The Blazers started the year with gaudy depth. Maybe the most depth in the league.
One of the positions that was particularly stacked was center, where Greg Oden was penciled in as a future franchise player, and Joel Przybilla -- who led the whole league in rebounding percentage last season -- has often been called the best backup in the NBA.
Another position that was deep -- too deep, according to most pre-season analyses -- was small forward. Nicolas Batum was the long "D and 3s" guy that winning teams love to have alongside stars. As a rookie, he had started on a team that won 54 games. Over the summer, he had killed it for the French team, and hopes were high and getting higher. Travis Outlaw can get his shot off against anyone. And Rudy Fernandez is the leading candidate to become the NBA's next Manu Ginobili.
All of those players are out. The small forwards have the potential to return before the playoffs. But the centers are evidently out for the duration, which is a truly spectacular run of injuries.
What a flood of bizarre feelings for Blazer fans:
If you added some roster filler around Portland's injured players -- Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw and Patrick Mills (rookie point guard who has also been out all season) -- you'd have a fighting chance at making the playoffs.
New plan: Trade every healthy player for draft picks or something before their seasons end.
What's worse? The injury that takes out your first center? Or the injury that takes out your last center? When Oden got hurt, it was big news. But that meant Przybilla was starting, and he's a stud. When Przybilla got hurt, that means ... Juwan Howard is starting. (Yes, he's still in the NBA. He's not a center, by the way. And he's backed up by, well, I'm not sure who's backing up the backup to the backup.)
Ahh, you say, so now the Blazers can go small. That can be an advantage. Coach like Don Nelson! But remember, when teams go small, that usually involves getting some small forward to guard a big man. Portland doesn't have any small forwards left. So ... when the Blazers go small, it's four guards and a skinny big man like LaMarcus Aldridge, or Howard (or last night rookie Jeff Pendergraph played his first NBA minutes after an injury of his own). If size matters in the NBA, Portland is doomed.
If Nate McMillan can steer this ship to the playoffs, that's your leading candidate for coach of the year.
Strange things happen. Maybe all this mayhem leads to things we'd never expect. For instance, last night, the Mavericks were determined to crush Portland's tiny lineup, and so played Erik Dampier long minutes. Only they're way better with, say, Jason Terry or Jose Juan Barea in the game. And Portland won.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. And sometimes those pay off. For instance, Jerryd Bayless has been getting lots of playing time, and wow! He is officially now due to become a YouTube star. The other day he made an out-of-bounds/backcourt violation save that he had no business completing successfully. One of those moments that tells you he's a super special athlete. And his combination of intelligence and aggression is delightful. Last night, Dirk Nowitzki was coming to life. The Mavericks had figured out how to get Portland to switch to get little guys like Steve Blake isolated against Nowitzki. (In that scenario, Dirk makes the bucket apparently without even being aware that there had been a defender there.) (Also, that moment was a microcosm of the next few months for Portland. The other guys are now way bigger.) Things were looking bad for Portland. But Bayless -- a heady little dude -- plunged in from Nowitzki's blind spot and poked the ball free, creating a momentum-changing turnover (which, by the way, was scored as a Blake steal -- he collected the loose ball).
Through it all, I think Blazer players, fans, employees and the like have had a crazy roller-coaster ride of emotions. What pleases me is to see guys like Roy (who, by the way, is set to have an MRI on his shoulder) and Bayless talking a good game about staying scrappy.
For whatever reason, Blazer fans are, in my experience, particularly prone to wallowing in a victim complex. The refs, the opponents, the League, the media ... to a lot of Blazer fans, they have all always been out to get this team since its inception. (The current Blazer broadcasters play no small role in this -- the subtext of every broadcast is "that was a horrible call against Portland). Counting your misfortunes is precisely how you don't succeed in tough times.
You count your blessings. For the players, how about this? Just about everybody involved (sorry, D-League call-up Anthony Tolliver) is a millionaire. Injured or not, everybody has top-notch health care. Everybody has a roof over their heads and three square meals a day (or five, if that's what your dietician is into). Everybody gets to be in the NBA. Everybody gets to prove themselves, now, or after all the rehab. Functioning knees or not, everybody on this team is lucky compared to 99% of the planet.
And for the fans: If you're biggest troubles are in your entertainment life? If the people who are hurting are people you don't even know personally? Well, consider yourself very lucky indeed.
No, this season has not gone how any Portlander wanted it to go. But nobody has good fortune all the time. Everybody gets a turn to play a bad hand. Play those cards well, and you're really something special.
UPDATE: Amazing but true. Portland PR says: "Brandon Roy (left shoulder strain) is out for tonight's game at San Antonio. He is listed as day-to-day." Roy is scheduled for an MRI when the team returns to Portland.
UPDATE: And with a road win in San Antonio, Portland makes this post's headline look good. Jeff Pendergraph, by the way, is the backup to the backup's backup at center. Juwan Howard was something of a star on the night. Neither big man comes with high expectations at this stage, but both are feisty and can hit the open jumper.