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A DIVISION ON THE BRINK

Oct. 25, 2010
Oct. 25, 2010

Table of Contents
Oct. 25, 2010

LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
NBA PREVIEW
The Vault
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A DIVISION ON THE BRINK

Four teams won 50 games, but all of them flopped in the postseason. Can one of them make a playoff breakthrough? If it's up to Brandon Roy, Portland will

This is an article from the Oct. 25, 2010 issue

On the eve of training camp, the Trail Blazers watched film of themselves walking off the floor. They saw how they staggered out of the playoffs in the first round two Aprils ago in Houston, and again last spring against the Suns, as opposing players celebrated around them. Then they were forced to take in a montage of playoff moments that occurred in their absence: Doc Rivers pleading for defense in a timeout, Phil Jackson asking for a stop in a huddle, Steve Nash directing, Kobe Bryant instructing, Kevin Garnett imploring. As Portland guard Brandon Roy listened to each of those renowned leaders, all he could hear were words he never said.

"I kept asking myself, What is the difference between those teams that made the conference finals and ours?" Roy says. "It's not talent. We had plenty of talent. It comes down to leadership. They had better leaders." Roy is the Blazers' best player, their top scorer, the face of their franchise. "But I was also the kind of guy who would leave work at work," he says. "Kobe is the kind of guy who is always thinking, What more can I do to help my team?"

Roy requested that the team arrange a meeting for him this summer with a sports psychologist, and in their first session the psychologist asked, "What do you want?"

"I want a championship," Roy answered.

"Do your teammates know that? Can they sense it?"

"They know I want to win. I don't know if they can sense it."

"They have to," the psychologist said. "Every day, they have to see how much you want it." Roy spoke with the psychologist for 90 minutes, and since then the psychologist has flown to Portland twice a month to see him.

"I thought I was a positive person before, but I realized I actually wasn't that positive," Roy says. "I'd walk past a teammate, and if he'd be down, I would keep going. A leader has to do more." Roy—who at 26 is entering his fifth season in the league—prefers not to identify the psychologist, but he makes it clear how counseling has affected him. He called trainers over the summer to check on the health of ailing teammates. He warned family members that he would be spending more time at the practice facility this season. He asked coaches to treat him like a rookie during camp. And he came up with a plan to integrate injured players into the practice schedule.

Last season Portland had 13 players combine to miss 311 games—even coach Nate McMillan ruptured his Achilles tendon while filling in during a workout—and many wound up commuting between their homes and hospitals. "This team used to be so close, we sometimes looked better than we were," Roy says. "But with all the injuries, guys got separated, divided, worrying about their own situations. We have to rebuild the brotherhood." Roy wants every injured player to stretch with the rest of the team before practice, go off to rehab and come back to join the huddle at the end.

Like Roy, the Blazers have evolved. Two years ago they were what the Thunder is right now: talented, trendy and still terribly young. The sheen wore off with consecutive first-round losses, and yet the long-term outlook improved. Because of the injury epidemic last season, McMillan discovered depth he did not know he had, and he coaxed Portland to 50 wins, sticking with his methodical offense that stands out in the rollicking Western Conference. The Blazers started to wonder what they could accomplish if they ever got the least bit lucky. They say their goal this season is to win a playoff series for the first time in more than a decade, but with a modicum of health, they can do more.

The same is true for several other teams in the Northwest, where guarded optimism is the norm. Last season four of its teams won at least 50 games, just the second time that has happened since the league realigned to five-team divisions in 2004. But three of the four proceeded to lose in the first round of the playoffs; the only winner, Utah, advanced only by beating another Northwest team, Denver. The Jazz was then swept by the Lakers in the second round.

With the exception of the Timberwolves, who won only 15 games last year and appear to be in a perpetual rebuilding mode, each team in the Northwest has the potential, if it can overcome its one nagging uncertainty, to make a deep run in the playoffs—or, with setbacks, to miss them completely. Oklahoma City, which hopes to continue to improve at a breakneck pace, should benefit from the experience that forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook gained in winning a gold medal at the world championships. But after a postseason performance in which the Thunder gave the Lakers fits in the first round before bowing out in six games, the team will now catch the opposition's attention for the first time. The Jazz needs power forward Al Jefferson to adequately replace Carlos Boozer. Utah should get as much production from Jefferson, but no one knows if he will mesh as well with point guard Deron Williams. And while the Nuggets should benefit from coach George Karl's return from neck and throat cancer, which sidelined him for the final two months of the regular season and the team's first-round loss to the Jazz, they could be demoralized by an unhappy Carmelo Anthony—or devastated by a trade.

For Portland the big question is, of course, whether the players can keep themselves out of the trainer's room. The Blazers don't have many significant roster changes, but personnel has rarely been their problem. "This is going to be a tough division and we have a chance to make it far," says center Marcus Camby. "But the key is the same as it's always been with this organization, and that's health." Portland, as usual, holds the biggest wild card. Center Greg Oden is still recovering from his second knee surgery in three seasons and gives no indication that he will be back before Christmas. But the Blazers do not need him until then, and when he does return, they do not need him to rescue the franchise as they once did. Expectations for Oden have diminished dramatically. If he can just be on the court come spring, blocking shots and grabbing offensive rebounds, the Blazers will consider themselves charmed.

Even though Oden played in just 21 games last season, he bore no resemblance to a bust. He averaged 8.5 rebounds and 2.29 blocks, and most of his numbers per 36 minutes were comparable with Dwight Howard's. This summer, Oden cut out most of his alcohol intake, dropped 30 pounds and hung in the hallway leading to his bedroom a painting of the number one—a gift from his mother, Zoe, to remind him that he and not Kevin Durant will always be the No. 1 pick from the 2007 draft. "Looking at the problems I've been through and the success that KD has had, I didn't feel worthy of it sometimes," Oden says. "But I have to embrace it. I have to be myself. I can't look at what he is doing and take it personally."

Oden is now thinking of adding another home furnishing. "You know where I can get a voodoo doll [of myself]?" he asks. "I would put it in a glass case. I would never allow anything sharp near it." The Blazers remain in their familiar state of flux, Oden and center Joel Przybilla nursing knee injuries, McMillan breaking in a new coaching staff and guard Rudy Fernandez requesting to be released from his contract so he can return to his native Spain.

To top it off, they have a rookie general manager in Rich Cho, the NBA's first Asian-American G.M. Born in Burma, Cho grew up outside Seattle, his family at times subsisting on welfare and food stamps. He worked as a busboy, a berry picker and a telemarketer before earning degrees from Washington State in engineering and Pepperdine in law. Hired by the Sonics as an intern while in law school, he teamed with Microsoft analysts to build player evaluation systems and was hired as an assistant general manager nine years ago at the age of 35. Cho is an analytics expert, but he concedes there is no accounting for the kind of misfortune that has followed the Blazers.

"You just wonder," McMillan says, "how many times lightning can strike." The Blazers are due a break, after a season in which seven players underwent surgery and assistant coach Maurice Lucas was treated for cancer, as was owner Paul Allen. Roy was the last player sent to the operating room, with a partially torn meniscus in his right knee, and eight days later he hobbled off the bench to help beat Phoenix in a first-round game. If Roy had stuck to his rehab schedule and missed the series, he believes he would have spent the summer thinking about his knee and how it would hold up. Instead, he spent the summer thinking about his team and how it could come together. He turned his attention from kinesiology to chemistry, from one kind of therapy to another. When the 2011 playoffs arrive, he will be the one in the middle of the huddle, demanding the crucial stop. He has come to the same conclusion that most great ones do, that leading by example is sort of a cop-out.

"I feel comfortable now being called a team leader, a franchise guy, where before I felt forced into it," Roy says. "I'm ready to fill that void. And it's not just about the rah-rah stuff. You have to push people forward. You have to help make them great."