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Has the Window Closed for the Portland Trail Blazers?

Portland's rise hasn't happened as quickly as expected

Please join us in welcoming Marcas Grant as a writer for Chasing 23. Marcas is a freelance writer, cartoon junkie and Golden State Warriors fan (another tortured soul). At any given time, two of those things bring him joy. For the past ten years, his combined love of sports and media have taken him up and down California from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and just about all points in between. He now lives in Los Angeles where the end of basketball season means the start of beach season. You can find Marcas at his second home on Twitter @MarcasG.

It was June 2006 and it was supposed to be the start of a new era in the NBA. Or at least in Portland. The organization had just jettisoned Darius Miles, Ruben Patterson and Sebastian Telfair, hoping to rid itself of the lingering stench left by the “Jail Blazers” of a few years previous. Steve Patterson had just taken over at general manager for the fired John Nash and hoped to take the franchise in a new direction.

After the dust had settled on the 2006 NBA draft, all signs pointed toward the start of something good in the Rose City. Patterson nabbed two of the top talents in a watered down draft class, working a pair of trades to land Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. The duo led the Blazers to a 32-50 record – not spectacular, but an 11-game improvement over the debacle of 2005-06. More importantly, it was a reason for the rest of the NBA to pay attention to Portland. Even more so when they landed the first pick in the ’07 draft with every intention of drafting Ohio State big man Greg Oden.

But nearly five years after that new beginning, the Blazers remain stuck in neutral. Sure, Portland is locked in for its third consecutive trip to the playoffs; yet in the heady, dreamlike days of 2006, landing as a sixth seed would have been considered a disappointment. Nonetheless, here they sit in the league’s netherworld – neither a doormat nor a true contender – with the proverbial window getting smaller all the time.

It’s easy to blame Oden’s fragility for Portland’s failure to vault into the Western Conference stratosphere, but Oden seems to be a symptom of a greater problem. In the past couple of years, Brandon Roy, Joel Przybilla and Jeff Pendergraph have all fallen victim to knee injuries. At some point, it stops being coincidence and starts being a trend.

Beyond the Blazers’ inability to keep key players on the court, it’s become apparent that the franchise has lacked a clear vision from management on which way the team should go – that inadequacy should be laid primarily at the feet of team owner Paul Allen. Despite heading that ’06 draft, Steve Patterson resigned before the season ended, putting a cap on a tumultuous tenure that began when he was hired as team president in 2003. Since then, the Trail Blazers went through two more general managers, before settling on current GM Rich Cho. Meanwhile, the draft returns since ’06 have been poor to say the least. The list of Blazers’ picks since then reads more like a “who’s that” than a “who’s who”.

Year Rd Pk Player College
2007 1 1 Greg Oden Ohio State University
2007 2 37 Josh McRoberts Duke University
2007 2 42 Derrick Byars Vanderbilt University
2007 2 52 Taurean Green University of Florida
2007 2 53 Demetris Nichols Syracuse University
         
Year Rd Pk Player College
2008 1 13 Brandon Rush University of Kansas
2008 2 33 Joey Dorsey University of Memphis
2008 2 36 Omer Asik  
2008 2 55 Mike Taylor Iowa State University
         
Year Rd Pk Player College
2009 1 22 Victor Claver  
2009 2 33 Dante Cunningham Villanova University
2009 2 38 Jon Brockman University of Washington
2009 2 55 Patrick Mills Saint Mary’s College of California
         
Year Rd Pk Player College
2010 1 22 Elliot Williams University of Memphis
2010 2 44 Jerome Jordan University of Tulsa

Can you spot the All-Star in that group? Take your time. If you said there isn’t one, you’re right. Since 2001, the Blazers have had just three All-Stars. All three were named Brandon Roy.

Free agency and trades didn’t go much better. Hitting the open market landed Portland a few contributors like Steve Blake and Andre Miller, but those signings were overwhelmed by the additions of guys like Ime Udoka, Luke Schenscher and Jarron Collins. It’s also difficult to build a franchise around a player that has played 82 games in four seasons. Although Greg Oden‘s injuries have crippled his NBA development, it’s not as though his salary crippled Portland’s ability to get top-tier free agent talent.

But even when things went right, they went wrong. Portland acquired James Jones and Rudy Fernandez in draft day deals only to have Jones bolt for Miami at the first opportunity while Fernandez was so unhappy with his diminished role that he threatened to abandon the Blazers and return to Spain.

And while the Blazers have spent time treading water, their former neighbors to the north in Seattle zoomed past them. After Portland drafted Oden, the Sonics took Kevin Durant with the second pick – a move that haunts Trail Blazer nation to this day.  Add one part Russell Westbrook, one part James Harden and a move to Oklahoma City -  and it’s the Thunder that have become the Western Conference’s future instead of the Blazers.

So far, the jury remains out on Cho, who was an assistant general manager with the Seattle Supersonics and Oklahoma City Thunder, but was primarily a number cruncher who focused on contracts and salary cap issues. Whether he has the chops to be a strong personnel guy remains to be seen, but the early returns are promising. Cho started by adding a quality shooter in Wesley Matthews. Then he pulled off a steal of a trade, acquiring Charlotte’s Gerald Wallace for a collection of bit players and pair of draft picks – one that came from New Orleans in exchange for the under performing Jerryd Bayless and the other a top-12 protected selection.

It hasn’t taken long for Wallace to fit in with his teammates; Aldridge referred to him as the team’s MVP after last week’s win over the Lakers. He adds an energy and a physicality that the team lacked. It also could be a glimpse into the Blazers’ playoff future. They continue to wait as L.A. and the Dallas Mavericks battle over the second seed in the West, but can point to beating both of those teams since trading for Wallace. With these recent moves, the window may not be closed on the Blazers quite yet, but time is certainly beginning to run out…

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Discussion

4 Responses to “Has the Window Closed for the Portland Trail Blazers?”

  1. Nice read. As a citizen of Rip City, I certainly believe the window is closing. Rumors of Roy’s unhappiness swirl and Aldridge made a statement (to other teams) this year by proving he could carry a heavier load. Oden’s fragile legs aside, I believe the window began to close when the Rockets smoked the Blazers in the playoffs a couple years ago.

    Aaron Brooks ran circles around Blake and Fernandez and Houston’s Yao and Scola were large enough to deal with the Blazer’s inside. A first round exit after a 50-win season meant the Blazers went back to the drawing board. The crying shame of it was that the Lakers dominated that year but the Blazers could crush them every time they played. Somehow they had the formula to routinely beat the Western champs, but in the offseason they retooled their team at the guard position to better protect against faster opposing guards. Although Steve Blake wasn’t the greatest floor general, three-point shooter, defender, or even favorite player of mine, he was important to their core identity and/or chemistry. When they unloaded Blake with a few others, the team never seemed to recover the same grand visions of the future that are mentioned in this article.

    Here’s a fun one to talk over a few beers (unless you’re a Blazers fan, then you drown yourself in hoppy craft beers while depressedly discussing): Brandon Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Durant as teammates.

    Posted by Clutch | April 12, 2011, 5:06 pm
  2. Hey, Omer Asik didn’t turn out so bad. Too bad it was with us (Bulls), and not the Blazers :)

    Posted by losbullz | April 12, 2011, 5:54 pm
  3. Rush and McRoberts turned out to be decent too. Though neither will ever be a star.

    Oden’s injuries have clearly hampered this team, but they could still win without him. It’s all the other injuries, especially Brandon Roy, that really could spell the end for this group. I’m not sure Roy will ever be the same player he once was.

    Nice job Marcas!

    Posted by Robert DoBucki | April 15, 2011, 1:34 am
  4. Cho did not sign Wesley Mathews. He was signed by the committee that ran the team BEFORE Cho was hired. Why don’t you know that?

    Posted by Chip Davis | May 24, 2011, 9:06 am

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