Blazing through the off-season

    As the Portland Trail Blazers shuffled through the doors of their practice facility in Tualatin on Tuesday, so many strange faces were in attendance that the team could have easily been mistaken for a squad other than the one that stumbled to an NBA-worst 21-61 record last season.

    Sure, there were some familiar faces sporting the black and white mesh practice jerseys during their first day of training camp on Tuesday. One very important face was that of stern second-year head coach Nate McMillan. A couple of the most recognizable players’ faces belonged to controversial forwards Zach Randolph and Darius Miles. Miles saw limited action last season after undergoing knee surgery. The real buzz around this team concerned the players that hit the hardwood for the first time as a member of the Blazers on the opening day of camp.

    Everyone has heard the famous saying, “You can take the dog out of the fight, but you can’t take the fight out of the dog," though not everyone knows exactly how this applies to the Blazers. With their flurry of off-season moves, which includes draft picks, trades and free-agent signings, the Blazers appear to be putting their own spin on the famous saying. Their version sounds something like this: “You can take the losing out of the team, but you can’t take the team out of the losing.” Blazers’ management may have turned their roster on its head, ridding themselves of many players that reek of losing after last season’s nightmare, but that doesn’t mean that the team will instantly begin winning.   

    As a result of their much-publicized off-season activity, Portland’s roster looks like it is written in Greek, with only seven players returning from last year’s underachieving squad. Returning Blazers include the aforementioned forwards Miles and Randolph, starting point guard Jarrett Jack, smooth and quick guard Juan Dixon, athletic forward Travis Outlaw, newly resigned center Joel Przybilla and second-year shooting guard Martell Webster. Looking at this group of returning players, management had one definite goal this off-season: to trade away players at positions where there was either a surplus of talent like the small forward position or ongoing battles like the point guard position. While this may have left the team with less overall talent, it appears all of their parts have more defined roles this season.    

    After firing general manager John Nash in May, team president Steve Patterson and director of player personnel Kevin Prichard were left to make the majority of the decisions, and let’s just say they were busy.

    At the NBA draft, the Blazers pulled the trigger on six deals, acquiring a mixture of rookie and veteran talent. Headlining their rookie acquisitions were former Washington Husky shooting guard Brandon Roy and lengthy Texas star LaMarcus Aldridge, who will most likely suit up as power forward once he returns from shoulder surgery. Roy looked like a true leader at the Las Vegas Summer League, not only leading the team in composure but also scoring, with 19 points per game. Aldridge opted for the well-rounded approach, snagging nearly 12 points, seven boards and two blocks per contest.  

    In addition to the rookie talent, a couple of veteran players headed to Portland on draft day. Journeyman and versatile power forward, center Raef LaFrentz was shipped to Portland from Boston in the Sebastian Telfair deal. His presence will be felt mostly from behind the arc and at the defensive end. Dan Dickau also made the trip to Portland for the second time, where he will play second fiddle to Jack as the only other true point guard.   

    Though the Blazers made numerous off-season moves, the deal that brought veteran center Jamaal Magloire to Portland may have been the most important to this year’s success. Magloire’s veteran leadership and playoff experience will be especially crucial to this young team, but don’t forget about the nearly 10 points and 10 ‘bounds he averaged last season. Another way that the Blazers will utilize Magloire’s talent is by using him to relieve likely starting center Przybilla. The tandem should give the team stability at center, a luxury they haven’t had in quite a while.

    Another notable player added to the mix at training camp was former Portland State Viking shooting guard and small forward Ime Udoka, who earned the honorable distinction of being the last of the field of 15 invited to camp on Tuesday. Udoka averaged slightly over 14 points and five rebounds a game during his stint as a Viking. Since then he has played for the Nigeria national team and suited up for the New York Knicks last season. Udoka’s chances of making the squad may hinge on his ability to duel for a small forward position. However, with talented players the caliber of Miles, Roy and Outlaw in front of him, that may be easier said than done.       

    Just like every team in the NBA, training camp officially begins the 2006-2007 campaign for the Blazers. Coming off a season where losses were a dime a dozen and a summer full of trades and acquisitions, there is a lot of positive energy surrounding this franchise and also many new faces.

    Portland made several steps forward with all of the wheeling and dealing, solidifying their void at center, bringing in some more talented guards and saying goodbye to a couple of unneeded personalities. Every fan around the city who is still trying to shake the hangover effects of last year wants to know, will last season’s horrendous play repeat itself or will Portland’s club be the playoff contender they once were? Taking into account the club’s recent past, all that can be offered is that question will be answered once they hit the hardwood for real.