Complete turnaround

Tuesday January 8th, 2008

The last several months have been like a roller coaster for the Portland Trail Blazers, or at least that's how Brandon Roy sees it.

For the 6-foot-6 shooting guard, a peak came in May, when he stood on the stage at the NBA draft lottery in New Jersey and, flashing a 1,000-watt smile, accepted the No. 1 overall pick on behalf of the franchise. A valley arrived just two weeks before training camp, when Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan huddled Roy and several of his teammates together after a scrimmage and informed them that the top pick, center Greg Oden, would be lost for the season following microfracture knee surgery.

"You know, I didn't even want to be [at the lottery]," Roy recalled during a recent phone interview. "When I walked into the room, the first thing I asked was, 'How long do I have to be here?' Then we get the top pick ... man, I couldn't stop smiling. Then Greg goes down and it felt like we were back to where we started."

As it turns out, the ride for Roy and the rest of the Trail Blazers was just beginning. After stumbling to a 5-12 start, Portland has rattled off 16 wins in its last 17 games, including a 13-2 record in December, the team's first winning month in three years. Paced by Roy, the NBA's reigning Rookie of the Year, the league's youngest team (and third youngest in NBA history) has emerged as a legitimate playoff contender in the rugged Western Conference.

The dramatic turnaround can be traced to early December, when the team nearly imploded in the aftermath of a 100-79 loss at San Antonio. Only one starter (Martell Webster) scored in double figures while the other four starters scored a combined 13 points. Afterward, second-year power forward LaMarcus Aldridge took the team to task in the locker room.

"He was really upset," Roy said. "He said we can't quit like that. He said that we have been down by 25 points and won and we have been up by 25 and lost. We have to find a way to play together."

The next night Portland played at Memphis, where the teams went back and forth until Blazers forward Travis Outlaw hit a six-foot runner at the buzzer to give Portland it's first road victory of the season.

"The NBA season, it's too long," Roy said. "We didn't want to go through 82 games saying, 'Let's wait until Greg comes back.' " Instead, Roy said, "Let's prepare now so when Greg comes back, we'll be a year better. When he's back, we can try to mature. Good things can still happen for this team."

Perhaps the best thing that has happened is that Portland is actually acting like a team. For two decades, the Trail Blazers were one of the NBA's strongest franchises, running off 21 consecutive playoff appearances from 1983 to 2003 and reaching the NBA Finals in 1990 and '92. But in 2004, Portland bottomed out. Behavioral issues that were brushed off when the team was successful became headline news. Attendance declined sharply at the Rose Garden, where the Blazers once routinely played before capacity crowds.

But thanks to some solid coaching and shrewd decision-making, the "Jail Blazers" image is a distant memory.

Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard has done a masterful job of turning the page (like dealing Zach Randolph to the Knicks) while bringing in high-character players who just so happen to also be high in talent. He added depth at point guard last offseason when he signed veteran Steve Blake to compete with incumbents Jarrett Jack and Sergio Rodriguez. And Pritchard has thrown his full support behind McMillan, a taskmaster who in his third year at the helm has Portland playing disciplined basketball.

In 2006, as the Trail Blazers' director of player personnel, Pritchard is credited with helping the team score big in the draft with Roy and Aldridge. Roy's play this season has been the most eye-opening. Despite facing consistent double teams -- "I'm on the first page of the scouting reports now," he said -- Roy has raised his scoring average from 16.8 points as a rookie to 19.0 this season. Sensing a weakness in his pick-and-roll play, he spent the summer working with the SuperSonics' Luke Ridnour and Nick Collison in Seattle. Thanks to that work, Roy believes he is much more effective with the pull-up jump shot, while his assist total has increased from 4.0 to 5.6.

"We play the right way and we're unselfish," Pritchard said. "I thought we had the right culture this season -- guys who care about playing the right way, playing hard, playing to win. You never know if it translates into the playoffs, but it bodes well for the future."

Portland has also developed a strong competitive streak.

"I think we were underrated coming into the season," Roy said. "A lot of teams said, 'We can count Portland out.' They said, 'Where are we going to get it from?' A lot of guys on our team took that personally. I know LaMarcus and Joel [Przybilla] took it that way. I did too.

"We want to go out and try to shock some people. It's a little easier to try to perform when no one expects us to do well. No matter what we do, people are going to think we're overachieving. So we might as well do it."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.