Back on opening night, the NBA had planned a fabulous scene in San Antonio. The commissioner had come to pass out championship rings to the Spurs, and Greg Oden would be watching with the Portland Trail Blazers, waiting on Tim Duncan and thinking about the chance he had to be a champion someday.
Yet Oden would go down for the season before training camp, undergo microfracture surgery and never make the trip. Suddenly, one of the best young minds in the sport, Kevin Pritchard, had a touch of tarnish to his brief, golden run as Portland GM. He had made every bright move possible in restoring this wretched franchise, but there harbored a belief that true judgment wouldn't come until Oden had proven that he wasn't a broken-down mistake.
"That's the least of my worries," Pritchard said. "He's on our team. He's our guy. We're going to do the best we can to make him successful. I worry about a lot of things, but Greg Oden is not one of them."
Just two weeks ago, most of us were conditioned to believe that the Blazers would spend the season waiting on the 7-footer out of Ohio State. All along, though, Pritchard's suspicions were right. They have something here. He knew it a year ago with that rookie class of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, and knew it over the summer, when his young stars gathered the team for daily workouts with training camp still more than a month away. Maybe he didn't expect it all to come flooding into the season this past week, when the Blazers beat New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas and Detroit in the most telling homestand in years, but he knew he'd see it sometime.
The Blazers had started the season with three straight losses – including to West powers San Antonio and Houston – before returning to the Rose Garden and delivering an unmistakable statement with those four straight victories: With or without Oden, the Blazers are making a stand in Portland.
"I want to be Rip City again," Roy said.
When the Blazers were beating the Mavericks and Pistons for the first time in 14 tries, Pritchard stood there with the screaming, swaying masses and thought to himself, "This feels like a playoff atmosphere." As a community, Portland was devastated over losing Oden for the season, but it hasn't taken the fans long to realize that they're seeing the start of good times again. They were so beaten down by the Jail Blazers, a great NBA town that rightly had come to loathe those responsible for one embarrassing episode after another.
Now, it's easy to understand why they've come to embrace these young Blazers, why the Rose Garden feels more like a Pac-10 gymnasium. Roy and Aldridge are earnest, determined young stars and easy to cheer for. Roy is a born leader, the guard who's getting everyone together in Portland. Pritchard is sure that Aldridge, his 6-foot-10 power forward, will fulfill his promise, based purely on how hard he works at his game. "He has a chip on his shoulder – a good chip," Pritchard said.
Around them, you can see the development of Martell Webster and Jarrett Jack. What's more, Nate McMillan is one of the most underrated coaches in the sport. Talk to other coaches and scouts, and they'll rave over the way that he prepares his team, the way they defend. It was no accident the way the Sonics fell apart once he left Seattle. Yes, Oden is gone for the season, but Pritchard loves the idea that he'll be surrounded with such solid citizenry.
"This is a time for him to learn the game as much as he can off the court, and prepare his body for the rigors of this league," Pritchard said. "He needs to start developing great habits – eating, lifestyle, all that. Learning how to be a professional at 19 isn't easy, and we're trying to help him do that."
Between now and future contention, Pritchard has manipulated that once-deadened Blazers salary cap to have between $15 million and $20 million available in the summer of 2009. Oddly enough, the game's best two young point guards, New Orleans' Chris Paul and Utah's Deron Williams, could be free agents in two years. If there was ever an intriguing lineup for a great young playmaker to stake his claim, it would be with the Blazers.
For the first time in forever, who wouldn't want to walk into Portland and play basketball again? Who's having more fun than these guys? Who's getting cheered louder? Yes, Oden will be back next year, and maybe one of those star point guards could come the year after that, but these bold, young Blazers aren't waiting around for saviors. They want to be Rip City again, and they want it now.
- Kevin Pritchard