It's always funny to me how up-and-coming NBA teams are treated in the public sphere over time. As much as we enjoy building up a franchise that's making a huge leap into NBA relevancy, we're very quick to ignore them once another team emerges to feed our curiosity.
I bring this up because it directly relates to the Portland Trail Blazers. Two seasons ago, the Blazers won 54 games and were seen as a budding Western Conference dynasty. Their star player, Brandon Roy, was getting tons of positive media attention. Their general manager, Kevin Pritchard, was the NBA's newest boy genius, a guy who couldn't do anything wrong and was directly responsible for fostering a fresh new culture within the organization. Their supporting young players were promising, all with tons of room for improvement. But in just one year, much of that has faded. The Blazers' growth stagnated, and much of the NBA public latched on to the Oklahoma City Thunder as the NBA's newest future dynasty.
The funny thing, though, is that the Blazers' 2009-10 season was more successful than the Thunder's in many ways. Both teams won 50 games, but the Blazers faced many more obstacles than the Thunder in getting there. Injuries to several key players forced the Blazers to trot out a skeleton crew for much of the season, including during their six-game first-round NBA Playoffs loss to the Phoenix Suns. Here's their full list of ailments.
- Roy missed 17 games during the season and played hurt through many more, coming back heroically, but as a shell of himself, during the Suns series.
- Greg Oden suffered a season-ending injury in the 21st game, just as he was starting to come into his own.
- Emerging small forward Nicolas Batum missed the first 45 games, and his backup, Travis Outlaw, played just 11 games before getting dealt to the Clippers at the trade deadline.
- Oden's backup, Joel Przybilla, went down with a season-ending knee injury just nine games after Oden's season ended.
- Shooting guard Rudy Fernandez missed 20 games, which surely helped contribute to his stagnation from a promising rookie year.
The bad news for Portland is that we're doing the season preview and we've already used the word "injury" a half dozen times. Marcus Camby is currently the only operational center the Blazers have. Brandon Roy is coming off of an injury-plagued year, including most famously showing up as a shell of himself in the playoff losses to Phoenix. If Portland doesn't get its center corps healthy the game plan is going to wilt. If anything happens to Roy the Blazers lose the threat that frees up all of the other players. Everybody but the team mascot sat out double-digit games last season. That had to be an aberration. If it wasn't...
There's reason to worry that the injuries to Roy and Oden in particular are not aberrations. Roy has struggled with knee problems ever since college, missing time his rookie year and last year. There's also a concern he caused long-term damage by coming back well before he was ready in the playoffs last year.
But when we talk about injury-plagued players on the Blazers, we're really talking about Oden. Since being drafted with the number one pick over Kevin Durant in 2007, Oden has played in just 82 of a possible 246 games. It's been a different body part getting injured each time (first it was the right knee; last year, it was the left patella tendon), but the overall trend is enough to properly give him the "injury-prone" label. It's looking like Oden won't even be ready for the start of the season, and the Blazers haven't even given a timetable for his return. The Blazers have a good short-term replacement for Oden in Marcus Camby, but their long-term future depends on Oden's health. As Blazers Edge writes:
No matter what their division position or seed, however, they must get to the second round of the playoffs (at least) this year or serious changes are in order. Whether the Blazers can go beyond that still depends on the opponent and the health of Greg Oden. When healthy and clicking this team is going to be as formidable as any in the league. But when half of the clicking comes from Oden's knee they lose the chance to be great and fall solidly into "good" territory.
With or without Oden, the Blazers are hoping to become more defensive-minded this season. The Blazers were third in the league in fewest points allowed last year, but that number is skewed because they played at the league's slowest pace. In reality, their half-court defense was often lacking, which explains the midseason trade for Camby and the offseason acquisition of former Jazz perimeter stopper Wesley Matthews. Blazers Edge writes that the two moves "telegraphed the Blazers' shift in focus," and the hope is the Blazers' half-court defense can catch up to their impeccable half-court offensive execution.
Because of the injury concerns, the Blazers are tough to project, and Blazers Edge offers no record prediction in its preview. I'm going to at least assume they'll be a bit healthier than last year, so I think they will finish with a 51-31 record and earn a Northwest Division crown.