It’s over. Finally.
With their 106-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, the Portland Trail Blazers concluded their 2005-06 season.
Finishing with an NBA-worst 21-61 record, the Blazers can now begin focusing on “next year.”
Without question, it’s going to be a long road from the bottom of the league to becoming a legitimate, consistent playoff contender. That said, head coach Nate McMillan has already begun working towards reaching the Promised Land.
On Thursday afternoon, McMillan and current Blazers GM John Nash sat down with the press at Portland’s practice facility to discuss the Blazers’ future.
So, what can Blazers fans expect for next year?
Will the team be any better? More cohesive? More of a “team”? And what’s Portland going to do with its first-round draft pick? Will Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison try to shoot out the lights nightly in the Rose Garden next year? Or instead, will Portland trade the pick, in an attempt to pick up an annual All-Star such as Allen Iverson or Kevin Garnett (both of whom are heavily rumored to be on the market)?
One thing is certain; things are going to change. But the big question is: how much?
“This was an evaluation year for us,” a relaxed and confident McMillan said. “We wanted to evaluate the players and their potential. We wanted to take a good look at everybody on the roster and I think that we were able to do that. I felt like this would be a difficult year for us because of the makeup of our roster and it was.”
Perhaps the single most important issue that the Blazers’ organization is facing right now (other than the minor detail of whether it will actually stay in Portland) is if Darius Miles and Zach Randolph will return.
Will Miles finally adapt and conform to McMillan’s coaching style? Will Randolph become the franchise player that Portland felt he was when he was re-signed?
McMillan himself isn’t sure.
“The situations that I had with both of those guys don’t bother me,” McMillan said. “We had to get them out. Now, they know me and I know them. Two years ago, these guys were in the same position that our younger players were in this year. Now, [Randolph and Miles] are the franchise players. It’s a huge commitment and huge responsibility. My goal is to remind the two of them of the respect and commitment that we need from them. Maybe it’s just going to take an entire season and an offseason.”
When it comes to the soft-spoken Miles, it’s nothing but one gigantic question mark. The talent is there. It’s been there ever since he first set foot in the league. But is the drive? The hunger? The desire? And if not, then does Portland just have to swallow hard and move on?
“We’ll have to look at that,” McMillan said. “I’ve been talking to Darius since last summer. I have to approach next season like Darius will be back in a Blazers uniform.”
The problem is, Miles might not want to be.
The sixth-year forward has flip-flopped on the issue since midseason. He has privately stated to Nash and McMillan that he has the desire to go elsewhere. And he publicly did the same, as recently as this week.
As for Randolph?
Straight from the horse’s mouth: “It’s kind of like the last day of school and we just got out. And when I used to get out of school, I just wanted to open up the fire hydrants. That’s what we used to do back in the ‘hood. Maybe even use some bleach water.”
A love letter if I’ve ever heard one.
The thing is, though, just as soon as Randolph had said the words, he then did a 180.
“Next year, it’ll be a lot better,” he said. “I feel confident that I’ve worked it out with Nate. It’ll be different next year.”
And McMillan confessed that Randolph told him the same.
“I talked to Zach and he said that he wanted to be back,” McMillan said.
So, really, who knows?
Then there’s the Blazers’ overstocked-at-the-point-guard situation.
“I like all three point guards,” McMillan said, not missing a beat.
He’s said it all year and he means it.
If Nate had his way, all three (Sebastian Telfair, Jarrett Jack, Steve Blake) would return.
Again though, the question is: will they?
“Sebastian worked really hard to be a leader this year,” McMillan said. “He did a good job of running the floor, being a general. Jack was one of the most competitive players that we’ve had all year long. And we brought Blake in for security reasons, and he ended up doing a real nice job.”
McMillan was also adamant about not trading a player simply to make room.
“We need to make sure that we get equal value in return,” he said. “And all of those guys have talent. They have bright futures. We got calls from other teams about them, but I don’t think that we want to just give somebody away.”
Yet another biggie is whether center Joel Pryzbilla will be re-signed. Pryzbilla is now eligible for free-agency. And for the Blazers to keep him, he would have to sign for less money than he could get from other teams, due to the NBA’s free-agency clause.
“I talked to Joel today and he told me that he wants to stay,” McMillan said. “He’s totally on board with us and our staff and our direction.”
All in all, it’s a lot of uncertainty. A lot of “I don’t know” and “maybe” and “perhaps” – even when it comes to the direction that Portland chooses to go with its upcoming first-round selection in the draft. The Blazers have as good a shot as anyone in the ping-pong ball lottery to grab the first pick. Is Portland willing to draft another young, unproven talent?
“Do we need to go young? No,” Nash said. “But do we need to get any older either? No. We just need to get better.”
In fact, the only certainty in Blazer-land is that McMillan will return as coach next year.
Nash began the press conference by praising McMillan. And with Nash’s blessing, McMillan knows what he needs to do first.
“You’ve gotta have the locker room right,” McMillan said matter-of-factly.
It’s a start.