DESPITE BLANKETING the grain silos of the Willamette River and being repeated as a motivational mantra, the Portland Trail Blazers' "Rise with Us" call to arms never quite came to fruition. Instead this once-beaming franchise was pinned down not by performance on the court, but by fate (or luck, or gypsy hex—take your pick), as menisci vanished, ligaments snapped, and Greg Oden accumulated more knee surgeries than seasons played.
The 2010-2011 Portland Trail Blazers campaign opened under the premise that this team couldn't possibly suffer from the same level of physical devastation as the previous season—when players had a combined 311 total games lost to injury—and thus would finally challenge the Los Angeles Lakers' gilded reign atop the Western Conference standings. Instead what happened was more of the same. First a series of role players disappeared (Jeff Pendergraph and Elliot Williams met with the surgeon's knife, while Fabricio Oberto hung up the sneakers for good after the discovery of a cardiac condition), which was coupled with the previous year's infirmary squad (Oden and Joel Przybilla) who were unable to return for the start of the season. Following the announcement that Oden will miss yet another year—and force the franchise to once again revisit the decisions made in the 2007 draft—the Blazers were dealt another crippling blow (quite literally) with the rolling announcements that the haggard knees of team captain Brandon Roy were absent entirely of meniscus. The man that was the Portland Trail Blazers was diagnosed as damaged goods.
The Blazers had braced themselves for a lifetime of bad news in regard to the barren shreds of life that remain in Oden's knees, but losing Roy derailed the path of an entire franchise. Roy will never be the player he once was, and his complete lack of knee fibrocartilage—unlike a lizard's tail, or Andre Miller's afro, it won't grow back—forever dooms him as a role player at best. Roy might become a late-era Grant Hill, or Penny Hardaway on a good day, but his time among the NBA's elite is a thing of the past. As expected, this news took ample time to properly settle with the franchise and Roy himself, as the former All-Star refused to assume his newfound position as a supporting option with diminished capabilities. Roy was eventually sent to the corner, where he remains out "indefinitely" until further notice.
What's left is a Blazers team without direction—but not without hope. For the first time since Roy set foot in the Rose Garden, the Blazers are no longer singularly focused on just one player, thus creating a new frontier of options for the team. Portland is now 12 deep—well, 11 if you don't count the pasty mound of carbon that is Sean Marks. An integral part of this new guard is Wesley Matthews, the second-year player poached from the Utah Jazz during the offseason and signed to such an astonishing contract (five years, $34 million) that he might very well justify changing his name to the Ke$ha-approved "We$ley." Bank account balance aside, Matthews has vastly improved with each passing game in a Blazers uniform following his initial stint in bench-warming purgatory. After spending 13 of the season's first 16 games with a seat next to Luke Babbitt, Matthews has emerged as a tenacious, defensive-first guard with an outside shot and ability to get to the rim. Coupled with a still-developing Nicolas Batum, the duo represents one of the better young defensive pairings the league has to offer, whose collective best days are still ahead.
Another welcome surprise for the Blazers came in the long-overdue emergence of LaMarcus Aldridge as an elite scoring and rebounding option (his recent string of five consecutive 25 point and 10 rebound games set a franchise record, one not seen in the NBA since Shaq's 2004-2005 season). The running punchline of "Aldridge as an All-Star"—previous to this season Aldridge would open every training camp by declaring to the media that this was the year he breaks the All-Star stronghold, only to disappoint fans with a delicately soft disposition and little recognition from the national media—might actually come to fruition. Even if it does not, Aldridge has anchored this team with a newfound low-post scoring touch and the ability to share the rebounding load with veteran Marcus Camby. Time for us all to retroactively apologize for calling him "LaMartha" or "LaMarshmallow."
If Aldridge leads this glorious new cavalcade of Blazers, he shares the responsibility with Andre Miller. His two-year stint in Portland has been tumultuous at best, as Miller has continuously clashed with Roy's dawdling offensive tempo. He and Coach Nate McMillan have long since patched their relationship—their on-court fulminations a thing of the past—and the wily veteran point guard was handed the keys to the franchise while Roy is on the extend mend, at least for the time being. Miller's advancing age (Derek Fisher and Jason Kidd are the only other starting point guards older than Dre) and looming contract have branded his name to countless trade rumors. The Blazers front office isn't one to show their hand, but in the past five games Aussie backup Patty Mills has usurped Miller's minutes, playing nearly three times as much as the veteran in the final quarter over this stretch. This stat is far more telling than any trade rumor, hinting that Miller's departure from Portland might not be triggered by a phone call from a rival general manager, but from within.
A point guard not getting any younger or cheaper is just one of the many looming quandaries the Blazers must address in this season's second half. The team has handled themselves remarkably well considering the crutch of Roy was swiped out from under them, but at press time the Blazers stand with a 20-18 record. This puts them on pace to stumble into the postseason, then quickly exit in the first round. They are a prizefight patsy, good enough to advance to the storied NBA second season, but hardly the sort of team that could bump off perennial winners like the San Antonio Spurs or the aforementioned Lakers. It's likely the Blazers will make the playoffs—possibly even as high as a sixth seed—but ultimately it might be a consolation victory.
This begs the question: Is it worth it? Why would the franchise ride out the expiring—and tradable—deals of players like Camby, Miller, and Przybilla knowing that their postseason experience might last all of a few days? Do they dismantle this roster and try to acquire missing pieces before the looming trade deadline? The most likely answer is a little of both.
The middle mark of the season typically represents a clear path, a glimpse of where a team is headed down the homestretch and beyond. Yet for the Blazers it's an impasse with no clear answers. In the wake of the fall of Roy, this is a team that needs more time together, and they'll have just that in the second half. But it's likely that when the dust settles this season the Blazers will be left with more lingering questions than definitive answers.
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