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Blazers Are Burning

The hottest team in the NBA this side of the Boston Celtics doesn't reside in Phoenix or San Antonio, but in Portland, where the Trail Blazers weren't expected to be this good - okay maybe that's a stretch, this average - this fast.

The Trail Blazers were supposed to terrible this season, then really competitive next season, when Greg Oden - the No. 1 pick, the franchise - was expected to come back after being shelved for microfracture surgery (although there are some murmurs around the league that Oden is ahead of schedule on his rehab and might come back before the season ends).

But Portland is a surprising 12-12 after winning its seventh straight game last night, an impressive 116-105 road win over the increasingly confounding Denver Nuggets (more on them later).

Seriously, you thought we'd be playing this well without Greg Oden? Didn't think so. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)

Brandon Roy scored a team-high 26 points but the game played out like the revenge of Steve Blake, the one-time Nugget (albeit briefly) who scored 12 points after being shut out when the teams met last month. The Blazers also got big nights out of Channing Frye (20 points) and Travis Outlaw (17 points).

During this current seven-game run, Roy is averaging 24.1 points, Outlaw is adding 18.9 points and the Blazers have defeated Denver, Golden State and Utah (twice). And, the most impressive part of this latest run is that LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the best young big men in the league, has missed the past four games with a plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

Blake, one of the elder statesmen on the Blazers at age 27, has held off Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez and Taurean Green to be the starter in Portland. He is providing steady play and a consistent shot from three-point range, where he is second on the team at 39.4 percent (James Jones is shooting 61.1 percent). He has quietly been one of the best dollar-for-dollar free agent pickups from last summer.

Denver tried to keep Blake, but he wanted to return to Portland, taking less guaranteed money to be with the Trail Blazers, the team he signed with after leaving the Washington Wizards in free agency in 2005.

Brandon Roy, Steve Blake and the Blazers have had reason to smile this month.(AP Photo/Mark Weber)(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Blake played great in the second half of that season, but got shipped to Milwaukee and later Denver after that. Still, his wife Kristen and young son Nicholas loved the place and he had planned on residing there permanently. Blake's dad, Richard, who used to drive up from Miami to see his son play at Maryland and for the Wizards, even moved out to the Pacific Northwest.

"We love it up there," Blake said when the Blazers visited Verizon Center last month.

But considering how well Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard has assembled the team, there is plenty more to love about Portland.

The prevailing opinion going into the season was that Oden's injury would be a blessing in disguise because the Blazers could have a dreadful season, then have two lottery picks join the team in 2008-09 - Oden and take your pick, Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose.

Rip City, the catch phrase during the Blazers' successful NBA Finals runs in 1978 and the early 1990s, was about to be reborn. Surprisingly, the Blazers have already rallied into contention. As the prepare for tonight's game against the New Orleans Hornets, Portland is just a game behind Golden State for the eighth-best record in the Western Conference.

"That's why I signed, to play with these players," Blake said. "We got players who will be good in the future, but at the same time, we're doing everything we can to be good now. We're on the right track. Eventually, we'll be real, real good."

Portland Coach Nate McMillan understands that the Blazers are rebuilding but he is highly intense and competitive. He doesn't care if he's hitting the floor with a stocked, veteran-laden team or an AAU squad. "Everybody that's really important knows it [is a rebuilding situation], but winning is what we're here for," McMillan said. "I try to continue to motivate them. It's going to be a crapshoot every night. I'm in my 3rd year with Portland, you want to win; they want to win. Everything has to go perfect for us to win and it's tough to look at the record and see that you're still rebuilding. We've got to be patient because of where the organization is."

Who else wants some? (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

McMillan knows that with a young team, the Blazers could bottom out as quickly as they as have risen this season. But the process is a little easier when the Trail Blazers have two building blocks in Roy and Aldridge, the super sophomores who haven't shown any signs of slumping. Roy and Aldridge have had to deal with being the focus of opposing teams' defenses this season. But they displayed tremendous character and ability as rookies "which is why we chose to give them this team," said McMillan, who has watched the franchise transition out of the Jail Blazer era. "We saw the potential of these two guys for the future to get better. We felt these two young guys, how they carry themselves, you're looking at a Malone, Stockton . . . We also have a No. 1 lottery pick. The three of them, that's the core."

Roy, the reigning rookie of the year, had a mini-slump to start this month, but he has put that behind him. This season, he has improved in almost every statistical category (18.7 points, 5.4 assists) and has grown into the team leader - something that he had begun to do last season when he challenged veteran Zach Randolph to step up his game after Randolph offered criticisms for everyone else on the team.

(Side note: Isn't it funny that when Isiah Thomas acquires a player in a trade, his former team gets better - or at least better than the Knicks - when he's gone? Randolph, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford, Stephon Marbury and on and on.)

Aldridge, who along with Roy is looking to challenge Howard and Memphis' Rudy Gay for the league's most improved player honors, is having a breakout campaign (18.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds). He's drawing comparisons to former Blazer and Bullet Rasheed Wallace for his graceful offensive game - not Wallace's sometimes disgraceful temper. Aldridge can score from anywhere 16 feet and in, and if Chicago Bulls general manager could take back one move, trading Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas might be at the top of that list.

But the Blazers are more than Roy and Aldridge. Portland is finally getting consistent contributions from two preps-to-pros stars who appear to be figuring it out.

Outlaw. Outlaw. Outlaw. Dear God, I wonder could you save me. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Outlaw, the 23rd pick of the 2004 out of Starkville High (Miss.), has supposedly been a breakout-ready-to-happen for past two or so years. People often raved about his athleticism and leaping ability but Outlaw managed to be more hype than anything. Now, he appears to have game. The 23-year-old is making Pritchard look wise for signing him to a three-year, $12-million extension last summer, averaging 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds - off the bench, no less.

Webster, the sixth pick of the 2005 draft out of Seattle Prep and a former AAU teammate of McMillan's son, is chipping in with 11.2 points and a team-best 36 three-pointers - solid numbers though he won't make anyone in Portland forget that the organization traded the No. 3 pick in the draft (which could've yielded either Chris Paul or Deron Williams).

Word out of Portland, though, is that the Blazers are banking on Paul passing on signing a long-term contract extension with the New Orleans Hornets, which would leave them with an opportunity to steal him in a few years. Talk about the rich getting richer. . .

For now, the ball is in Blake's hands and no matter how the season ends, the Blazers are poised for an extremely promising future, sooner than later.

By Michael Lee  |  December 17, 2007; 11:07 AM ET
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Next: Wilks in the house


It's great to hear that Steve Blake is doing so well. Go Terps!

Posted by: Gaithersburg Girl | December 17, 2007 11:25 AM | Report abuse

How great would it be to have Blake still here in DC? I liked him then and now. He's like AD in that he's a pass first guy who'd fit in perfectly with this Wiz team. Congrats to Blake.

Posted by: mark | December 17, 2007 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I love hearing about the Blazers doing well. One of the best fan bases in the country and now the good times are coming back. They deserve it.
And I don't about some of the other posters, but I thought the value of getting rid of Randolph made that a good trade for the Blazers no matter what they would get back.
And of all the coaches in the NBA who haven't won a title, McMillan is by far the best coach.

Posted by: George Templeton | December 17, 2007 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Agreed, good news about Steve on several levels. Now let the "I said keep him" chorus begin.

Posted by: DocRH | December 17, 2007 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Another great blog by Mike Lee, Thanks!

Posted by: Wizzy | December 17, 2007 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Hi Mike,

As a person who grew up in DC, that now resides in P-town, I just wanted to thank you for giving our team some East Coast props.

You'd be amazed how many people out here in the Pac NW think perceive of an East Coast bias when it comes to our teams in the sleepy NW.

Anyway, you're post was awesome. Though as someone who has followed and witnessed Steve's career, largely in person, at UM, Verizon Center, and now the Rose Garden I can safely assert that this is the best I have ever seen him play.

P.S. The only critique I have is why no mention of James Jones? He is only leading the NBA in 3-Point Percentage at 66%!!


Posted by: Stumptown Chris | December 17, 2007 12:41 PM | Report abuse

FYI ...

Blake is leading the team in 3pt percentage only if you ignore James Jones' scorching 61.1% on threes. I understand he may not have enough attempts to qualify, but you shouldn't write this column without mentioning that ...

Posted by: Gudmund | December 17, 2007 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Mike Lee, I'm glad someone is paying attention to that Blazers team. They are definitely very young and talented - all over their roster. Many good pieces to have and find out how they all mesh and then they get Oden and another draft gem - I'd say either Beasley or Rose if they come out. Beasley even though the Blazers have quite a few good big men, but super talented big men like Beasley aren't around too often and you can NEVER have enough big men. Rose is also the next best thing because he's a big, smart, team oriented point guard with incredible athleticism and skills.

That GM is building the team perfectly, young guys that at minimum are solid with a lot of upside, but the best attribute is that they all are very solid playing defense. In a lot of ways, you could say they are following Dumar's blueprint in Detroit except they are getting young guys and letting them to learn to play together as they show they league how talented they are.

Posted by: Takin' a Wiz | December 17, 2007 12:48 PM | Report abuse

How come this wasn't in the paper edition. Good stuff.

I remember when Blake was in his first run with Portland, and he bought a house there, and move to the city and spent his summer there, and would show up at the practice facility throughout the offseason...and then they traded him. He was pissed off.

I was surprised he went back. Good for him and the Blazers.

Posted by: Ted | December 17, 2007 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Nice story Micheal, Great to here Stevie Blake found a home! It's sure a shame to see Dixon sitting at the end of the Rapter's bench.

There's alot of capable basketball players that just never stumble into the right situation in the NBA. Sometimes it's just nothing more than bum luck.

George, in Portland Randolph was a distraction, in NY he's just one more "one man band". Back in preseason there was the running disagreement on here about Randolph working out in NY.

I think the verdict's, in he didn't. What a mess of a team, Portland made a great move on that one. Even if it cost them Millions to buy out Stevie Franchise.

Well, at least I'm glad that one of those old Maryland guys is happy and playing and not rotting at the end of the bench somewhere.

Posted by: GM | December 17, 2007 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Blake understood the decision and the reason it happened is because Kevin Pritchard (he of the well noted Pritch-slap) was not the GM that season. That was still the era of John Nash. God, do not make Blazer fans remember that era! Thanks for all of the love on the East coast and trust me, Blazer fans love Agent Zero and rue the day we didn't acquire Jamison from the Mavs. Guy kills us all the time. Good luck

Posted by: Joe | December 17, 2007 1:28 PM | Report abuse

When all is said and done, Oden sitting out this season may end up being a blessing in disguise for Portland (assuming he comes back 100% healthy and lives up to expectations). When he plays next season, he won't have to carry the burden of being the "franchise savior" because the other guys will already have shown they can compete without him. Conversely, the rest of the team's confidence will be high and they'll be able to come into next season believing that they're legit, rather than looking at it as a rebuilding year.

Posted by: kalorama | December 17, 2007 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I definitely appreciate the mention. I'm surprised you didn't mention Outlaw's first name (Travis... NOT Bo OR Charles), but maybe you didn't know it? The rest of the east coast/ESPN certainly doesn't.

I thought the team would finish 38-42ish in wins. We're on course for my prediction, but they're definitely playing better than I thought they would. I'm loving it.

Eventually they'll go on a losing streak again (they're young and it's expected), but the level of play they're doing currently is surprising even to us. then again, so was teh five game losing streak, so it all evens out I suppose.

Steve Blake is a great guy. I don't know if he'll be in the blazers future, but on a personal level I defenitely love the guy and I really hope we can find a way to keep him.

Unfortunately I love almost all of this team, but from a business stand-point people will need to be cut.

We have the finland kid who'll be coming over in a year or two and Rudy who'll be coming over next year.

It'll be a bit crowded in portland next year.

Posted by: Portland Fan | December 17, 2007 4:33 PM | Report abuse

They've got a bunch of young guys behind Blake at PG as well as some still growing players along the front line. On a team with that much youth, having even-handed vets (relatively-speaking) like Blake and Pryzbilla is a plus. In a couple year, if/when Jacl comes of age and Oden and Aldridge hit their stride, I could see Blake and Pryzbilla being moved as expiring contracts. (And I would think they'll do something with Darius Miles sooner rather than later.) But they've got some time to start worrying about that.

Posted by: kalorama | December 17, 2007 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Are there just a ton of Blazer fans in DC? Why does everyone in this forum seem to know what they're talking about? Have to disagree with kalorama about Pryzbilla. He's effective, and good insurance. I think he only makes 6 mil/yr which wouldn't be a whole lot off the books anyway.

Posted by: Roger | December 17, 2007 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Roger, I'm not a Blazer fan but we're all fans of basketball talent and team dynamics and it seems like they are perfectly poised for a great run in the coming years. Most true basketball fans would respect that type of outlook even if that team is a rival.

Posted by: Takin' a Wiz | December 17, 2007 8:50 PM | Report abuse

I luv Gilby! Do you think he notices me when I wink and smile and sashay around at the games?

Sashay! '-)

Posted by: DC Man88 | December 17, 2007 9:34 PM | Report abuse

i am a Blazer fan in DC, but if you think this post isn't being linked to all over blazers web forums, blogs, etc. you're wrong. i'll be a lot of this traffic is a result of that.

on the other hand, there could be quite a few blazers fans.


Posted by: DCBlazerFan | December 17, 2007 9:40 PM | Report abuse

I liked the Blazers the year they won the NBA championship with Walton. That was an exciting team, and the fans were bonkers in their crazy wild support. Then they became the Jailblazers and I didn't like them then. Now I like them again.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 17, 2007 9:44 PM | Report abuse

"Have to disagree with kalorama about Pryzbilla. He's effective, and good insurance. "

That's not disagreeing with me. I said having him around now on a young team was a plus. I was talking a few years from now, when Oden, Aldridge, Outlaw, and Frye are up for extensions at about the same time and management has to make some money decisions and Pryzbilla's contract will be about up. At that point moving him is likely, because at that point Oden, Frye, and Aldridge should be good/experienced enough not to need an insurance policy anymore.

Posted by: kalorama | December 17, 2007 10:32 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate the ups for the Blazers. Even though I am in Oregon I read the Post every day. Your article captured some of the potential and excitement going on here. Unfortunately there is a dark side as well. This year the Blazer business side sold their television rights to the big bad ugly comcast who has refused to license to any satellite or cable company leaving nearly all of Oregon and Southern Washington in the dark. We 'watch' the games on graphics monitors like because we are also blacked out from League Pass. So sad that the Blazers have continued to allow this for the sake of a few more bucks (Fox Sports Northwest, by contrast, is carried by nearly everyone)

Posted by: lee3022 | December 18, 2007 1:11 AM | Report abuse

The Blazers also have three guys playing overseas, one of them figures to be in the rotation next year (Fernandez), one will only be a 9th or 10th man (Freeland) for some team and one Just MAY be Portlands point guard of the future (Petteri Koponen). So add those three with Oden and a lottery pick in June and cap room in two years to this already young and talented team and it gets scary! They have a lot of assets to make a big deal down the road.

Posted by: blazerguy | December 18, 2007 4:54 AM | Report abuse

If there is such a thing as karmic dues-paying, we Blazer fans have labored in debtor's prison during the lost, last few years of the Trader Bob, JailBlazers era. We're enjoying the team now, because who knows what happens in the next few years? The Blazers haven't won anything yet and injuries or bad trades could ruin a promising future. It's just nice to once again have a group of young, team-oriented good guys who sacrifice for the team, don't get arrested, and hey -- even win a few games. It's fun to be a Blazer fan now!

Posted by: MiledAnimal | December 18, 2007 1:03 PM | Report abuse

well I used to live in Portland too, now I am in DC. I remember a couple of years ago how bad that team got and everybody turn their back on them...

Posted by: ExPortlandGuy | December 18, 2007 1:04 PM | Report abuse

I am stoked for the future in portland!

zach was a good player but not a good team player... i am a huge blazer fan but i really think we should have gotten more in the trade for steve franchise and channing frye.. we got ride a potential all star and 2 decent players. and in return we got frye(and dropped steveY)?? no disrespect but we could have gotten a better player(s) for zach and company...

Posted by: matt | December 18, 2007 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: qkmua | January 12, 2008 3:15 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: aoqqj | January 14, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: pfaeq | January 16, 2008 4:36 PM | Report abuse

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