The wait is finally over; for the first time since 2003 (or, my senior year of high school), the Blazers are returning to the playoffs! A Phoenix loss to the Mavs on Sunday clinched it, though Portland bowing easily to Houston sort of dampened the moment. Still, it's been a long, hard five seasons for as loyal Portland fans who watched some truly atrocious and unruly teams in a half-empty Rose Garden. We longed for the days that Portland perennially made the postseason, days that in hindsight were taken for granted. I will take one final look back on some of the darkest days in franchise history as a way to fully heal from those wounds. There will be ample time for celebration later, but for now I'd like to reflect on how far this team has come. As always, my facts are 100% accurate or your money back.
2002-2003: The End of an Era
In a lot of ways this team's collapse was inevitable. A series of questionable (or stupid, depending on your point of view and sobriety level) managerial moves, most notably letting popular forward Brian Grant walk and replacing him with the troubled Shawn Kemp, left the Blazers with a team full of troubled washed up has beens and influential, unrefined talent.
In the 2002-2003 season, Portland still had a relatively deep and talented roster with the likes of Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, and Rasheed Wallace leading the way. Portland made the playoffs but dropped into an 0-3 hole against the Mavericks in the first round. Rip City made one final appearance, winning the next three games and forcing a game seven. That final game went back and forth, and Portland actually held a slim lead with less than five minutes to go. However, Dallas came back and pulled off the win, eliminating the Blazers.
In those days it was impossible to discuss the Blazers without discussing the law: from 1997 to the end of the 2003 season Portland had 14 differend players cited or arrested for 30 different incidents. Bonzi Wells famously told Sports Illustrated that "the fans don't really matter to us. They boo us every day, but they're still gonna ask for our autographs when they see us on the street."
For the season Portland was 50-32. Wallace led the team with 18 points and 7 rebounds a game, with Wells throwing in 15 points a game.
GM Bob Whistett finally stepped down following Portland's playoff exodus in Dallas, with John Nash taking his place. I firmly believe that Nash's heart was in the right place: though the Blazers were still relatively talented on the court their behavior was alienating the fanbase and humiliating the city. The faces of the Jail Blazer image were Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells, and both were unceremoniously traded before the midway point of the season. Zach Randolph picked up the slack and posted 20-10 for the whole season, garnering Most Improved Player honors. Stoudamire also had a bit of a resurrection and Darius Miles had a bit of a breakout with 11 points and 4.5 rebounds a game.
Portland finished 41-41 and out of the playoffs for the first time in 22 seasons. In the last game of the season the Blazers still had a chance to finish above .500 with a win against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant nailed a handful of impossible shots, including a damn near impossible 30 foot fadaway three over Patterson to win in ovetime. In a lot of ways this season was somewhat promising. Players viewed as "bad eggs" like Wallace and Wells were gone and young players like Randolph, Miles, and Theo Ratliff were all showing promise and were rewarded with massive extensions.
Several fans at the time thought this .500 season and missing the playoffs would be that low point, and that the Blazers would return to a highly competitive level the following season. It's amazing how blind us Blazers fans were at the time, how spoiled we were to think 41-41 was a low point.
2004-2005: Yeah, nevermind on that whole "rebuilding" thing
The 2004-2005 season actually started with promise. In the offseason Portland drafted highly touted point guard Sebastian Telfair straight out of high school (though I'd really hoped they would go with Jameer Nelson). Through November the Blazers were above .500 at 8-6, and still competitive at 13-14 through December.
It was all downhill from there.
For the rest of the season Portland was 14-41. The good news is that there wasn't much legal trouble with the team. The bad news is that it was replaced by infighting. A few lowlights include Miles calling coach Mo Cheeks a "****" at halftime of a game in which Portland was getting destroyed (Miles was only fined one game check, which was later reimbursed), and also Randolph and Patterson squaring off in practice (the fight ended with Randolph sucker-punching Patterson in the jaw. He's a sex offender and so it's hard to feel bad for him...). The likable but ineffective Cheeks was fired in February and replaced by Kevin Pritchard on an interim basis.
On the floor the team battled injuries and an extreme lack of chemistry. Randolph missed 37 games with injury, Miles 19, Shareef Abdur-Rahim 28. The lone bright spot was Stoudamire, who played in 81 games and posted 16 points and 6 assists. At one point in the season he had a triple double and two games later a 54 point explosion, but the Blazers lost both games.
At the end of the season Portland had a bad record, bad tempers, bad contracts, and no end in sight. Few had high hopes for the following season, and with good reason. Accomplished veterans Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Nick Van Exel, and Stoudamire all left via free agency. I recall being sad to see Stoudamire go- though he was once caught with marijuana he was one of the nicest guys on the team and always played hard. I also recall being happy for Damon, getting out of the awful scenario that was the Jail Blazers.
2005-2006: Well, it can't get worse. Oh, I guess it can.
In the offseason the biggest move was signing Nate McMillan as coach to hopefully bring some leadership and stability in the locker room. To a degree it worked, even in the famously dreadful 2005-2006 season. However, it was very obvious before the season even started that Portland lacked the talent, experience, and depth to be any good. This team was playing for the future.
The Blazers were once again not devoid of off-court troubles. Miles, Patterson, Randolph, and Telfair all had personal and legal issues over the course of the season and became the new "Jail Blazer" faces, replace those of Wells, Qyntel Woods, and Wallace. Miles also wrecked his knee and only played in 40 games, though Randolph recovered nicely to average 18 and 8 in 71 games. Telfair, though given significant minutes early on, showed he couldn't function in McMillan's controlled offense and rebelled against the system.
The one good thing was that McMillan made it very clear early on: if you don't play a team game you won't get minutes. He injected some much needed discipline into a team run amoke, bringing a no-nonsense approach to a bunch of kids who needed regulation. The only question was whether or not the management could give him a group of players that could follow the rules. When he first arrived it was clear things would get worse before they got better.
For the season Portland was the worst offensive team with no real rotation. They were also loaded with big, bad contracts like those of Miles and Ratliff (who never was more than a 7 and 7 guy anyway). The Blazers started 16-22, and that was the good part of the season. Once McMillan began giving minutes to good characters who would play his system, the Blazers stopped winning. Portland closed the season at 5-29 and dropped 19 of its last 20, finishing a league-worst 21-61.
John Nash was fired at the end of the year. To his credit, he at least attempted to usher in a rebuilding phase in Portland. He just had no idea how to do it. There was also speculation the billionaire owner Paul Allen would sell the team. Eventually he opted to hold on to the team, and placed his trust in Kevin Pritchard (who had returned to the front office), urging him to make draft day trades and make over the team as much as possible, as fast as possible.
2006-2007: Light at the end of the tunnel
Ask and ye shall receive. Allen asked Pritchard (aka KP) to make trades, and make trades Pritchard did. Even though Portland had the best chance for the #1 pick, they wound up with the #4 pick.
It was an absolute blessing in disguise.
Draft day 2006 started innocently enough with Portland using it's 4th overall pick on the raw but athletic Tyrus Thomas. Then things got interesting. For his first trick, KP traded Telfair, Ratliff, and an '08 2nd rounder to Boston for Raef Lafrenz, Dan Dickau, and the rights to Randy Foye (the 7th overall pick). For his next act, KP sent the rights to Foye to Minnesota for the rights to Brandon Roy (the 6th overall pick). Finally, KP traded Viktor Khryapa and the rights to Thomas to Chicago for the rights to forward Lamarcus Aldridge, the #2 overall pick.
So, in quick summary, Portland traded Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, Viktor Khryapa, the #4 overall pick, and a 2008 2nd rounder for Raef Lafrenz, Dan Dickau, the #2 overall pick, and the #6 overall pick. In other words, the Blazers traded away three players who weren't starters and the #4 pick for for two players who weren't starters and the #2 and #6 pick.
With all the wheeling and dealing, Portland was looking at a very different team than they left off with. It was clear right away that A) Roy was a very talented rookie, B) Zach Randolph was ready and willing to be an All-Star caliber player, and C) once again, Portland would not be making the playoffs. A 5 game winning streak in December would push their record to 12-14, but they would do no better than that the rest of the way.
You could feel the change in the air, though. The Rose Garden was still only 3/4 full, but you could feel Portland was on their way back. Just whispers of it, but as Roy began to assert himself as the leader of the team and Aldridge continued to play stronger and stronger as the season progressed one could understand that this team finally had a bright future to look towards. KP had given the fans what Nash couldn't: hope.
On the season Randolph had his best year ever, averaging 23-10. Roy was named Rookie of the Year and Aldridge was also named to the All-Rookie team, and as a team the Blazers went 32-50 (an 11 game improvement on the year before). Rip City wasn't back, but at least the Jail Blazers were finally gone.
2007-2008: A glimpse of things to come
In the offseason two very important things happened: first and foremost the Blazers won the draft lottery despite only 5% odds, and second Kp was promoted to general manager. The big debate of the 2007 draft was who would go first overall: Greg Oden out of Ohio State, long proclaimed the next dominant big man, or Kevin Durant out of Texas, the most prolific scorer to come out of college in years. After much deliberation and evaluation the Blazers opted to go with Oden. KP's reasoning was while Durant could well be a 15-time All-Star, NBA scoring leader, and MVP candidate, Oden had the potential to be the type of big man that every great NBA dynasty and nearly every NBA champion had (Russell, Kareem, Shaq, etc.).
The moment Oden was drafted the entire scene in Portland changed. Instead of talking about making the playoffs again in a year or two with Roy and Aldridge, fans saw a Big Three of Oden, Roy, and Aldridge leading the Blazers to a dynasty. Titles (plural), not playoffs, became the goal. Season tickets sold out roughly three hours after Oden was drafted. It all hinged on Big Greg- he almost singehandedly brough Blazermania back before he played a single minute.
The drafting of Oden allowed KP to send away Randolph, who's scoring ability and rebounding skill was offset by an allergy to defense and his Jail Blazer image. Not two hours after Oden was drafted, Randolph was traded for Channing Frye and Steve Francis of the New York Knicks. I still contend Portland could have gotten something much better for a 24-10 player, as Frye has never been much more than a backup and Francis was bought out immediately. It's my belief that the Blazers management didn't want Randolph around Oden, and it was an addition by subtraction move.
A less noted but nearly as important move was KP buying the Suns first round draft pick and using it on international star Rudy Fernandez, even though Rudy wasn't expected to come to America for another year or two.
Unfortunately, Oden's rookie season ended before it began when an minor exploratory knee surgery in August revealed cartilage damage that required the dreaded microfracture surgery. Not only did this set of roughly 18905348985478927358912 "Sam Bowie" comparisons, but it also left Portland desperately thin inside. Their best post player had just been traded away, and it left Joel Przybilla (2 points and 4 boards in 42 games the previous season) as the starting center with Aldridge (who only started 22 games the previous year and was still viewed as more project than product) starting at the 4.
Due to this injury many assumed that the Blazers would struggle through one more 30 win season and make their playoff move the following season. The team had other ideas.
After an unsurprising 5-12 start, the Blazer reeled off a 13 game winning streak in December and into January. Roy was named the West Player of the Week in consecutive weeks and McMillan was the player of the month. At the midway point of the season Portland had a 25-16 record and were tied for the division lead. Roy was clear leader of the team and was awarded with an All-Star selection. Most importantly, the Rose Garden (a financial black hole due to declined attendance) was selling out and rocking once again. In fact, the Blazers have sold out every game since the 7th win of the 13 game winning streak.
Sadly, the good times couldn't last. In a murderous Western Conference where 8 teams won 50+ games and another won 48, Portland was just too young and inexperienced to keep pace. The Blazers closed the season at 16-25 but still finished .500 (a 9 game improvement in a season where they were expected to struggle) for the first time since 2004. Lamarcus Aldridge stepped up his game in a big way, averaging 18 and 7.5. Przybilla also made huge strides in his game and led the team with 8.5 rebounds a game. In other words, those worries about bad post play were unwarranted. Also, Travis Outlaw (who had been riding the pine since he was drafted in 2003) emerged as an explosive bench scorer and clutch player.
Very simply, Portland is back. Only Outlaw remains from that 2003 sqaud that last made the playoffs, and he didn't play a single minute after the New Year in that season. The Jail Blazers are all gone, Darius Miles' well documented and mishandled departure saw to that. The team is loaded with good character guys that care about winning while also being exemplary role models. The truly remarkable thing is that this team isn't done growing. They still have the youngest active roster in the NBA, a managerial whiz at the helm, and a billionaire owner who isn't afraid to use his money to make the team better. It is finally and once again time to cheer for Portland in the playoffs, and it is once again a great time to be a Blazers fan.