Arash Markazi
Friday April 18th, 2008

The Trail Blazers are done playing basketball this season. While nine teams with 48 or more victories battled for the eight playoff spots in the Western Conference, the Blazers completed their fifth consecutive season without a playoff berth and eighth straight without a series win.

In all likelihood, it will be the last time they'll be able to enjoy an early vacation for the next decade.

For the first time in four years the Blazers (41-41), the third-youngest team in NBA history on opening night, finished the season at or above .500. More important, after the release of troubled forward Darius Miles this week, Portland, for the first time in at least 15 years, boasts a roster without a player who has been suspended or disciplined by the team or the NBA, according to The Oregonian.

Gone are the Jail Blazers and in their place is a youthful group of future stars that has restored Rip City as a basketball town and is being built to win a championship within five years.

"Only a few seasons ago this was absolutely the most disrespected organization in the league, and some would say in sports, with everything that was happening off the floor," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said the other day. "Character and potential were the main ingredients for the players we wanted to bring in, and that's how we've rebuilt this team."

It was no secret that this would be a rebuilding season for the Blazers. Outside the Rose Garden, there is a huge poster of injured No. 1 pick Greg Oden in a Blazers uniform that reads, "08 Worth The Wait." A full-page ad in The Oregonian proclaims, "The future is here ... imagine Oden next year." Another banner in the Rose Quarter, adjacent to the arena, says, "Rise With Us." The same slogan is plastered on the front of the Blazers' media guide around pictures of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Oden.

The trio represents the cornerstone of the Blazers' rebuilding plan and follows the criteria general manager Kevin Pritchard has for acquiring players, in which he puts just as much emphasis on personality and character as he does on talent.

"That was important for us, and the character of our core guys is off the charts," Pritchard said. "Greg Oden is one of the most unselfish people I've ever been around, LaMarcus Aldridge is always there and for an All-Star, Brandon Roy defines what it is to be a good teammate. We've picked the right players, we've developed them, we set their expectations, we demand a lot out of them and we are building a culture that has a propensity for success."

While expectations were low this season after Oden underwent microfracture surgery on his right knee in September, the Blazers began their turnaround sooner than most expected. They won 13 consecutive games in December, a stretch during which Roy became the first Blazer in 20 years to win back-to-back Player of the Week honors. Portland hit the midway point at 25-16 before a 1-8 skid in February stalled its bid for a playoff spot.

"That's what we're capable of if we can stay consistent," Roy, the Blazers' first All-Star in seven years, said of the early-season success. "It'll come but it's tough to be patient, especially in Portland where they are used to playoff teams [the Blazers' 21-year playoff streak ended in 2004]. We're taking the right steps, we're right there and we're going to be even better next year."

The Blazers' locker room this season often resembled that of a college team full of seniors, the result of having a team with an average age of about 24.

"We're such a tight group because we know we're going to play together for a while, at least the core," Roy said. "Coach told us at the beginning of the year that we're not looking to make any trades or add any players, so this is the group we have. I think we just matured together."

In addition to Roy, 23, Portland's roster is littered with talented players who have yet to see their prime. Aldridge, 22, was one of the league's most improved players this season, nearly doubling his scoring from his rookie season (9.0 to 17.8) while also averaging 7.6 rebounds. Third-year swingman Martell Webster, 21, nicknamed "Baby Kobe" by his teammates after scoring 24 points in the third quarter of a comeback win against the Jazz, averaged a career-high 10.7 points. Fifth-year forward Travis Outlaw, 23, was among the NBA's top sixth men with his 13.2-point average, also a career high.

Add to that mix Oden, a lottery pick in this year's draft and possibly highly touted guard Rudy Fernandez (a 2007 first-round pick who has been playing in Spain), and the Blazers figure to be one of the deepest teams in the league next season and for the foreseeable future.

"We're excited about being young and getting better and being in a good position to win games for a while," Aldridge said. "We feel like we can beat any team. We feel like we can beat the Spurs, Suns, Lakers, Mavericks, whoever any night right now, and we'll still be here when those teams get old and their guys retire. We're going to be here for a long time."

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