When we initially compiled the list of 20 Burning Questions, I came up with two separate ideas for the Portland Trail Blazers. The first was the sure-to-be-repeated "how will Brandon Roy be used this year?" The second was a hopeful "is this the year we see the Greg Oden monster?" Well, fast forward a couple of weeks and those questions have been answered with "not at all," and "no, are you out of your mind," respectively.
Faced with the exciting possibility of not being able to ever walk again, Roy and his cartilage-starved knees retired from the NBA. Just 27 years old, he will be remembered as the face of the post-Jail Blazers era. Roy helped to restore the faith of Oregonians that their favorite basketball players would succeed off the court, without sacrificing success on the court. For 5 years, he gave his heart and soul, culminating in a gritty 25-point fourth quarter against the eventual champion Mavericks in last year's playoffs.
But as much as Roy was placed at the forefront of a new Blazers era, it was Greg Oden who was supposed to put the franchise over the top. After outplaying Florida center Joakim Noah to the tune of 25 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots in the NCAA Championship, Oden was selected first overall by the Blazers in the 2007 NBA Draft. (We are morally obliged to refrain from uttering who went second overall, because that would just make this infinitely more upsetting.) Soon after being drafted, Greg Oden scored the cover of ESPN Magazine. In boldface print, the cover screamed, "I hope I can get a bunch of championships -- like 15." Hope is a beautiful thing; it is so abstract that we latch onto it as if it were concrete. Hope makes us smile, and hope makes us laugh. Hope helps us elect leaders of the free world.
But sometimes, reality pisses on hope's face as if it were breaking the seal. And in Greg Oden's case, boy, reality sure had a lot to drink. Before lacing up for his first game, Oden had microfracture surgery on his right knee, forcing him to miss his entire rookie year. The following season, he showed glimpses of being the franchise center he was drafted to be, only to have his season cut short by bumping knees with Mambino-hated Corey Maggette. In Year 3 of the experiment, he left a game on a stretcher, fracturing his left patella tendon...another season over. Last year, Year 4, microfracture surgery to the left knee...deuces to the season again. First-round picks have rookie contracts that extend to four years, maximum, so this summer, there was plenty of debate over whether Oden would come back to Portland. Several teams were willing to invest a year or two in a former #1 overall pick, but Oden ultimately accepted the Blazers' qualifying offer of almost 9 million dollars. He was grateful for the support that the organization and the fans had shown while he struggled to stay healthy. The lockout even proved to be beneficial for Oden, as he was allowed more time to recover and prepare. As this was happening, the grapevine told us that this was the year...except for the fact that it wasn't. This past week, Oden and "setback" were going to give marriage another try. He is out indefinitely, and the team is not optimistic about his chances of playing this year.
Why is this a question?
We are fans of the NBA. We rejoice when the Knicks sign Tyson Chandler, and we cry when the Lakers lose Lamar Odom for nothing. But one of the most important parts of being a true NBA fan is sympathizing with other fan bases that deserve more than the lot they are given. (Granted, we will never shed a tear if Kevin Garnett breaks his neck when he slams his head into the basket support for the 500th time, nor will we smile when Ray Allen's mother gets her camera time after each back-breaking 3.) But Portland? Not only do true fans reside there, but they are of a different breed. For more than a decade, I have heard extreme epithets directed towards the players, coaches, and ownership of my beloved Knicks. Similarly, I heard boos rain down from Staples when Dirk Nowitzki and Co. shredded a once-athletic Lakers defense. In Portland, however, the fans don't do that. Blazers fans have hit rock bottom. They witnessed players sucker punching their teammates in practice, players calling their coach the n-word, and players having to register as sex offenders. A missed field goal attempt doesn't matter so much, and maybe that's the way it should be. The more injuries that Greg Oden accrues, the louder the cheers become when he throws down a monster dunk. In New York? Well, Carl Pavano isn't exactly welcome here anymore. The city of Portland deserves a product that isn't pissed on by reality, but more importantly, they deserve a Mambino Burning Question.
Player to Watch: Nicolas Batum
Batum is the type of player that makes me want to buy his jersey. He doesn't kill you with turnovers or poor shot selection. He's 6'8" with incredible length, making him a brick wall on defense. And although he shot under 30% from downtown last year, he has the range to improve upon that mark. The only problem is that he wears the number 88 (too weird for an NBA uni) and he's French (dealbreaker).
A 22-year-old in a contract year? Hmm, sounds like your classic breakout season. Batum will be a restricted free agent at season's end, but my hope is that Portland matches any offer for this guy. He's that good. I don't care if he bombs completely. Athletes grow on NBA trees, but elite athletes who care about defense are few and far between. The NBA rules changes of the past decade may prohibit the correct use of a term like "Kobe-stopper," but Batum is as good as it gets when it comes to shadowing the other team's best player. Offensively, he is still raw, but that is much easier to teach. And Portland's got one of the best in the biz with Nate McMillan at the helm. If Batum can show a vast improvement on the offensive end, Portland will make the playoffs.
How will this affect their season?
The Blazers still have a formidable core of players. LaMarcus Aldridge is flanked by Gerald Wallace, Batum, Wesley Matthews, Raymond Felton, and Marcus Camby. If those 6 alone can stay healthy (oh crap, I forgot what team we were talking about), then this is a bonafide playoff team. They will have enough adrenaline to steal some tough wins at home, playing in front of a frenzied crowd every single night. And on the road? Well, there will be at least 2 non-Blazers fans cheering them on.
Everybody hopes. These guys deserve to hope.
Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:
Burning Question #18 - Will we be able to see Mark Jackson make “Hand Down, Man Down” pantomimes in the Warriors’ huddle this year?