From resiliency to accountability, Blazers’ big three evolves
The movement began nearly four years ago.
Employing a little luck and a lot of shrewd skill, the Portland Trail Blazers added guard Brandon Roy and forward LaMarcus Aldridge to the once-struggling organization during the 2006 NBA Draft.
Change did not occur overnight, though. Unexpected turns and major detours — primarily involving the health of center Greg Oden — have at times blocked the path toward bringing an NBA championship to Rip City for the first time since 1977. Meanwhile, everyone from coach Nate McMillan and general manager Kevin Pritchard to young star Nicolas Batum and veteran Juwan Howard have played a major role in the franchise’s impressive turnaround during the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century.
But change has arrived. After beginning the 2009-10 season with one of the deepest and most promising rosters in the NBA, a resilient Blazers team has overcome major injuries and setbacks to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season. With its playoff seeding still to be determined, Portland can reach the 50-win mark for the second straight year if it picks up a victory over either Oklahoma City or Golden State during its final two regular-season games at the Rose Garden.
The Blazers are young. The Blazers are talented. The Blazers are good. And the still-developing team will likely only improve as the next decade unfolds.
“I was here in the resurgence, and have been around a lot of people. I know everybody in this building today is willing to do whatever it takes to be successful,” Pritchard said. “And that’s what we have to be. … We’re seeing a lot of guys step up and embrace accountability. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me.”
Yet for all of Portland’s progress, the team still faces a major question: Do the Blazers have a big three?
An NBA team possessing three top-tier, All-Star caliber players neither guarantees success nor a championship. Some franchises wilt under the weight of the power of three, buried by enormous contracts and similar-sized egos. Others spend years attempting to reach the promise land, but never officially arrive at their desired destination. Meanwhile, Detroit’s run from 2003-08 — highlighted by a league title in 2005 — lent credence to the idea that a roster filled with complimentary, unselfish talent could make up for a lack of all-world names.
But big picture, the idea that a big three is necessary to winning an NBA championship still carries major weight in the league. The Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs all won titles during the 2000s by building a wall of talent around three monster players. And teams that either took a short-term route — Miami — or a different approach — Detroit — ended up in one-and-done land.
“The quotient of three is hard to get around when you’re talking about championship basketball, at any level,” Blazers lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos said.
So, does Portland have a big three?
The Blazers unquestionably have a top two. Roy and Aldridge are two of the top young talents in the game. And while Roy has at times struggled with injuries, the duo’s unique blend of on-the-court skills and off-the-court respectability makes their talent even rarer. And the fact that they began their career in Portland, compounded with long-term contract extensions they signed last summer, ranks them among the premier 1-2 building pieces in the league.
“That was the plan, bringing Brandon and myself in,” Aldridge said. “And that was the plan when they traded Zach (Randolph). They felt like they had (No.) 1, 2 guys and Greg. I think they felt like they had three guys they could build around and win championships with.”
Washington coach Flip Saunders, who has led an NBA team to the conference finals four times, said Roy’s proven ability to close down games automatically puts Portland among the league’s elite. Meanwhile, Aldridge’s diverse array of weapons gives the Blazers a perfect complimentary player.
“You can’t find two better guys to put your future in,” Saunders said.
But what about No. 3?
Twenty-one games into the 2009-10 season, there was no question that the third piece of Portland’s puzzle belonged to Oden.
Playing the best basketball of his career, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft had finally begun to fulfill the vision the Blazers had when the organization drafted the former Ohio State standout, in turn passing up the opportunity to select Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant, who leads the league this season in average scoring.
At times absolutely dominant on the defensive and offensive ends of the floor, Oden made such strides this season that he began to rival Aldridge as Portland’s No. 2 scoring option.
“When Greg played, we were a different team,” Pritchard said. “You look at his last 20 games, and he was a really special player. He was starting to play at a level that was a top-seven, top-eight player. … So, we know that he is capable. That’s the one thing we know.”
But that is the only thing the Blazers currently know about Oden.
He suffered his second major knee injury in three seasons when he fractured his left patella Dec. 5 against Houston. It was a season-ending blow. One that temporarily derailed Portland’s high-minded goals for 2009-10, and one that raised major questions about Oden’s long-term prospects in a short-term league.
Still, when McMillan was asked who the Blazers’ No. 3 player was, he did not hesitate.
“Greg Oden. That’s the third guy that is in place, that we have and we’ll see next season,” McMillan said. “But we have that guy. It’s just a matter of (Roy, Aldridge and Oden) playing together.”
The organization has never failed to publicly back Oden, and Pritchard said the franchise still holds the reins in regards to keeping the often-injured center in Portland as long as it desires.
But while uncertainty about the basketball-side of Oden’s future still lingers, his second lost season has also provided unexpected returns. As young players such as Batum have inched closer to the spotlight, veterans such as Howard, Andre Miller and Marcus Camby have highlighted a new dimension of Blazer basketball.
Three by committee
The signing last summer of free agents Howard and Miller showed that the organization was attempting to add experience and wisdom to its already formidable roster. Meanwhile, a gutsy move to acquire Camby just before the trade deadline this season kickstarted a playoff push, during which Portland has gone 18-7 since the All-Star break.
McMillan, Pritchard and Roy said the addition of Camby primarily meant one thing: The Blazers are no longer taking a wait-and-see approach regarding their future, and the organization is not taking anything for granted.
“You want to keep playing in playoff series,” Roy said. “And not to say we wouldn’t have made it with those other guys, but who knows? So, I just think it’s important that you keep playing in playoff series, and you keep getting that experience.”
Underlining the veteran pickups, though, is an even deeper current. After stockpiling young talent since the demise of the Jail Blazers, Portland has entered phase two of the Roy and Aldridge years.
“We’re moving into this different era, where we’re trying to catch guys in their sweet spot; where they’re playing their best basketball over the next three or four years,” Pritchard said.
The alteration also gives the Blazers more breathing room. Even if bad luck takes over optimism — Oden eventually turns out to be a bust and Portland’s valuable No. 1 pick in 2007 is considered to have been wasted — the organization has several other pieces in place who could soften the blow.
“Your talent level has to be such that you can match the talent level of the other three or four or five best teams in the league,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “You don’t necessarily need to have a third person who’s a superstar.”
Several Blazer coaches and key front-office members said Batum, Miller, Camby and Webster have the ability to blend with Roy and Aldridge any given night and carry the tail end of the big three.
And while McMillan said the team must first finish the season before it can look ahead, Pritchard’s acknowledgment that the organization is now specifically looking for players in their prime builds upon the sentiment expressed in the Camby trade — Portland will exchange young promise for proven prime-time talent, if the possible acquisition can answer Pritchard’s call for “accountability.”
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have the long-term future in my sights,” Pritchard said. “Every day I’m planning. I’m looking at modeling out different things. I’m looking (at) who might be available; who is available; how does that person fit. I mean, we talk about that every day, every single day.”