It's amazing what a difference six months can make.
It was just over six months ago when the Portland Trail Blazers played their last NBA regular season game. It was a loss at the hands of the Utah Jazz, which left the Blazers ten games under .500 and eight games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The loss also meant that Portland had ended the season riding a seven-game losing streak, going 4-10 in the final month of the season.
It was safe to say that the lockout-shortened season had been a disaster for the Blazers.
Portland's all-star, LaMarcus Aldridge, had been sidelined for the final eight games due to season-ending hip surgery. Offseason pickups Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford were both giant busts, Nicolas Batum's future with the team was in question due to contract issues and there wasn't anything close to a long-term center on the Blazers’ roster. Then to make matters worse, the team was without a GM or head coach and had been for some time.
The franchise seemed to be heading nowhere fast and the future in Rip City hadn't felt so uncertain since the days of the "Jail Blazers". While last year's team didn’t have the glaring off the court issues like in those dark days, the on-court product was just as disheartening if not more so.
The Blazers were able to come out of that previous dark-era with a new attitude and a ton of potential. They landed a young and talented "big-three" through the draft, putting their future on the shoulders of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden. With a solid supporting cast around them and a GM with the gusto to get things done, the future looked magnificent for Portland.
Then injuries struck hard. The supporting players fizzled out and management crumbled, leading the Blazers right back to the dire straits they found themselves in years prior. Once again however, the Blazers have since put themselves in a position of promise moving forward.
Since the season ended last year, the Blazers have done a great job of turning the cracks in the team's foundation into bright spots to build on.
It all started when the Blazers finally found a GM in Neil Olshey last June. After the Blazers went over a year without an official GM, they finally landed the man credited with taking the L.A. Clippers from a laughing-stock to a western conference contender.
Olshey's first major task as Blazers GM was to navigate them through the 2012 NBA Draft. With the sixth and eleventh overall picks, the pressure to succeed was on Olshey right out of the gates. The Blazers took Damian Lillard, a point guard out of Weber State, with the sixth pick and Meyers Leonard, a center out of Illinois, with the eleventh pick. At first the picks left some fans scratching their heads, but as time has gone on it is apparent Olshey and the Blazers knew something about the two relatively unknown players that a lot of people didn't.
Lillard was named the NBA Summer League's MVP and looks like he could finally be the point guard Portland has needed for some time now. Leonard also has looked rather impressive throughout the preseason and although he still looks a little raw at times, the potential for greatness appears to be there. Given that the Blazer' two biggest holes last season were at point guard and center; Olshey passed the draft test.
A couple weeks after what appeared to be a successful draft, the Blazers were able to offload their miserable point guard, Raymond Felton, to the New York Knicks. The veteran leadership of Kurt Thomas was also sent east, but the Blazers were able to get another veteran in return in the form of guard, Jared Jeffries.
Four days later the Blazers were able to resign their coveted forward, Nicolas Batum. After a contract negotiation that got down-right ugly, Batum and Portland finally agreed on a deal putting to rest a situation that had hung over Portland's head for the past year.
With the roster coming together quite nicely, the Blazers had one more question to answer: the head coaching position. Finally, after five months without a head coach, the Blazers answered that question by hiring Terry Stotts. The former Dallas Mavericks assistant comes to Portland with recent championship experience and gives the Blazers the fresh start they needed.
In a matter of just six months, the Blazers were able to go from a team going nowhere fast, to a young team with an apparently bright future.
While an NBA team’s season is usually judged by wins and losses, given the massive transformation the Blazers have gone through this offseason, the impending season is one that should be judged by improvement instead.
A rookie of the year type season from Lillard would be a better result than an eighth seed in the playoffs. Proof that veterans like Aldridge, Batum and Wesley Matthews can click with the new youngsters will be just as important as getting to 41 wins (plus, sub 41 wins means a lottery pick). The future looks bright once again in Portland, but expectations mustn’t get too high.
As the Rip City faithful embark on yet another NBA season, the shape their team was in just six short months ago must be remembered before any judgment is cast onto this season.