TUALATIN, Ore. — The Trail Blazers have one goal for the future: To make what just happened a thing of the past.
If NBA history were a zoo, the 2011-2012 regular season is the platypus — weird, awkward, and often hard to make any sense out of.
Coming off a five-month lockout that nearly killed the year, the league crammed 66 games into 123 days and concocted what Jamal Crawford described as “the longest short season ever.”
But for Portland, this year was not only different but disheartening as well. A season that began with guarded optimism, then rocket-launched into serious promise, quickly spiraled into depths the organization has not seen in years.
The finished product was a 28-38 record for a team that saw three-time All-Star Brandon Roy retire, starters Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby get traded, thought-to-be savior Greg Oden get cut, and once-heralded coach Nate McMillan get fired.
And the chasers to that sour taste provided no such relief to the palate — not when Wesley Matthews’ numbers were plunging, and Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford’s contributions were underwhelming.
But now, mercifully, that is all behind the organization. The question is, what needs to be addressed moving forward?
Starting with: Getting a permanent general manager in place.
Portland’s acting GM, Chad Buchanan, said Friday that he takes responsibility for the organization’s shortcomings this season. Since he replaced Rich Cho in May, the Blazers have A) traded away Andre Miller for a much-less productive Felton, B) selected Nolan Smith (3.8 ppg, .372 FG%) over the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried (10.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .586 FG%), and C) failed to extend Nicolas Batum’s contract when the forward commanded less money than he will this offseason. Granted, the draft pick Buchanan acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline was phenomenal, and picking up J.J. Hickson off waivers could prove quite fortuitous, but the Blazers removing Buchanan’s interim tag is not extremely likely.
And with the draft and free-agency coming up, Portland would benefit from securing a central figure in future personnel decision.
But right after that — they need to hire a full-time coach.
When Matthews was asked what kind of coach the team needs moving forward, he did not offer a description. Instead, he simply said “Kaleb Canales.”
The 34-year-old, whose only other head-coaching job had been with a junior varsity high school team, took over after McMillan’s firing and further earned the Blazers’ respect. Just about every player who spoke with the media following Friday’s exit interviews endorsed Canales for the full-time position. But when Buchanan was asked how much the players’ enthusiasm for Canales will factor into the team’s decision, he replied “a little bit.”
Sometimes, the boss whose presence you most enjoy is not the one best-suited to deliver optimal results. Portland would be wise to retain Canales as an assistant, but the franchise would benefit from a coach with more experience.
Could it be former Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni? Perhaps a long-time assistant waiting for a shot? Tough to say.
And once a coach is in place — the Blazers need plug the holes in their lineup.
The following sentence contains zero controversy: The Felton experiment did not work out. The 27-year-old finished the season as the NBA’s 43rd most efficient point guard and posted numbers well south of his career averages.
His contract is also up, and while neither he nor the Blazers have ruled out a return, neither seem particularly hellbent on a re-sign. Asked if he would consider coming back to Portland, Felton said “I’ll consider anywhere. I’ll consider Charlotte,” (which finished with the worst winning percentage in league history). Buchanan, meanwhile, said that point guard is a concern for the team, and that as far as Felton goes, he is “not closing the door on anything.”
But what about Crawford, the other guard the Blazers signed just before the season? The 32-year-old was second on the team in points and assists, but finished with a .384 shooting percentage (although his .927 clip from the foul line was tops in the league).
Crawford told multiple sources Saturday that he will, in fact, opt out of his contract and test the free-agent market. The question is: What will he command?
An Oregonian story last week cited McMillan as being critical of Crawford — that the veteran cared more about his shot-selection than team success all the while disavowing defense. Crawford responded to the charges Friday by saying that in his 12 years in the league, he has never been accused of being a selfish player, and that “if there was a story that said I worked at Voodoo Doughnuts, people would believe that, too.”
Batum’s retention also seems to be a high-priority for Portland. Because the Blazers did not sign the Frenchman to an extension, other teams around the league can offer him a contract, which Portland will have the opportunity to match. But even though the Blazers did not extend him, Batum said he is “99-percent sure” Portland will match any offer, and that the franchise has repeatedly intimated its desire to retain him.
What is more up in the air is the return of J.J. Hickson. Buchanan said Friday that the team has not yet decided whether to tender the forward a qualifying offer, but that there is a need for big men.
Whether that happens through the draft or free-agency is to be determined — just as is Portland’s position in the draft. The Blazers currently have the No. 11 slot in the draft board, but could get one of the top three picks if the ping-pong balls bounce their way. Additionally, the Blazers own New Jersey’s pick as long as the Nets do not obtain the first, second, or third selection. If they don’t, their pick will be converted into a No. 6 selection for the Blazers.
But talk to the players, and they’re not thinking about the draft so much as they are trying to move on mentally from the pain of this season.
Fortune rarely found this team, and the statistics just didn’t measure up to that of previous season.
“I know I can get better,” said Matthews, whose numbers were also down. “Numbers were down across the league. That helps me sleep a little bit better at night.”