On Monday, when the rest of the country will be coming off another thrilling football weekend, complete with college upsets and some head scratching NFL refereeing … here in Portland, another even will take place that needs to be noted:
Trail Blazers training camp opens for the 2012-13 season.
After a summer filled with turnover, including a new coach and GM, the focus finally returns to the hardwood, where the organization looks to turn the page from last year’s disastrous 28-38 finish.
Nate McMillan, the man who was charged with overseeing the previous rebuilding project, was shown the door with 22 games left to play, after bad relationships and on-court failures led to anarchy in the locker room.
Also gone were the former fan favorite-turned-malcontent Gerald Wallace,Marcus Camby and late summer, Raymond Felton was traded to the Knicks. He will be missed by Blazers about as much as Bonzi Wells and Rasheed Wallace were.
As disastrous as last season was, the page was turned at the hiring of new GM Neil Olshey, the White Knight hired by the Blazers to lead the new renaissance.
Olshey, who oversaw the resurgence of the Los Angeles Clippers (no small feat), quickly adored himself to fans by flashing his wide smile, and laying out a detailed plan for this organization. He promised the fun would return. The passion would be reinstated. The past was the past, and this team was moving forward.
Then, he drafted Damian Lillard.
Lillard, the feisty point guard out of little known Weber State, comes to Portland already christened the “franchise point guard.” His Summer League performance did nothing to take away from that.
Earning Co-MVP honors in Las Vegas, Lillard averaged 26.5 points per game, while dishing out 4 assists, and showing a shooting touch that has been missing from this team for the better part of two decades. Better yet, he showed the intangibles and leadership that Portland has not had at point guard since Terry Porter.
Entering training camp, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as a Blazer fan, none of which have to do with the win/loss column, which figures to stay on the negative side this year. Some things to focus on:
- Wesley Matthews, for the first time in his career, is 100% healthy. Plagued by an ankle injury the last two years, Matthews says he is finally healthy and in the best shape of his life. Is this the year he finally lives up to the contract?
- After being retained the Blazers after signing an offer sheet with Minnesota, Nicolas Batum must do a little damage control with the fans, who felt betrayed after the Frenchman expressed his desire to play for the Timberwolves. Batum, still just 23, has all the potential in the world, and has talked of being an All-Star … there is no better time for him to take the next step.
- Has Portland finally found their man in the middle? Meyers Leonard, the athletic, springy center out of Illinois, was drafted by Olshey with the 11th pick in the draft, and showed flashes of what’s to come during summer ball. Leonard, a legit 7-footer, has the athleticism to hang with any center in the league, and has the body to add mass without losing his quickness. As is always the case with big men, health will be his biggest obstacle. If he can stay healthy, the Blazers may have found a hidden gem.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, fresh off his first All-Star appearance, is entering the prime of his career, but with what to show for it? Will Aldridge, 27, grow weary of the rebuilding and ask to be traded, or he will stick it out and see the light at the end of tunnel?
- Will Terry Stotts, the man hired to lead this team, connect with the players? As well respected as McMillan was, he lost the locker room with his mentality and conservative offense. Stotts, known for his offense, helped turn Dallas into world champions, and has vowed to do to LaMarcus what he did with Dirk Nowitzki. A wide-open offense will help fill the seats, but will it win enough games?
- Paul Allen, for all he has done with the franchise, is growing tiresome with the fan base, who is longing for consistency in the front office and on the court. Allen, also rumored to be selling the team, has said he wants a winner now. Could another losing season be too much for the owner, 59, to handle?
There are lots of questions entering camp. One thing stands tall, however: This team will be fun to watch. Lillard and Leonard, the two rookies who had fans drooling after their summer league performances, will get all the playing time they can handle. Terry Stotts has promised a wide-open, fun offensive team, which will look to take advantage of the athletes on the roster.
While this team may be a year or two away from the playoffs, the pieces seem to be in place. An All-Star, a franchise point guard, and young talent littered across the bench.
Enjoy New York, Felton. The Blazers have moved on, and the future looks bright.