Blazers on fast track to contention
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
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
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
The trio represents the cornerstone of the Blazers' rebuilding plan and follows the criteria general manager
"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
Add to that mix Oden, a lottery pick in this year's draft and possibly highly touted guard
"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."