Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Spirit of "Rip City" Returns to the Northwest [Snave]

NBA Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Brandon Roy of the Portland Trail Blazers

First things first: thanks to J. Mark English for inviting me to contribute to "American Legends"! I'm somewhat new at this, but I will attempt to provide an occasional glimpse into professional and college sports from a Pacific Northwest perspective.

My favorite major college team is the University of Oregon Ducks. I also tend to be an Oregon State Beavers fan unless they are playing U of O. I am a glutton for major-league punishment, as evidenced by my hardcore Seattle Mariner fanaticism. Other MLB teams I enjoy following include the Cubs, Cards, Orioles, Twins and Tigers, but I can find something to like about just about everyone. The only NFL team in the NW is the Seahawks. Re. the NBA, Portland has the Trail Blazers and Seattle has the Supersonics (at least for now). There is no NHL in the NW, but there are always rumors about Portland or Seattle trying to get an NHL franchise, as well as Portland trying to land a major league baseball team. Anyway, thanks again J. Mark! I'll start with some thoughts about the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Portland Trail Blazers are gradually worming their way out of the "Jail Blazer" mode and getting back into the realm of respectability. For some years now, the ballclub has been dogged by a "bad boy" image. During the GM tenure of Bob Whitsitt, the franchise acquired players such as Bonzi Wells, Isaiah Rider, Qyntel Woods, Ruben Patterson, Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph... definitely not what one would think of as "character guys". I am not sure just when the team acquired Sebastian Telfair and Darius Miles, but the latter has been a royal pain. The Blazers' off-court incidents are too many to mention, and seemed to have poisoned the Trail Blazers in the minds of Portland fans.

Thankfully, when John Nash and Steve Patterson took the reins (with a lot of behind-the-scenes assistance from now-GM Kevin Pritchard), some positive changes were made. For starters, good-guy and "players coach" Maurice Cheeks was replaced by hard-nosed Sonics coach Nate McMillan. This prompted some rebellion from lazier Blazers such as Randolph and Miles during the 05-06 season, but the team worked hard for McMillan. Despite their worst-NBA-record finish, the Blazers ended up with only the fourth pick in the draft; but thanks to some deft draft-day trading and maneuvering (which included dumping problem point guard Sebastian Telfair on the Celtics), Portland ended up with power forward/center LaMarcus Aldridge of the University of Texas, the University of Washington's talented guard Brandon Roy, and Spain's point guard Sergio Rodriguez. In the previous year's draft, they managed to pick up hard-working and still-developing guard Jarrett Jack. The young Travis Outlaw continues to mature as a player, and in Portland's last two games this year, he scored 26 and 36 points. I think Darius Miles' season-ending knee injury turned out to be a blessing for the team, as he wasn't around at all. I think that was a big part of keeping a good work ethic going on the ballclub.

Brandon Roy fought off early-season injury problems to average 16.8 poings per game as a rookie. Roy tends to make good decisions, and when it comes to his talent as a shooting guard, the sky's the limit. Will Roy be the ROY? Don't be surprised if he does win the NBA Rookie of the Year award... he's the real deal!

Kevin Pritchard is now the General Manager, and there is already talk of acquiring an impact free agent or two for next year. Coach McMillan and Pritchard are hot on the idea of picking up Seattle's Rashard Lewis, who has played for McMillan and whose addition alone might put the Blazers over the hump and into the playoffs. Lewis put together a great season this year, averaging 22.3 points and 6.6 boards per game, while shooting 39% from three-point range.

Another need is somebody who can be a consistent force under the basket. In the minds of many, the Blazers overpaid for C Joel Przybilla, who didn't perform well and who then wound up injured for most of the season. By the end of the season, Jamaal Magloire was averaging over 10 points and 10 rebounds, but he may not represent a long-term answer at center.

Portland will probably get the 8th pick in this year's NBA draft. They are in the lottery, but with only 53 out of 1000 ping-pong balls. Whatever they do on draft day, I have a feeling it will be interesting. While Zach Randolph improved his attitude and his game this season, it seems like the Blazers might be willing to use him as trade bait. Whoever they get on draft day, I'm sure they will be looking for hard-working, positive "character guys". That has been the Portland tradition, and we Blazer fans have come to expect nothing less.

Larry Bird once said something like "I just HATE watching a guy watch the ball go out of bounds..." Nate McMillan has brought that attitude to Portland. Kevin Pritchard has a great basketball mind. Character does matter, and Pritchard knows this. And unlike Bob Whitsitt, he also knows that character and talent are not mutually exclusive. Things are finally looking up again in Rip City!

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