Blazing New Trails

Blazers have undergone makeover from top to bottom

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

For many years, the man in the Rose Garden security suit jacket has been standing by the glass doors that shield outsiders from the Trail Blazers' locker room.

They know him as Peter, and since even before his head of hair turned completely white, he has permitted the giants in designer shoes to walk through, because he knows they are Blazers, the pride of Portland.

Everybody else, he asks for their pass.

But this year, Peter hides a piece of paper inside his pocket. Sometimes when a tall guy walks by, he must sneak a peek at his roster with color headshots because even he is still learning all the new Blazer faces.

The 2012-2013 NBA season marks a radical shift in Blazer basketball as the organization has undergone a makeover from top to bottom. The team president and general manager come from Southern California, the coach from Dallas, and eight of the 15 players on the opening-night roster are calling Portland home for the first time. The change has been so sweeping, so complete that it has inspired the Blazer marketing team.

New Team. New Dream.

"This is a neewwww story," Nicolas Batum said, stressing the buzzword around the Blazers through his French accent. "It's a new family. We've got new players. We've got a new coaching staff. We've got a new president now. We've got a new GM. Everything's new, so I think people are excited."

The season feels like its coming wrapped under plastic. It has felt that way since players began meeting one another in Tualatin.

"It was like the first day of school," Wesley Matthews said. "You didn't know what to expect, first time going into high school and didn't know anybody."

Even days before the start of the season, players were still making adjustments to the newness.

"We have a 1,001 plays," LaMarcus Aldridge said. "That surprises me that we add a new play everyday."

New Team. New Dream.

Yeah. No kidding.

Over the course of the summer, the Blazers hired general manager Neil Olshey and filled their head coaching position with former Dallas Mavericks assistant Terry Stotts.

The team added building blocks through the draft with the No. 6 pick, starting point guard Damian Lillard, the No. 11, center Meyers Leonard, and second-rounder Will Barton while also complementing the youth with affordable veterans in Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic and Ronnie Price.

Still, the infusion of old blood only means so much to one of the youngest teams in the league (an average of 24.6 years old), and the expectations for the upcoming season reflect that of a rebuilding project.

"We're not going to define success objectively. It's going to be a subjective process based on the process we're starting," Olshey said. "We're going to look at this season in terms of success, as far as I'm concerned, with Terry instituting his system, growth from our veterans, our young guys proving they were the right guys to draft, and having the flexibility and being a destination in terms of free agency when we're aggressive in the market.

"This is step one in what's going to be a process."

Steadying the ship, Aldridge, Batum and Matthews remain as the last three veteran holdovers from the previous era. That time began with hopes high for the development of a Big Three consisting of Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, but only delivered season after season of injury-riddled 'wait-till-next-year' promises.

"We had a lot of good players with injuries -- we all know what happened, so I won't get back to that," Batum said. "To have a new change is good. If you ask LaMarcus, he's going to say the same. After what happened the last couple of years, we needed a new start.

"You don't know what's going to happen, so that's kind of exciting."

At first blush, Blazer fans seem just fine following the new Blazers down this dark alley. Not showing fear of the unknown, season-ticket holders have renewed at an estimated rate of 80-90 percent, according to team officials. That renewal rate is similar to last season.

Also, the team expects a full house on opening night Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers, which would continue the Blazers' consecutive streak of 192 straight sellouts at the Rose Garden.

The passion still burns red hot, but even an enthusiastic fan base such as Portland's will be tested by a team that starts one rookie, gives a significant role to another, and only marginally improved from last year's 28-38 roster.

But for now, the faithful are fired up -- as well as still learning whom to root for.

On Monday, players and Blazer staffers served up dinner to 6,000 underprivileged individuals and families. Several guests stared quizzically at the tall, young man who placed slices of turkey and gravy on their plates.

"Who are you?" one woman asked Luke Babbitt, a returning player. "You don't look familiar."

She didn't know that even the longtime Rose Garden security guard needs a cheat sheet with this team.