Season wrap-up: Blazers make progress, but questions still remain
The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2009-10 season began with the failed pursuit of free agents Hedo Turkoglu and Paul Millsap.
It ended with a first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns.
But in between the initial failure and a second consecutive early postseason exit was progress.
Progress in the face of adversity and challenges. Fifty wins and the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs despite 311 games missed due to injury.
Blazers such as Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster took major steps forward, adding important new facets to their game. Meanwhile, franchise cornerstones Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge continued their development, balancing increased expectations with bigger roles and larger numbers.
In the process, a Blazers team that spent the past two seasons being defined by its young potential evolved into one known more for its veteran-guided ability to persevere through drama, chaos and misfortune.
Moreover, the injuries that plagued Portland in 2009-10 — consistently thinning out the team’s loaded roster and at times limiting forward movement — also established the Blazers (50-32) as a squad that is physically and mentally tougher than the one that entered the season.
“That allowed us to rally behind what we had in each other, and to be a 50-win team,” Webster said. “Us showing how we played through adversity has really given us an identity that we won’t back down to anybody. And I definitely tip my hat to my teammates, because we did a great job this year.”
But while Portland’s ability to persevere through unplanned change showed off the team’s strong heart and soul, it also masked questions that remain unanswered as the summer leading up to 2010-11 approaches.
Greg Oden’s future, Roy’s health and Aldridge’s reliability as a No. 2 offensive option top the list. But issues such as the progress and long-term viability of former first-round draft picks Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez are near the forefront. As is the fact that the Blazers will likely enter next season with a frontcourt — Oden, Aldridge, Marcus Camby, Joel Przybilla, Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham — so loaded that playing time and player happiness will almost certainly demand as much initial attention as on-the-court roles.
Factor in that the status of general manager Kevin Pritchard is still undecided, and the scene surrounding the 2010-11 Blazers could be eerily similar to the one that surrounded the 2009-10 team when training camp begins in October.
“I’m a firm believer that you add the best human beings with the best talent, and then their talent will rise to the top,” Pritchard said in April. “And that’s the coach’s opportunity. And Nate is fantastic — look what he’s done with this team.”
McMillan accomplished a great deal with the Blazers in 2009-10.
While Portland dealt with an uncanny, often surreal run of injuries, the team’s fifth-year coach managed to steer the ship straight and forward all season.
A third-place finish in NBA coach-of-the-year voting affirmed McMillan’s accomplishments. But words of praise from Pritchard, several key Blazers and fellow coaches said more.
While Roy often paid tribute during the season to McMillan’s steady, even hand, Webster said after the 2009-10 season was complete that Portland still believed in and listened to the advice, strategies and life lessons McMillan constantly offered.
“Nate has done a better job than anybody in our league,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said in February.
In 2009-10, doing a better job often meant doing more with less.
Accounted in the 311 regular-season games missed due to injury were significant stretches during which everyone from Roy to ex-Blazer Travis Outlaw was forced to watch from the sideline. In addition, Oden and Przybilla suffered season-ending knee injuries, while eight Portland players missed at least 17 games.
Following the Blazers’ 99-90 defeat to Phoenix in Game 6 on Thursday at the Rose Garden — a loss that gave the Suns a 4-2 series victory and ended Portland’s year — Roy acknowledged that his team’s season was ultimately defined more by games missed than points scored or victories recorded.
“When you’re healthy, you’re able to get into a rhythm, and you know what you’ve got,” Roy said. “We were never really able to get there this year.”
As a result, the Blazers were unable to reach the team’s preseason goals: the Northwest Division title and a spot in the Western Conference finals.
But Portland definitely did not back down from its problems.
Webster, Batum, Aldridge, Camby and Juwan Howard all made major in-season adjustments, positively adapting and reacting on the fly. Meanwhile, rookies Cunningham and Pendergraph accepted unexpected challenges and thrived to the surprise of many.
But it was Andre Miller who eventually came to represent the iron will of a Blazers team that simply refused to quit.
The offseason free-agent acquisition started slow and spent the first three months of the season quietly expressing frustration and disappointment with his new role on his new team. Yet a heated verbal confrontation Jan. 7 between Miller and McMillan during practice ended up bringing out the best in the veteran guard.
Miller finished the season leading the Blazers in average assists (5.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5), tied for first in games played (82) and steals (1.1), and ranked third in points (14.0).
During an exit interview session Friday with the media, Miller said Portland has what it needs to take the next step. Next season, the Blazers just need a little luck.
“I think we have all the pieces. It’s just the pieces were injured a little bit this year,” Miller said. “We’ve got guys at every position that can play — durable, versatile. Just one of those years where (we) had some bumps and bruises.”
The Blazers unquestionably have versatility in regard to roster pieces. Heading into an offseason in which Portland is not expected to make a huge splash in an abnormally loaded free-agent market, the team runs four deep at point guard and power forward.
The Blazers will also likely have three legitimate starting centers — Oden, Camby, Przybilla — on their roster when training camp opens next season.
“To be and play at the highest level, you have to have size,” Pritchard said in April. “And if we’re going to look to compete with the best in the West, we’ve got to have big guys that can compete night in and night out on an 82-game basis and be healthy.”
Smaller roster changes will almost certainly be made, though.
Roy said Thursday he would like Portland to add a perimeter shooter and continue to move the team’s offense toward the low block. And while a league source said the Blazers will likely use their mid-level exception to acquire a reliable lesser-priced free agent, the team could also engage in a package deal that exchanges a wealth of youth for proven star power.
But hypothetical roster moves, Fernandez’s uncertain future, Roy’s recurring knee problems, the possible return of Przybilla and the development of key young reserves such as Bayless currently pale in comparison to the two biggest issues Portland faces this summer: Oden’s health and Pritchard’s fate.
The latter will likely be further explored Monday, when Pritchard and McMillan are scheduled to meet with the media for exit interviews.
Pritchard’s status has been uncertain since mid-March, when the unexpected firing of Tom Penn, former vice president of basketball operations, ignited a rumor-fed fire of theories and accusations.
Blazers owner Paul Allen issued a bland three-paragraph statement March 25 that mildly supported Pritchard. Allen has not publicly spoken about Pritchard’s future since. Meanwhile, Pritchard — the premier architect who helped rebuild the Blazers in recent years from a running joke into a potential powerhouse — spent the final month of the season focusing on Portland’s playoff run and securing Camby to a two-year contract extension.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have the long-term future in my sights,” Pritchard said in April. “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. We talk about that every day, every single day.”
Yet the uncertainty regarding Pritchard’s future is nothing when the mystery that is Oden is brought into the picture.
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft came into 2009-10 preaching a new mantra, one brimming with confidence, focus and overwhelming power. For the first 21 games of the season, Oden delivered. Playing the best basketball of his young career, the 22-year-old averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks,
while shooting 60.5 percent from the field.
And when Oden poured in a career-high 24 points on 7-of-8 shooting while grabbing 12 rebounds and recording two blocks in just 27 minutes Nov. 23 during a blowout home victory over Chicago, potential appeared to have become reality.
Then Dec. 5 happened. Oden fractured his left patella in a home game against Houston, suffering his second major injury in three seasons, and proceeded to miss the remainder of the year.
What followed only added drama and intrigue to Oden’s already-cloudy aura.
Private nude photos of Oden surfaced Jan. 26 on the internet. A soft-spoken, confessional Oden quieted the uproar during an ensuing press conference. But while the stigma of Oden’s embarrassment quickly evaporated, questions about his future as a
reliable, dependable force in an unforgiving league have not.
This was abundantly clear Thursday, during the the build up to Game 6 against the Suns. While the Blazers mentally and physically prepared to attempt to extend their season, a heavy-faced Oden answered queries about his rehabilitation.
Appearing much older than his young age, the player drafted one pick before Oklahoma City star forward Kevin Durant — who led the NBA in average scoring this season — confirmed what many had long thought: Oden’s almost unnatural athleticism and muscular power are still a mystery, three years into his NBA career.
“My agent and myself, we’re all looking at different things that I can do,” Oden said. “Because it’s about time for me to figure out what the heck’s going on with my body and get this all taken care of.”
Which leaves the Blazers in almost exactly the same spot the team was when the 2009-10 season began.
Portland is older, wiser and more experienced. The Blazers have proven they can overcome almost any obstacle placed in their path, and can outmaneuver and shake off adversity as well as any team in the league.
But Oden, the one player who could possibly turn Portland from an annual playoff contender into an NBA champion, is still a question mark.
“For us ever to be that special team, we’re going to have to him. There’s no doubt about it,” Pritchard said in April. “Does it mean we can’t do it with other players? No. It’s possible. But our best chances are for Greg to be healthy and playing (like his) last 20 games of this year. Because when he played, he was really special.”
Check the Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter for notes, news, interviews and videos.
Key upcoming dates
NBA Draft June 24
Free agency begins July 1
Summer league July 9-18
Pos. Name Recap Grade
PG Andre Miller Greatly improved after slow start. Showing signs of aging, though. B+
PG Jerryd Bayless Took a big leap in second season. But is he an NBA point guard? B-
PG Patty Mills Spent most of the season on the bench. Quick and fearless on the court. Inc.
PG Travis Diener Defined the role of a team-first 15th player. Inc.
SG Brandon Roy Continued to flesh out his All-Star talent. Injuries have become an issue. A
SG Rudy Fernandez The most up-and-down player on Portland’s roster. Will he return? C
SF Nicolas Batum Despite missing 45 games to injury, showed the most improvement of any Blazer. A-
SF Martell Webster Evolved into one of Portland’s best all-around players. B+
PF LaMarcus Aldridge Can be absolutely dominant. Can also quietly disappear. B+
PF Juwan Howard Almost impossible for the 16-year veteran to have a better season. A
PF Jeff Pendergraph Added a nice jump shot to his bruising inside game. B
PF Dante Cunningham The ‘tweener filled in admirably all season. B
C Greg Oden When he was healthy, he dropped jaws. But he was only healthy 21 games. B+
C Marcus Camby Late-season addition was exactly what Blazers needed. A-
C Joel Przybilla Initially lost in the shuffle, filled in well when Oden went down. B-
Pos. Name Salary
G Brandon Roy $13.5 million
F LaMarcus Aldridge $10.7 million
C Marcus Camby $10.1 million
G Andre Miller $7.2 million
C Greg Oden $6.7 million
F Martell Webster $4.8 million
G Jerryd Bayless $2.2 million
G Rudy Fernandez $1.2 million
F Nicolas Batum $1.1 million
F Dante Cunningham $762,195
F Jeff Pendergraph $762,195
Pos. Name Salary
C Joel Przybilla $7.4 million
G Patty Mills $937,195
F Juwan Howard
G Travis Diener
Probable 2010-11 starting five
PG Andre Miller
SG Brandon Roy
SF Nicolas Batum
PF LaMarcus Aldridge
C Greg Oden
Possible 2010 NBA free agents
Pos. Name Current team
F LeBron James Cleveland
G Dwayne Wade Miami
G Joe Johnson Atlanta
G Ray Allen Boston
F Chris Bosh Toronto
F Amare Stoudemire Phoenix
F Dirk Nowitzki Dallas
F Carlos Boozer Utah
F Paul Pierce Boston
C Yao Ming Houston
G Manu Ginobili San Antonio
C Shaquille O’Neal Cleveland
G Tracy McGrady New York
C Jermaine O’Neal Miami
F Rudy Gay Memphis
F David Lee New York
F Luis Scola Houston
F Tyrus Thomas Charlotte
F Travis Outlaw Los Angeles Clippers
G Steve Blake Los Angeles Clippers
Coming up: Blazers coach Nate McMillan and general manager Kevin Pritchard speak Monday with the
Photo gallery: Check columbian.com for an exclusive photo gallery from the Blazers’ first-round playoff series against Phoenix
A season to remember
June 25 — Blazers acquire Dante Cunningham, Jeff Pendergraph, Patty Mills via 2009 NBA Draft
July 24 — Blazers sign free agent Andre Miller
Aug. 6 — Brandon Roy signs five-year, maximum contract extension
Aug. 17 — Blazers kick off 40-year anniversary with press conference at Mark Morris High School in Longview
Sept. 17 — Blazers sign free agent Juwan Howard
Oct. 14 — Blazers celebrate 40-year anniversary with preseason game at Memorial Coliseum
Oct. 22 — LaMarcus Aldridge signs five-year contract extension
Oct. 22 — Blazers waive Ime Udoka, Jarron Collins; retain Mills
Oct. 27 — Steve Blake, Roy, Martell Webster, Aldridge, Greg Oden start for Blazers to open regular season
Oct. 27 — Blazers open 2009-10 campaign with home victory over Houston
Oct. 30 — Nicolas Batum undergoes shoulder surgery; misses 45 games
Nov. 6 — Blazers use three-guard lineup of Blake, Miller, Roy for nine games; go 7-2 during stretch
Nov. 16 — Blazers owner Paul Allen diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Nov. 23 — Oden records career-high 24 points on 7-of-8 shooting and 12 rebounds in 24-point home
blowout of Chicago
Nov. 28 — Miller plays just six minutes in road loss to Utah
Dec. 5 — Oden fractures left patella; out for season
Dec. 7 — Nate McMillan ruptures Achilles tendon during practice
Dec. 8 — Rudy Fernandez undergoes microdisectomy; misses 19 games
Dec. 15 — Miller takes over starting point-guard role 26 games into season
Dec. 17 — Blazers sign Anthony Tolliver
Dec. 17 — McMillan records 1,000th combined win as coach, player
Dec. 22 — Joel Przybilla ruptures right patella; out for season
Dec. 23 — Jerryd Bayless scores career-high 31 points in road win over San Antonio
Dec. 25 — Roy scores 41 points in Christmas Day home victory over Denver on national television
Dec. 30 — Blazers sign Shavlik Randolph
Jan. 1 — Blake hospitalized with pneumonia
Jan. 2 — Roy scores 23 points or more for 15th consecutive game
Jan. 3 — Blazers recall Mills from Development League
Jan. 4 — Miller records 22 points, season-high 16 assists; first Blazer with 20-15 since Kenny Anderson in
Jan. 7 — Miller, McMillan engage in heated, expletive-filled argument during practice
Jan. 8 — Blazers defeat Los Angeles Lakers for ninth consecutive time at Rose Garden
Jan. 15 — Roy misses first of 14 games with right hamstring strain
Jan. 26 — Private, nude photos of Oden appear on internet
Jan. 28 — Roy earns third consecutive NBA All-Star selection
Jan. 30 — Miller records career-high 52 points, sets franchise record with 22 made field goals in road win
Feb. 4 — Blazers sweep season series against San Antonio for first time since 1996-97
Feb. 9 — Blazers play in front of 100th consecutive sellout crowd at Rose Garden
Feb. 16 — Blazers acquire Marcus Camby; trade Blake, Travis Outlaw to Los Angeles Clippers
Feb. 16 — Roy returns to lineup
Feb. 16 — Webster ties career high with 28 points and sets career high with seven made 3-pointers in home
win over Clippers
Feb. 19 — Camby plays first game as Blazer in home loss to Boston
Feb. 23 — Batum replaces Webster in starting lineup
Feb. 27 — Batum records career-high 31 points in road win over Minnesota
March 3 — Blazers sign Travis Diener
March 5 — Oden says he will try and return for playoffs
March 8 — Przybilla re-ruptures patella, undergoes second surgery
March 9 — Ex-Blazer Bill Walton receives standing ovation during pregame ceremony at Rose Garden
March 15 — Roy earns Western Conference player of the week
March 16 — Blazers fire Tom Penn, vice president of basketball operations
March 19 — Roy sinks 22-foot jump shot with 0.9 seconds to go to give Portland home win over Washington
March 22 — Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard, president Larry Miller speak with media to address
rumors about Pritchard’s job security
March 25 — Allen releases three-paragraph statement about Pritchard’s status, Penn’s firing
April 11 — Roy tears right meniscus during road win over Lakers
April 12 — Camby records season-high 30 points as Blazers defeat Oklahoma City for 50th win of the season
April 14 — Miller, Fernandez, Batum, Cunningham, Howard start for Blazers to close regular season
April 14 — Blazers earn No. 6 seed in Western Conference playoffs for first-round matchup against No. 3
April 14 — Blazers finish regular season with 311 games missed due to injury; most of any playoff team,
second-most in NBA
April 16 — Roy undergoes surgery to repair torn meniscus
April 18 — Blazers open first-round best-of-seven series against Suns in Phoenix
April 24 — Roy returns to court, spurring Blazers to Game 4 victory over Suns
April 29 — Blazers fall to Suns, 4-2. Eliminated from first round for second consecutive season.