The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2003-2004 NBA season with high hopes. The team finished the 2002-2003 season sixth in the Western Conference with a 50-32 record. They earned a spot in the NBA Playoffs, which the franchise had accomplished for 20 consecutive years. Maurice Cheeks was entering his third full season as head coach and the roster was full of talent. The summer of 2003 will be remembered as the summer Rip City lost all hope.
21 consecutive years of postseason play is quite an accomplishment. A playoff berth is never guaranteed and the Portland Trail Blazers had found a way to stay relevant and competitive for more than two decades. The term “Jail Blazers” had been developed by the national media during the early 2000’s. It referenced the numerous off-court issues that seemed to follow many Trail Blazer players. In the summer of 2003, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves stuck with that nickname; one that still casts a dark shadow upon the fan base.
Marijuana possession. First-degree animal abuse. Threatening a referee. Team fights. Fan slander. You name the crime, the Trail Blazers were probably on the end with hand cuffs. After so much success and a promising future, how did things go so wrong? Following the 2002-2003 season, the Trail Blazers did not have a winning season for six years. During that span, there were many changes that all pointed to a return to the promised land.
After three full seasons at the helm, Cheeks was fired 55 games into the 2004-2005 season. Kevin Pritchard, who was the director of player-personnel at the time, took over as head coach on an interim basis. The summer following the season, the Trail Blazers hire Nate McMillan as full time head coach. McMillian endured one of the worst seasons in the franchise’s storied history his first year: 21 wins and 61 losses (the league’s worst record in the 2005-2006 season). The problems and mistakes of the early 2000’s culminated and the Trail Blazers hit rock bottom.
A small glimmer of hope emerged during the 2006 NBA Draft. The Trail Blazers traded for a two year college star from the University of Texas, LaMarcus Aldridge. They also traded for Brandon Roy, who was the sixth pick in the draft. These two players would be the future for the franchise and make the fans and media forget about the franchise’s troubled past. The formula seemed to work as the Trail Blazers improved 11 games on the court and Roy was named the 2006-2007 Rookie of the Year– one holdout vote short of unanimity (thanks, Andrea Bargnani).
Against the odds, Portland won the 2007 NBA Draft lottery and held the first pick of the draft. Greg Oden, the 7-foot center from Ohio State, received the call that he would be the number one pick and he was headed to Portland. Oden spent one season with the Buckeyes (not even a complete season) and was tagged as a “once-in-a-decade player” by many, including Steve Kerr. Kevin Durant was the other freshman scouts and coaches drooled over. However, the Trail Blazers felt like Oden was too good to pass on. In hindsight, the wrong decision was made.
Oden suffered a knee injury during his first NBA preseason that forced him to miss the entire 2007-2008 season. Despite this huge setback, the Trail Blazers went on to finish the season with a 41-41 record, which was their best record in four years. Roy was selected to his first All-Star game and became the first Trail Blazer All-Star since Rasheed Wallace in 2001. The good vibes were back in the Rose Garden and the franchise was turning around.
Trail Blazers fans finally saw Oden make his team debut on November 12, 2008. The chemistry was off the charts and the Trail Blazers were becoming a cohesive group. In the 15 game stretch after Oden’s debut, the Trail Blazers went 11-4 including a six game winning streak. Other new additions to the 2008-2009 season included Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum. Batum gained a starting position as a rookie due to his skilled defensive play. Roy was selected to his second consecutive All-Star game and led the Trail Blazers with 22.6 points per game. The Trail Blazers clinched their first playoff berth since 2003 after finishing the season with a 54-28 record. The organization finally had upside. There was youth, chemistry, energy, and most important, good attitudes.
We all know what happened next: the Oden saga and the Roy tragedy. Over the next three NBA seasons, Oden played in a total of 21 games, all in the 2009-2010 season. Not once did he take the floor during the 2010-2011 season or the 2011-2012 season. He played a total of 82 games in five seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Roy shined in his first four seasons as a Trail Blazer, but in April 2010, he suffered a slight meniscus tear in his right knee. He had suffered from minor knee issues in previous seasons but nothing major. The start of the 2010-2011 season was normal until December, when his ailing knees forced him to miss nine games before the Trail Blazers declared he would be out indefinitely. He would return to the court in February after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees one month prior. Even though his return to the court gave hope to Roy and the organization, Roy announced his retirement from basketball at the start of the next season due to his degenerating knees.
Fast forward to the current Trail Blazers era. The NBA lock out shortened the 2011-2012 season and Portland finished 28-38. Aldridge was the only bright spot during the short season as he was selected to his first All-Star game. In the 2012 NBA Draft, the Trail Blazers selected Damian Lillard sixth overall. The completely overhauled roster took a toll on the Trail Blazers and they finished the 2012-2013 season 33-49. Yet the fans and the team knew they were about to turn the corner after Lillard was unanimously named Rookie of the Year. This past year, the Trail Blazers finally returned to the playoffs and won their first playoff series in 14 years. Lillard and Aldridge were selected as All-Stars and the team finished the season with 21 more wins than the previous year.
Life as a Trail Blazers fan is good right now. It hasn’t always been easy, at times it has even been sad. There have been ups and there have been downs. The current front office and roster finally gel and it is a thing of beauty. Let’s raise our glass to the future and hope it continues to be bright.