Oregon’s team

In sports, earning the coveted role of underdog is no small task. Teams often fight over being the underdog before a matchup, as the Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies did before this year’s October Classic. Each of those teams claimed to have been overlooked by media and the rest of the league.

In sports, earning the coveted role of underdog is no small task.

Teams often fight over being the underdog before a matchup, as the Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies did before this year’s October Classic. Each of those teams claimed to have been overlooked by media and the rest of the league.

Boxers, football players, runners and all sorts of other athletes use it as motivation when training and preparing for an upcoming competition.

All of that is fine and dandy.

But there is one example where playing the underdog card has become cliché, trite and overused: fanaticism.

The Trail Blazers have been picked by national media pundits such as ESPN, USA Today and Sports Illustrated to compete for the Northwest Division Championship at worst, and possibly contend as the Western Conference’s elite team at best.

USA Today even has them as the fifth best team in the league.

In addition to that, ask any Portlander about the Trail Blazers’ roster, injury status, upcoming games and playoff likelihood, and chances are they not only have an opinion on the matter, but also consider themselves a credible and knowledgeable source.

Once again, all this is fine and dandy.

Northwest sport teams have long been known to fly under the radar. When teams have been good, fans have felt that the team has not received their just dues and media spotlight.

Of course the national attention came in full force during Portland’s “Jail Blazers” era, with players such as Darius Miles and Reuben Patterson demanding attention for their off-court behavior.

But, even lately, the most successful sports teams in this gray and damp area of the country where we reside–the Seahawks, Beavers and Ducks–have received more recognition for their unsightly uniforms than their strong play.

But with the Blazers–those can’t-do-wrong kids that seem destined for greatness–local and even national media can’t avoid to feed the swirling hype machine in the Rose City.

Blazer fans are basking in the pandemonium and attention that is seemingly everywhere in the city after the brief hiatus that the Blazers experienced as one of top teams in the league.

In all honesty, applying the underdog role in this instance seems a little silly. After all, the Blazers suffered through only five seasons of subpar basketball, and during that time they won a decent 40 percent of their games.

But even if the team never strayed too far, they are most certainly back. On the verge of commencing their season, the Blazers bandwagon is still accepting applications.

Lofty expectations, a young, star-studded lineup, a magician behind the curtain that can seemingly do no wrong and the self-proclaimed most passionate fan base in the league have made the Blazers the hottest ticket in town.

And, of course, all this is fine and dandy.

Welcome back Rip City, it’s good to see you.

Sharing is CaringWith the depth of this year’s talented roster, head coach Nate McMillan has a new problem on his hands. In years past, McMillan has had to find ways to keep players motivated despite mounting losses and develop talent in young players such as Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Now with every position going at least two-deep with quality players, McMillan must learn the art of finding the right balance of offense and defense in each of his lineups, as well as maintaining the ego and confidence of each of his players.

While McMillan has outlined his starting lineup time and time again, yet-to-be-determined is the lineup that he will use in crunch time. Roy and Aldridge are shoe-ins to be on the court, but the complimenting pieces may change every game.

Fans can likely count on a heavy dose of newcomer Rudy Fernandez and returning forward Travis Outlaw, the bashful athlete with a flair for last-moment heroics.

End-of-the-game situations may also prove rare for rookie center Greg Oden.

Still working himself into shape after knee surgery, Oden may find himself in serious foul trouble at the end of games as he adjusts to the NBA game, or he could be pulled due to his pedestrian free-throw shooting.

Right now, McMillan must also work around the loss of projected starting small forward Martell Webster until December. Nicolas Batum, a first-round draft pick from France, may fill the small forward role adequately.

Starting lineup PG- Steve BlakeSG- Brandon RoySF- Nicolas BatumPF- LaMarcus AldridgeC- Greg Oden

Projected 4th quarter lineupPG- Brandon RoySG- Rudy FernandezSF- Martell WebsterPF- Travis OutlawC- LaMarcus Aldridge

Five must-see games at the Rose Garden

Friday, Oct. 31San AntonioTough to pass up the home opener on Halloween against the most dominant team in the league since Michael Jordan retired.

Tuesday, Jan. 30BostonThe Celtics, coming off their first championship since basketball players stopped wearing Chuck Taylors, come to town and present three tough matchups in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for the young Blazers.

Friday, Jan. 2New OrleansSimply put, Chris Paul is the purest, most talented and watchable point guard to come around in a long while. Paul vs. Brandon Roy in the Rose Garden on a Friday night calls for you to pay extra money to those Craigslist scalpers.

Monday, March 9Los Angeles LakersThe detest that most Blazers fans have for the Lakers amplifies the Rose Garden environment even more than usual, making this game tough to miss. If the Lakers stay injury-free, they are likely the team to beat in the West again.

Tuesday, March 31UtahWhile fans may focus more on their disdain for Los Angeles, the road to supremacy for the Blazers begins with Utah. The Jazz are in the same division as Portland and sit pretty with two gold-medal winners in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer.

Shake your moneymakerIf you already think that professional athletes are overpaid sissies, this may not be for you.

After playing just under a tiresome two minutes per game last season, southpaw center Raef Lafrentz could miss the entire season after offseason shoulder surgery. Lafrentz, never known for his physical toughness, elected to have the surgery late in the offseason, likely keeping him off the court for the duration of the year.

Of course, LaFrentz may not be highly motivated to return due to the nearly $13 million guaranteed salary he will receive.

Despite the fact that he may not see the court this season, Lafrentz may serve the Blazers best by enticing other teams to buy into his salary before late February’s trade deadline. The Blazers could perhaps lure a contributing player for Lafrentz’s salary.

While Lafrentz’s bloated salary is the team’s largest, the Blazers have several talented players that come, at least for now, inexpensively.

Starting guard and returning all-star Brandon Roy will earn just more than $3 million this season, while newcomer and Spanish phenom Rudy Fernandez barely eclipses the $1 million mark.

Forward Shavlik Randolph earned the 15th roster spot for the Blazers and will earn $826,269 this year, making him the cheapest player on the roster.

Point guard Sergio Rodriguez, Martell Webster, forward Ike Diogu and Travis Outlaw are also likely candidates to join Lafrentz on the trading-block rumor mill.

Coveted targets could include swingman Caron Butler, who is ridiculously overpriced, or Sacramento wingman Francisco Garcia. The Vanguard thinks that the Blazers may be best served by making a push toward quality role players such as current Laker Luke Walton or Oklahoma City youngster Jeff Green.

Vanguard ProjectionsBlazers record 49-33Second in Northwest DivisionSeventh Seed in Western Conference

Projected Western Conference playoff seedingsLos Angeles LakersNew Orleans HornetsUtah JazzHouston RocketsSan Antonio SpursPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersDallas Mavericks

Projected award winners

MVP: LeBron James, Cavaliers

Most Improved: Rudy Gay, Grizzlies

Sixth Man: Lamar Odom, Lakers/Rodney Stuckey, Pistons

Coach of the Year: Rick Adelman, Rockets