The Greg Oden Era for the Portland Trail Blazers started, well, without Greg Oden.
The much ballyhooed No. — draft pick was sidelined before his rookie season started because of microfracture surgery on his right knee.
So the NBA's youngest team (third youngest in league history) set about the season with many onlookers taking a wait-until-next-year approach.
That didn't faze the Blazers, who went on a surprising 13-game winning streak in December and finished even at 41-41 &
out of the playoffs but still an improvement over last season's 32-50 record. It was the first time Portland had finished at .500 or better since the 2003-04 season.
"It's another step forward for us to not have a losing season," coach Nate McMillan said. "We keep taking steps forward."
It was also eventful, long before it got under way.
Portland overcame the odds and landed the No. — pick in the June draft, with Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy representing the team at the lottery. Then came the speculation: Would the Blazers go with 7-foot center Greg Oden out of Ohio State, or 6-foot-9 Texas forward Kevin Durant?
Fans celebrating at the Rose Garden on draft night made their choice clear when they chanted, "O-den! O-den!"
The Blazers made another significant draft deal, sending forward Zach Randolph &
one of the last remaining pieces of the so-called "Jail Blazers" &
to the New York Knicks, picking up Channing Frye in the process.
Summer league games gave fans a few glimpses at Oden, but he had to have a tonsillectomy. About a month later came the stunning news: Oden would miss his rookie season because of his knee.
The young team banded together while the future of the franchise rehabbed. After losing their first three games, the Blazers won their next four, and started off 5-12.
That was about what was expected of them, until the winning streak from Dec. — at Memphis to Dec. 31 at Utah. Soon there was talk that these young Blazers might actually make the playoffs.
That turned out to be premature, but Roy's performance during the streak helped vault him into the All-Star game as a reserve. Twice named the Western Conference's player of the week during the run, he averaged 22.8 points, 6.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds.
"The thing about Brandon that I've always known is that he does what he wants to do when he wants to do it. He's never in a hurry, he's always patient," said Atlanta forward Marvin Williams. "He seems like he's always waiting for someone else to mess up and he just takes advantage of it right there, and that's why he is so effective. He's tough to guard, and he's going to be tough to guard for a long time."
Roy averaged 19.1 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds for the season.
Fellow second-year player LaMarcus Aldridge became a starter and showed probably the most dramatic improvement over the previous season. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds, stepping up after Portland traded away Randolph, and is now among the favorites for the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
Aldridge accompanied Roy to New Orleans, where both played on the sophomore team in the All-Star weekend's rookie challenge game.
Those who made a marked difference for the Blazers this season, especially during the streak, were bench players Jarrett Jack, Travis Outlaw and 3-point specialist James Jones.
Jack said the key was chemistry.
"(I've been) playing with an unbelievable bunch of guys. This is something I haven't had since college," Jack said. "Whenever we had a tough time or a bump in the road we rallied around each other and picked ourselves up."
Along the way, Portland has seen signs of a "Rip City" revival. The term was coined when the Blazers won the 1977 NBA championship.
This season, the Rose Garden sold out 32 games, and Portland was 28-13 at home.
Also notable was that the Blazers requested waivers on forward Darius Miles, who missed the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons after microfracture surgery on his right knee. A medical examiner appointed by the league and the players association determined the damage to Miles' right knee is severe enough to qualify as a career-ending injury.
While the Blazers missed the playoffs, they look toward a busy offseason.
Portland has several contracts that expire after next season, making some of the team's young talent attractive to other teams. General manager Kevin Pritchard said that while he's expecting his phone to ring, he's not necessarily anticipating any big roster shake-ups.
"I will not do anything just to do something, you know?" he said.
Portland will have one first-round pick and three second-round picks in the June draft. And there is a chance the team will be able to lure Rudy Fernandez away from his Spanish team, DKV Joventut. Portland acquired the draft right to the talented 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Phoenix.
There's also a sense that the only piece that's really missing is Oden. Given this season's team slogan "Rise With Us," Pritchard was asked what next season's might be.
"Ready, set, G.O. Get it? G-O?" he said.
Oden-less Blazers show potential