We’re halfway through December, meaning that there are only a few weeks left in 2012. The last year has been one of ups and downs for the Blazers. As fans, we’re in probably the best position we could ask to be in: we started 2012 watching a team self-destruct and we’ll finish the year watching a young team starting to come into its own way ahead of schedule.
To prepare you for the end of the calendar year, here are my top stories of 2012.
The Sell Off
The day: March 15th 2012. The night before the Blazers fell in shameful fashion 121-79 to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Back home, the Rose Garden was hosting the second and third rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. On the East Coast, the Blazers were struggling through a seven-game roadie and sitting on a 20-23 record. A 7-2 start, a top seed in the Western Conference, and the promise of a bright future long in the rear view, it was time to make a change.
The first shoe to drop was head coach Nate McMillan. Many speculated the Blazers would wait for 2011-12 to end before brass decided to make a move in the head-coaching department. They speculated wrong.
Marcus Camby followed McMillan out the door. The veteran center, brought to the Rose City to try and make people forget that Greg Oden was a bust and Joel Przybilla was well Joel Przybilla, was a fan favorite, but wasn’t they type of player a bad team should be carrying if they are serious about rebuilding. Camby’s parting was amicable. His time in Portland was not great but memorable enough. Camby’s replacements, Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn, were also not guys to build around, but they were also not guys anybody would blame for losses or miss when the season ended and they moved on to other locations.
The Blazers’ March 15th fire sale continued, though, and the next trade was the one that mattered. Portland flipped Gerald Wallace the then New Jersey now Brooklyn Nets for Memhet Okur, Shawne Williams, and a top-three protected first round pick. The Blazers waived Okur to make room for J.J. Hickson (who they pulled off the waiver wire), and Willams was bought out after the season (as a side note, Williams has found himself in hot water recently following his inability to find a job as a professional basketball player). The pick mattered.
What also mattered was how Gerald Wallace left town. Crash came in more as a savior than a Band-Aid. As an established young star looking for a long-term home, Wallace brought with him the hope of making the jump from first round playoff doormat to second round playoff contender. The name Gerald Wallace was tailor-made to ring out through the upper reaches of the Rose Garden. By the time the door slammed on the Wallace Era, though, there was rampant speculation that he had been the voice of dissent poisoning the Blazers’ locker room (or at least he play a role in locker room poisoning). Beyond that too, Portland fans complained of Wallace phoning it in during 2011-12, and then quitting on his team when the going got rough.
Whatever the case may be, whether he dogged it and quit or simply wasn’t as good as advertised, not very many people were sad to see Crash exit, a real shock considering the relative fanfare around Wallace’s long-term Blazer potential following the 2010-11 trade that brought him over.
As almost an afterthought, Portland parted ways with first overall pick Greg Oden on March 15th. The time had come to waive good-bye to one of the most disappointing players in Blazer history. NBA fans will remember Greg Oden as being the guy drafted before the best player of his generation; Blazer fans like me will choose to remember GO for the stretch of 2008-09 when he was healthy and looked like an important element of a dominate young team on the upswing.
Front Office Hiring and Firing
The Portland Trail Blazers unceremoniously fired General Manager Rich Cho in the spring of 2011. The team would go without an official GM for the entire debacle that was the 2011-2012 season.
Just as the player dump started slow, so too did the rebuilding of Portland’s front office. Neil Olshey, hired as GM in early June 2012, was the first brick in the new wall. Olshey came to Portland by way of the Los Angeles Clippers. His first press conference as a Blazer employee was peppered with buzzwords like “deal flow,” “no quick fixes,” and “cross mojination” (OK not that one). He very obviously meant business.
But just like no good burn-off consists of one player leaving, no rebuild worth its salt is limited to just one guy. Terry Stotts came next. Not a marquee head coach, but also not Kaleb Canales, a young guy with lots of guts and gusto but no track record of any kind. Stotts’ staid and professional manner engendered confidence that even if Portland hadn’t found the name guy that would spark the interest of the national media, they had at least gone out and found a guy who looked every inch the part of NBA head coach.
All was not well at One Center Court, though. The hiring of Olshey maybe ruffled a feather or two, or maybe usurped another executive’s authority. Hard to know exactly what happened, but early in the 2012-13 season, President Larry Miller resigned. A stalwart Paul Allen confidant, Miller had seen the team through it’s rebirth and re-demise (if such a thing exists).
The sudden need for a President took most in Portland by surprise, but Paul Allen and his team of Vulcans made quick work of reaching back to Los Angeles once again and bringing Chris McGowan into the fold. Fresh off overseeing a Stanley Cup win with the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, McGowan brought with him AEG bona fides. More importantly, he vowed to leave the basketball to Olshey and Stotts, and spend his day-to-day developing the business side of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Just as Olshey coming to town might have chased Larry Miller, McGowan’s hiring was followed closely by the resignation of Chief Operations Officer Sarah Mensah. Mensah had served the Blazers for 19 years, reaching the highest office held by a woman in the NBA. Rumor was, she wanted McGowan’s job and didn’t get it.
As President, McGowan trimmed some staff, leading some in the local media to question whether or not he was aware that his own demise was probably eminent considering the history of the Blazers and their owner. However, he did at a VP, proving that he can be a job creator and destroyer at the same time.
If you’re keeping score at home, the Blazers added a GM, a President, a head coach, and a couple of VPs in 2012, and lost a President, a chief executive, a couple of VPs, and a couple other high-level functionaries.
The Draft Lottery and the Draft
The NBA Draft Lottery was held at the end of May 2012. The story of the day was which team would claim the number one overall pick, and thus the right to draft University of Kentucky big man Anthony Davis to lead the re-building of their franchise. That honor fell to the New Orleans Hornets.
But The Brow Sweepstakes wasn’t why Blazer fans tuned in to watch David Stern get heckled and booed and then casually read the name of an NBA team.
When Portland blew up its roster, they brought back a top-three protected pick from the New Jersey Nets. If the Nets name came up in one of the top three spots, they retained their pick; otherwise it went to the Blazers. Brooklyn, as they were officially known by May, ended up with the sixth pick overall. That pick was Portland’s, meaning that the Blazers owned not one (they landed at 11th overall all by themselves) but two very nice lottery picks.
Holding two high picks lead to all kinds of various scenarios. Should Portland trade both picks for a veteran All-Star? Should they trade one pick and keep one? And then of course if they keep the picks, who should they be used to pick? All those questions would be answered on Draft Night.
The 2012 NBA Draft was held on June 28th 2012. As expected, Anthony Davis went first. Second through fifth went Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky to the Charlotte Bobcats, Bradley Beal from Florida to the Washington Wizards, Dion Waiters from Syracuse to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Thomas Robinson from Kansas to the Sacramento Kings.
With their sixth pick, the Blazers selected a red-shirt junior from Weber State University. Although nobody knew too much about Damian Lillard or where exactly Weber State was, he led the nation in scoring for part of his final college season, was Big Sky Player of the year, and in three seasons of play finished as the number two scoring in Wildcats history. Lillard was projected to land in the lottery, but a string of outstanding workouts, including one in Portland, elevated his draft stock. The Blazers might have gambled on draft night, leaving Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, and Austin Rivers on the board, but at this point in the 2012-13 season every team short of the Hornets that drafted before Portland probably wishes they’d taken Lillard instead of the guy they chose.
The Blazers used their second lottery pick on a seven-foot sophomore from the University of Illinois. Meyers Leonard has proven to be a bit of a project, but if a legit seven-footer with a high ceiling is around at the 11th pick, you take him.
Drama with Minnesota
This is a story in a few parts. It started long before the 2011-12 season ended and the 2012-13 off-season began. The Blazers failed to reach a deal with Nicolas Batum in the final year of his rookie contract, and when they extended him a qualifying offer at the end of 2011-12 he officially became a restricted free agent. The Minnesota Timberwolves were the first team to make an offer at the French wing. Nicolas signed Minnesota’s offer sheet on July 15th 2012.
Batum’s free agent period was fraught with stories about his desire to play for the Timberwolves and then counter-stories retracting the initial stories saying the Nicolas wanted to be in Portland long-term. Most if not all of the news was based on conjecture. Almost everything to come out of Batum’s camp was likely done in an effort to get the absolute most money out of the Blazers.
Portland had no choice in the end. They’d lost Roy Hibbert, their big free agent target, and they couldn’t let Batum go for nothing. In the end, the Blazers locked up Batum for four years to the tune of $46 million on July 18th, bumping Nic up to number two on Portland’s payroll.
Nic wouldn’t end up in Minnesota, but that wouldn’t be the end of the Twin Cities vs. Rose City off-season showdown.
Brandon Roy announced his retirement from the NBA just after the lockout ended and just before the 2011-12 season began. He waited a whole season, showing up at the Rose Garden one time to blindside the few Portlanders who made it out in the middle of the week to watch a bad Blazer team lose by a lot to the Milwaukee Bucks, and then in June 2012 he announced his un-retirement.
The best and most recognizable Blazer of the last decade entered the free agent market on July 1st 2012. Only one thing was certain at the time. Regardless of how well or how long Brandon Roy’s second act was, it would be for any team in the league but the Portland Trail Blazers. It was the worst fear of some Blazer fans realized. Brandon Roy playing in the NBA wearing some other team’s colors.
That other team turned out to be once again the Minnesota Timberwolves. On July 31st 2012, two weeks after the T-Wolves failed to land Nicolas Batum, Brandon Roy signed a two-year deal to play in Minneapolis.
With the Batum and Roy stories filling up the NBA news cycles, many people began calling the Timberwolves the Blazers of the Mid-West. The fact that Minny was also home to Pacific Northwesterners Kevin Love and Luke Ridnour, and had a coaching staff littered with former Blazer player/coaches Rick Adelman, Terry Porter, and Bill Bayno didn’t help.
Sadly for Timberwolves fans, being the Mid-West Blazers comes with some baggage. Brandon Roy went down on the 10th of November with a sore knee that needed surgery and has yet to return, Chase Budinger (an off-season acquisition) tore his left meniscus the next day and has been out every since, and second-year player Malcolm Lee was sidelined indefinitely on the 14th of December with cartilage damage in his right knee. Trail Blazers is synonymous with knee injuries.
The Rise of Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard’s emergence is 2012’s most recent, and possibly biggest story. I’ll spare you all the details. Here’s what I wrote about where Damian stands in Portland’s sometimes storied sometimes sordid history of the point guard position
Here’s video evidence of Lillard’s latest feat: