in Portland at the bottom of the standings, and scary for the glass backboards themselves, which ominously rattle and sway in the violent aftermath of an Oden dunk.
Granted, Oden's health is as stable as our economy—there's the two preseason ankle-rolling incidents, the fact that he runs like a man at the tail end of a marathon, and the fear that his hulking frame rests upon a pair of legs that look downright dainty in comparison to his upper body. The Blazers' future, though, is more secure. Last year's rebuilding year featured a thrilling 13-game win streak, Brandon Roy coming into his own and earning a trip to New Orleans for the All-Star Game, and the team that was supposed to linger in the Western Conference cellar ended up flirting with a playoff spot.
HEY, WHO'S THAT? AND WHERE DID THAT ONE GUY GO?
Under the ridiculous tenure of General Manager Kevin Pritchard—a man this close to just outright walking on water, curing leprosy with his healing touch, and traveling back in time to 1984 and rightfully drafting Michael Jordan over Sam Bowie—the Blazers have approached draft day like spoiled children do Christmas morning. This year's gimmie-gimmie-gimmie bonanza was no exception: Jarrett Jack packed his creepy eyebrows (both of them) and headed East—along with Josh McRoberts and the Blazers #13 pick, Brandon Rush—to Indiana, in exchange for future starting point guard Jerryd Bayless. But while that trade cleared out some dead weight, the team's biggest departure of the off-season came when the veteran leadership and lights out three-point shooting stroke of James Jones defected to Miami. But Jones' loss is eclipsed by the arrival of Oden, Bayless, feisty Frenchman Nicolas Batum (who just might make the starting five in place of the injured Martell Webster), and the caliente Spanish panty-dropper, and Olympic sensation, Rudy Fernández.
Fernández represents what the Blazers so desperately needed last year. A hot Spanish guy? Um, no, actually it was someone who can score points that isn't named Brandon Roy. Travis Outlaw held down that role off the bench, and will most likely do so again this season, but Fernández brings more than his scruffy good looks to the court; he brings a reckless excitement this team hasn't seen in years. Fernández almost single-handedly sunk the US Dream Team at the Olympics—leading Spain to a silver medal—and his potent offensive arsenal will help a second unit that needs to score points while Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge rest on the bench and a sure-to-be-winded Oden is strapped to an oxygen tank. He's a passionate player with a deadly outside shot and he isn't afraid to hold his own on defense, which basically means he'll flop—like all good European players should. His talent is still raw, and overseas transplants usually struggle for years before adapting to the NBA's physical play, yet Fernández seems primed to make an immediate impact, and at the very least, provide some off-the-bench spark for the Blazers.
YOU'VE WRITTEN 800 WORDS SO FAR AND YOU STILL HAVEN'T MENTIONED RAEF LaFRENTZ
It's true, The Raefist is still on the roster, which means that the team is $12.7 million poorer than it should be—that is, until his salary comes off the books next season. What that means is no more Raef—sorry pal—at which time the Blazers will suddenly stumble into a windfall of cash to drop on platinum rims, gold fronts, fixing our economy, and most importantly, a hotshot free agent.
Another component buried beneath the deafening hype of Oden and Fernández's arrival, is that Aldridge is primed to have a breakout year. If Oden can stay upright—and that's a big if—Aldridge will be able to have his way with most any power forward defender in the league. While Roy might not make it back to the All-Star festivities, it wouldn't be surprising to see Aldridge in Phoenix during the mid-season break.
HONEY GET THE TICKER TAPE, THE BLAZERS ARE GOING TO WIN IT ALL!
Um, not quite. This team has loads of potential issues other than Oden's glass knee. Starting point guard Steve Blake resembles a ball boy, the newcomers are going to struggle with the grueling NBA schedule (and officiating), the Western Conference is unfairly stacked with talent, Martell Webster is one mental breakdown away from becoming a cutter, and if the team actually makes the playoffs, they have zero postseason experience (outside a handful of minutes from the early days in the careers of LaFrentz and Blake). Remember, this Blazers squad was the second youngest team ever last year, so these things take time.
That said, it's prediction time: While I'm no Miss Cleo, I wasn't too far off with last year's prediction that the team would lose more games than they won (they finished 41-41). But that was too vague, so this time around I'll settle on a number: 49. While 49 wins might barely be enough for the Blazers to squeak into the playoffs, it will be nothing compared to what the future holds for the team. So put the ticker tape on the shelf, for now, and enjoy another year of witnessing this team grow (like a Chia!) right in front of your eyes.
(That is, of course, unless Roy gets injured, Oden goes down like a little girl with a skinned knee, Fernández gets deported, or Paul Allen moves the team to Seattle. As long as none of those things happen, everything will be fine.)