HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — A week of training camp is hardly enough time to form any lasting impressions about most teams in the NBA, let alone one with as many question marks surrounding it as the Portland Trail Blazers.
Is Greg Oden ready? Will he ever be?
“I wish I could honestly say there’s a timeline, but there’s not,” Oden said at media day. “There’s good days and bad days.”
What’s up with Rudy Fernandez? Why hasn’t he been traded already?
“I prefer the style of European competition,” he said. “I feel better in Europe.”
The Trail Blazers have already announced that Oden won’t be ready for opening night. And Fernandez has made clear his desire to be free of Portland, the NBA and the Trail Blazers, in at least two different languages.
This isn’t exactly the kind of stuff that inspires confidence during the opening stages of the marathon that is the NBA season. Hearing this sort of talk from and about two players that could prove crucial to the Trail Blazers’ postseason fate is what makes this team arguably the league’s biggest mystery heading into the regular season.
On paper, you’ve got to love this team. At their best, they’re capable of manhandling any team in the league. But the reality is their margin for error (due to injury or any other drama) is paper-thin, like several other teams not named the Lakers in the Western Conference this season.
Granted, Paul Allen‘s crew has already endured enough pain and suffering to last four or five years. Surely, you remember last season’s injury parade that claimed everyone from Oden and Joel Pryzbilla to coach Nate McMillan and All-Star Brandon Roy, at one time or another.
But there’s so much to like about this team, provided they stay healthy long enough to show off just how deep and talented they really are — they won 50 games in spite of all the tumult of last season.
Start with the Roy-Andre Miller backcourt and their improving relationship. They are as dangerous as any combo in the Western Conference, and the league for that matter, this season. And Marcus Camby is sure to deliver his usual double-digit rebounds and two or three blocks a night. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the league’s most productive power forwards. Nicolas Batum was an instant fave here at the hideout for his quality work on both ends of the floor and McMillan is easily one of the league top 10 coaches. There’s fresh new blood in the form of the fearless Wesley Matthews, the prize of the Trail Blazers’ relatively quiet summer, and rookies Luke Babbit and Elliot Williams.
The Blazers’ prized offseason acquisition, best known for his in-your-face defense, scored a game-high 17 points and earned MVP honors before 11,525 at the Rose Garden during the team’s annual Fan Fest, a free scrimmage that offers fans a sneak peek at the team.
“When you’re looked at as a defender, of course your offense is going to be overlooked,” Matthews said. “I’m just going out there and taking the shots they’re giving me. I worked hard in the offseason to fine-tune my offense and I was able to showcase it a little bit tonight.”
Friday’s event was mostly about putting on a show for the fans, so it’s hard to put too much stock into an individual performance that came in a split-squad scrimmage. But, even so, it was hard to over look the newest Blazer.
Matthews scored his first bucket early in the first quarter, when he swished a tough baseline jumper over Brandon Roy, and that was but a taste of things to come. Matthews would go on to sink his first three field goals and make three three-pointers in the first half. By the time his night was over, Matthews had made 7 of 11 field goals, including 3 of 4 three-pointers.
Most of his damage came from the outside, but Matthews also mixed in some crowd-pleasing dunks, including a fast-break alley-oop of a lob pass from Jerryd Bayless. Matthews’ performance seemed to catch the crowd off guard — and perhaps even some of his teammates. After he hit his third three of the first half over Roy, the Blazers’ All-Star headed down the court shaking his head and laughing.
“I hope he didn’t leave it out there,” said coach Nate McMillan, laughing, after the game. “He’s been playing that way in training camp. You didn’t see a lot of that in Utah and it may be the style of play. But he’s been doing that. He’s been handling the ball, he’s been running the breaks. He does a good job of moving without the ball and he’s knocking down his shot. I want him to be aggressive.”
It’s probably foolish to assume Matthews, and not an inspired and healthy Oden, will make the difference in Portland this season. But with a team shrouded in as much mystery as these Trail Blazers are, at least to those of us watching from a distance, it’s hard to know what to go on here.
After slotting them far too low, according to so many, in our mid-summer rankings (hey, we’re thick-headed around here but we do listen) we have seen the light.
Surely, the Trail Blazers belong among the West’s top five teams. Now all they have to do solve a couple of these mysteries before the start of the regular season and everybody will get on board.