The perfect picture that once represented the Trail Blazers’ future has shattered.
The artwork that featured the faces of Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, and LaMarcus Aldridge has been smashed.
But if you look closely at those broken pieces that once symbolized an ideal, you’ll see that there is still beauty there. It’s just that now, well, the picture is more of a Picasso.
A new era has been ushered into Blazers’ tradition whether that is the desire or not. The franchise once projected to be among the NBA’s perennial title contenders now comprises a Breakfast Club-type collection of players.
You won’t find this club headlining Christmas Day broadcasts or generating national buzz. But while the star power may be lacking, the new-look Blazers want to show that fire power is not.
“For us, it’s: Can we win without Roy? Can we get back to the playoffs? If we do, can we get out of the first round?” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “I think we all have something to prove. It’s a different year. We gotta prove ourselves.”
When the girlfriend hasn’t returned your calls for two weeks, you have a pretty good idea of where the relationship stands. But that doesn’t make the official breakup any less painful. The Blazers and their fans endured similar heartache when Roy retired on the opening day of training camp — even though his knees had clearly stripped him of his greatness the season before.
Moreover, Portland discovered that Oden, its perpetually-injured center, had experienced another medical setback that same day and may again miss another season. Perhaps McMillan said it best when he relayed his reaction to the news — “I just about fell out.”
But lately, this franchise has been the NBA’s ode to Charles Darwin. Last season, after losing Oden for the whole year and Roy for most of it, the Blazers adapted and surged to the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference with a 48-34 record. And if you look at this season’s roster, it’s hard to argue they didn’t get better.
The centerpiece of the team is Aldridge, the power forward who won two Player of the Week awards last season, one Player of the Month, and earned a spot on the All-NBA’s third team after averaging career highs of 21.8 points and 8.8 rebounds. The 26-year-old added size after another offseason dedicated to bulking up and improving his skill set, but also enters this season with an invaluable piece of information: He knows he’s going to be the man.
“I feel like I’ve grown even more with my leadership,” Aldridge said. “During the games, I’m going to be more like a leader.”
But what about the group he’s leading?
Well, at small forward, there is Gerald Wallace, who the Blazers acquired from Charlotte at the trade deadline last February. Before adding Wallace, who averaged 16 points and six rebounds for Portland last season, the Blazers were 8-19 against playoff-bound teams. After? They were 11-5. Why wouldn’t they get better with a whole season to acclimate the former All Star?
At shooting guard, there is Wesley Matthews, who averaged 15.9 points per game while filling in for Roy as the starting shooting guard. Matthews’ maturity made it easy for people to forget that last year was just his second season in the NBA. And given how he said this is the first time he has begun the season feeling healthy, why wouldn’t he show signs of improvement as well?
At point guard is Raymond Felton, whom Portland obtained from Denver after trading away Andre Miller. Whether Felton is an upgrade from Miller remains to be seen — but he is younger (27), and faster and put up better numbers than Miller last season — although that was in part because of Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo system in New York.
The more you watched Miller, the more you appreciated him and realized how integral he was in keeping the Blazers together. But while Felton may not be as cerebral as Andre (few players in the league are), he can push the ball and spread the floor with his shooting touch in ways his predecessor never could.
At center is Marcus Camby, the 37-year-old who missed 23 games last year and averaged career lows in points (4.7) and field-goal percentage (.398). The 6-foot-11 big man is likely the starting five’s weakest link, but he still averaged 10.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks and doesn’t figure to hurt the Blazers.
But what if he himself gets hurt? Who’s going to back him up?
Actually, this is where things start to get interesting — because it seems as though Portland’s bench got a major face lift.
The most prominent member of the second unit figures to be Jamal Crawford, the shooting guard who averaged 14.2 points per game for the Hawks last season and won the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award the season before that. Juxtaposed with a healthy Roy in the prime of his career, Crawford can’t compare. However, compared to an injured Roy plagued by knee pain last year, this looks to be a major enhancement for the Blazers. The bench will also feature Nicolas Batum, the 6-foot-8 Frenchman who averaged 12.4 points in his third season last year and has the length to pester opposing guards and forwards on defense. There is also veteran forward/center Kurt Thomas, hulking forward Craig Smith, rookie point guard Nolan Smith, and Elliot Williams — the high-flying rookie who missed all of last season with a knee injury but has been showered with praise throughout training camp.
Put that all together, and the team is still a question mark, but one followed by an exclamation point.
Still, while the Blazers have seemingly gotten better, they’re still a team that hasn’t been out of the first round of the playoffs since 2000. In other words, improving might be one thing, but proving is something else.
“We want to show that we can win at a high level, not just a get to the playoffs,” Wesley Matthews said. People, say ‘yeah, they’re a good team, they’re a tough team, they’re gonna play hard, win some games, lose games,’ and basically pass us over. But the last few years, we were one and done. So do we feel they’re right? No. But the stats say otherwise, so we have to do something about it.”