UNLIKE YOUR typical NBA follower, the Blazers faithful are finely versed in far more than the rules, regulations, and rosters of the league. There's a boastful pride in being the smartest fans in the seats about how a cancerous front office can infect the talent on the hardwood, and how to quickly diagnose of knee ailments with orthopedic precision. With a strike-shortened season looming on the horizon, usually optimistic Blazers fans were overcome with trepidation, fearful that the team's championship window had woefully slammed shut with the sudden medical retirement of Brandon Roy (plus the usual bad news associated Greg Oden's crippled frame, and the wildly circulated rumors that Gerald Wallace would soon be shipped off for future draft considerations). Would the Blazers be forced to waste a season (or two) on restructuring this franchise? In short, the Blazers were mired in a worrisome no man's land, wedged between the starry-eyed optimism of yore and the blunt acceptance of another year spent picking up the pieces.

Yet in the course of a single afternoon, the Blazers tossed their hat back into the ring—inking deals with coveted free-agent scoring-threat Jamal Crawford and hefty big man Craig Smith. Coupled with the wise signing of veteran tough Kurt Thomas, these off-season acquisitions don't produce titillating headlines, but they're exactly what this team needs. Fittingly, Roy's longtime pal Crawford replaces the former Blazers superstar on the stat sheet as a joyful shooter with a natural gift for creating his own shot and an uncanny ability to drain buckets in the waning seconds of a close game. Thomas and Smith, on the other hand, act as a pair of massive bodies to clog the lane, clean off the boards, and make damn well sure the delicately soft Blazers front line isn't victimized by the NBA's tougher teams (read: all).

Couple these signings with the fact that very few Western Conference teams improved over this elongated off-season—other than the new-look Los Angeles Clippers, most teams either deteriorated or are as stagnant as they were at the end of last season—and the Blazers might have reason to feel oddly optimistic right now. LaMarcus Aldridge will most likely be basking in the Florida sun during the 2012 All-Star game; Nicolas Batum is poised for the breakthrough season that every Blazers fan has been looking forward to since 2008; Wesley Matthews and the aforementioned Wallace now have time to get better adjusted to their new digs; and despite his worrisomely rotund frame, Raymond Felton will be a superior fit for captaining the team's new-look offense. Toss in their new veteran knuckle draggers plus a few rookies of unlimited potential (yet little playing time), and the Blazers' once paper-thin bench appears to be balanced for what will no doubt be a whirlwind season with little rest between games.

Most importantly, for the first time in recent memory, the Blazers are no longer a team defined by the players they don't have on the court. The looming shadow of Oden still remains under contract, but at this point it's a mere formality, a strategic blockade that temporarily keeps the perennially injured center out of the grasp of rival teams. No one expects a glorious return for the former number-one draft pick, himself included. Roy's dramatic (as always) departure forces the Blazers to pass the torch to Aldridge and acknowledge the fact that no matter how desperate things get, Roy won't be there to save them. This Blazers team is no longer a vessel for lost potential and a running punchline of patella jokes. In fact, right now things aren't looking so dire here in Rip City.

UPCOMING HOME GAMES (through January)

Mon Dec 26 vs. Philadelphia

Tues Dec 27 vs. Sacramento

Thurs Dec 29 vs. Denver

Thurs Jan 5 vs. Los Angeles (Lakers)

Sun Jan 8 vs. Cleveland

Tue Jan 10 vs. Los Angeles (Clippers)

Wed Jan 11 vs. Orlando

Mon Jan 23 vs. Sacramento

Tue Jan 24 vs. Memphis

Fri Jan 27 vs. Phoenix

All games at nba.com/blazers.