On the first day of training camp, the Portland Trail Blazers gathered at their practice facility and assessed the collateral damage from the season before: Thirteen players missed a combined 311 games, seven of them underwent surgery, coach Nate McMillan tore an Achilles tendon while filling in at practice, one of his assistants was diagnosed with cancer and the owner of the team was diagnosed with cancer as well.
The Blazers recited those gory details to illustrate both their resilience and their potential. They won 50 games last season, despite all the impossibly bad bounces, and imagined what they could accomplish with the slightest change of fate. The way they saw it, their luck could get no worse, so neither could their record.
"You just wonder," McMillan said that day, "how many times lightning can strike."
The Blazers reached the midpoint of their season last weekend with the dark cloud still firmly affixed to their scalp: Eight players have already missed a combined 139 games, Greg Oden is recovering from his third knee surgery in four years and Brandon Roy is preparing for surgery on both knees. And on Tuesday, it was announced that Marcus Camby would undergo surgery to repair a partially torn left meniscus, becoming the fifth Blazer have a procedure done on his knee this season.
The unthinkable has occurred. "It seems to have gotten worse," McMillan said. Every team suffers injuries, and they are easy to use as alibis, but no one loses more significant players for longer periods of time than the Blazers. "The thing about our injuries is that guys are out for the whole year," McMillan said. That is certainly the case for Oden and possibly for Roy.
Still, as stunning as their medical misfortune is their ability to overcome it, or at least cope with it. Last season, the Blazers lost both of their centers and two of their small forwards for extended stretches, but dusted off Juwan Howard, acquired Camby and used reserves such as Dante Cunningham and Jeff Pendergraph to key an inspiring playoff entry. This season, they have Patrick Mills pitching in productive minutes off the bench, Wesley Matthews validating every penny of his once-questionable $32.5 million contract, and LaMarcus Aldridge looking like an All-Star with 20.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. McMillan has sped up his methodical offense a bit, and once again, the Blazers are over .500 and in line for a playoff spot.
"When you've gone through this for a couple years, guys get used to it," Aldridge said. "They get used to stepping in. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We have to keep pushing forward. Not making excuses is what keeps us going."
In addition to the injuries, the Blazers have lost nine games this season when entering the fourth quarter with a lead, which can cause psychological issues to go along with the physical ones. But their roster remains among the deepest in the league -- partly because they're constantly forced to use backups -- and their coach among the most resourceful.
"It's really hard to keep recovering from something like this, but we don't have a choice," McMillan said. "People don't care what has happened to us. We have to get up. We have to move on. Guys wanted an opportunity to play? Well, now they've got it."
Not long ago, the Blazers were billed as the future of the Western Conference, touting a core of Aldridge, Oden and Roy. But the injuries completely altered their identity, turning them into the NBA's Wile E. Coyote, the team that takes boulders off the head and keeps coming back for more. In each of the past two years, the Blazers were lauded for winning 50-plus games while short-handed, and pardoned for losing in the first round of the playoffs. But pats on the head are no longer enough for them. "It's time to win a playoff series," one player said in training camp, a modest goal then but an ambitious one now.
"This is the team we're going down the stretch with," McMillan said. "How do we get it done with the guys we have? You've almost got to play perfect basketball."
In light of the latest epidemic, McMillan said the Blazers have re-evaluated all their training methods -- from how they travel to how they rest players -- but he is being re-evaluated as well. McMillan is in the final year of his contract and working for a first-time general manager, Rich Cho. If this season ends like the others, McMillan could be among the casualties, though he would not be unemployed long. Few coaches do more with less on a regular basis. The Lakers are one team that will almost assuredly have a coaching vacancy this summer, with assistant Brian Shaw already considered a top candidate.
The next three months are crucial for the future of McMillan and the Blazers both. Either they outrun the dark cloud together or try to do it apart.