Woeful Blazers have intriguing offseason ahead
By ANNE M. PETERSON
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Now the work begins for the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Blazers wrapped up their season of turmoil 28-38, their worst record since 2005-06. Portland heads into the summer with no permanent general manager or head coach, but plenty of cap space available for free agency and several picks in June's NBA draft.
It's the ultimate clean slate after a trying season that started badly with the abrupt retirement of All-Star Brandon Roy and eventually cost respected coach Nate McMillan his job.
"I'm optimistic," said guard Wesley Matthews. "It's been a crazy season."
That's an understatement. The lockout-shortened season started with the disastrous opening of training camp, better known to Blazers fans as "Black Friday."
Roy surprisingly announced that he was retiring because of ongoing trouble with both of his knees. Hours later, news broke that oft-injured former No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden had suffered a setback with his surgically repaired left knee. To top it off, doctors examining forward LaMarcus Aldridge determined that he needed a procedure for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a heart condition.
The Blazers went into rescue mode, signing sixth man Jamal Crawford, veteran forward/center Kurt Thomas and forward Craig Smith to shore up the roster. Around that same time, billionaire team owner Paul Allen granted a rare roundtable with local reporters, emphatically declaring that he had no plans to sell the team despite increasing rumors.
The Microsoft co-founder said he was looking toward the upcoming season.
"People will talk of handicapping the usual suspects at the top of the conference, but then there are a bunch of us right below that. Are we just barely a playoff team, are we going to have potential to get out of the first round and do more damage?" Allen said. "That's what makes sports exciting. I will have to see how it all plays out."
In the end, it didn't go well.
Although the Blazers got off to a fast start, their deficiencies soon became clear. One was point guard Raymond Felton, acquired in a draft-day trade last year, who never seemed to mesh with the team. Felton even called out McMillan in one interview with Comcast SportsNet Northwest as one of the reasons he was struggling.
The Blazers tried and failed to turn Crawford into a point guard. It was clear the Blazers had all but thrown in the towel after a 2-7 stretch to start March, capped by a 121-79 loss in New York to the Knicks. It would be McMillan's last game as coach.
The one real bright spot in the season was Aldridge, who was again consistently good until he was shut down for the season because of a hip injury in mid-April. Selected for the All-Star team for the first time this season, he averaged 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
His success was somewhat bittersweet to Blazers fans, especially after it was announced in February that Oden would undergo yet another microfracture knee surgery, his third overall.
Many fans - and even McMillan - had hoped to someday see the trio of Aldridge, Roy and Oden lead the Blazers to another NBA championship.
"My memory that really sticks out is the first time I had those guys over to my house for dinner. I'm sitting there at the table and looking at these three and talking to them about the future and their opportunity and thinking that we have a great opportunity here to build something special," McMillan said after Oden was declared done for the season.
McMillan always understood that he would have to provide results to keep his job. But even with the team's slump there was a general feeling that he would be retained at least through the end of the season. So it was a shock when the Blazers unexpectedly dismissed him at the NBA trade deadline.
Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor recently touched on the firing when discussing how he has run his team.
"The key thing is you try and be patient in an impatient world you live in, and we live in an impatient world. The best example is Nate McMillan, all the success he had up there, dragging those teams through all the injuries and things and he had 2 1/2 bad weeks, and they fire him," O'Connor said. "That to me, I don't understand it."
The trade deadline proved to be the Blazers' second defining day of the season. In addition to firing McMillan, Portland dealt starters Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace, and the team finally waived Oden, finishing his five-season, 82-game career with the Blazers.
But those moves helped set up an interesting summer.
If Crawford decides to opt out of his contract in the offseason, it appears that the Blazers will have some $25 million in cap space to maneuver into free agency. It appears Portland's focus will be on re-signing point guard Nicolas Batum before going hard at an established point guard to complement Aldridge.
Portland will also have as many as four picks in the draft, and could have as many as two lottery picks, depending on how the pingpong balls fall.
But the Blazers' first priority is to get a general manager. Rich Cho was fired last May after less than a year on the job, but the lockout and the short season postponed the search for a replacement. Recently, the team has started talking to prospects.
President Larry Miller said that Portland hopes to have a general manager in place before the draft. The new GM would ideally have say on the new coach.
Interim general manager Chad Buchanan, the team's director of college scouting, will be considered, Miller said.
"It's been a challenging year, I would say," Buchanan said. "There's highs and lows to any NBA season. You can't ride the waves of the ups and downs. You've got to be steady and looking long term."
The long term starts this summer.
AP Sports Writer Lynn DeBruin in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.
Updated April 27, 2012