Gotta love the Blazers. For all the management changes and whatnot, they finally have the look of a cohesive and fluid team right now, one that’s a legit contender. LaMarcus Aldridge is almost certainly headed for his first All-Star Game, Jamal Crawford has proven to be a worthy pickup (if not replacement) for retired All-Star Brandon Roy. Nate McMillan is getting it done as a coach again and the Blazers will give Oklahoma City a run for the division title if this keeps up.
I wonder, though, if the good times will last beyond this season. That’s because Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune raised a few good points in recent days. The Blazers will be faced with several major off-season decisions, and while that seems so far into the distance, it’s something for the franchise must consider right now as it takes stock of certain players and how they’re progressing, or not.
At the top of the list, of course, is Greg Oden. If you haven’t noticed, he’s still invisible. And nobody knows if he’ll ever wear a Blazers’ uniform this season or ever again, as Eggers points out:
When I approached the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft in the locker room before Sunday night’s game with Cleveland at the Rose Garden, he told me, “I’m still not talking about it right now.”
Or about anything, I guess.
Since he flew to Vail, Colo., for a meeting with Dr. Richard Steadman — the specialist who performed the surgery — in early December and spoke with The Oregonian’s Jason Quick, Oden hasn’t done any media.
Team trainer Jay Jensen won’t talk about Oden, and interim general manager Chad Buchanan speaks only in vague terms about the oft-injured, oft-maligned would-be player.
I can’t get an answer as to what Steadman and the other medical people saw in Oden’s December MRI that was termed by team president Larry Miller a “setback,” slowing his progress toward a return to on-court duty.
“It wasn’t as encouraging as we’d hoped,” is all Buchanan will say.
One report said the MRI showed a problem area in a non-weight-bearing ligament in the knee, but nobody with the club will confirm that. Oden evidently had no symptoms or anything to cause alarm. What, then, was it?
“I’d prefer not to talk about specifics,” Buchanan says politely.
In reading the story, you don’t get any real sense that Oden’s recovery is around the corner. Maybe he’s coming along fine and the Blazers are downplaying everything about his injury and would rather not raise anybody’s hopes, even Oden’s. Regardless, it’s evident the team has moved on, at least on the court, where Marcus Camby is still yanking down double-doubles at age 39.
And then there’s the sticky situation involving small forwards Gerald Wallace (the starter) and Nic Batum (the reserve). Aside from playing the same position, both are in line for extensions this summer (Wallace can elect not to opt-out and collect roughly $9 million for next season). We do know this: owner Paul Allen won’t throw around big money, not after taking a hard-line stance in the labor talks.
Eggers comes through again with a story about the roster questions, which all seem hazy at best:
But can Portland afford to keep both?
“That’s something you try to do,” coach Nate McMillan says. “We like both. Sometimes things don’t work out because of a situation. The organization has to make a decision, and the player has to make a decision. But there’s no question we want to try and keep both guys.”
The Blazers have until Jan. 25 to extend the rookie contract of Batum, 23, who is making a pro-rated $2.16 million this season and would be due a qualifying offer of $3.17 million as a restricted free agent next season. If the deadline passes without a deal, the Blazers can extend him beginning July 1, match an offer from another team or let him go.
Wallace, 29, is making $9.5 million this season and can opt out of a contract that calls for him to make $9.5 million again next season. The 6-7, 11-year veteran won’t say much about his feelings on the possibility of an opt-out.
While retired guard Brandon Roy’s pay has been erased from the team’s salary-cap hit through amnesty, owner Paul Allen will still get stuck for paying his $16.46 million salary next season.
Beyond that, the Blazers are on the books for certain for about $26 million in guaranteed contracts, mostly from LaMarcus Aldridge ($13.75 million) and Wesley Matthews ($6.5 million). If Wallace doesn’t exercise his opt-out, that’s another $9.5 million. Then there is Jamal Crawford, who would make $5 million if he doesn’t opt out after this season.
Besides Wallace and Batum, the Blazers also must decide if they want to re-sign starters Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby – each on the last year of his contract – and Greg Oden. None of those players will come cheap.
When you’re looking at a salary cap and luxury tax that are expected to be near what they are this season – $58 million and $70 million – the room can get eaten up quickly.
It’s an interesting situation because Wallace has been beastly for Portland this season while the Blazers have invested so much time developing Batum, whom they acquired on Draft night in 2008 in a trade. Clearly, Wallace is the better player, but he’ll also command a higher salary. With Crawford all but certain to opt-out and Felton an unrestricted free agent this summer, Portland will either open the checkbook or watch a few players walk.
It all begins with Oden. What the Blazers decide to do with their brittle big man might impact all other decisions. Somewhere, somebody will take a risk on Oden, if only for the short term. And you know if he miraculously heals and becomes a monster on a another team, it will eat away at Portland. But in this case, maybe the Blazers can’t be faulted for taking that chance. They’ve done everything they could with Oden.