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Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Blazers prepared to take small steps

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Trail Blazers
Led by the trio above, the young Trail Blazers are as deep and talented as any team in the league.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Say this for the Blazers: They aren't putting the cart before the horse. Not if you judge by their media day, anyway.

Of course, distilling a message from these events often proves difficult. Every year, for every team, large chunks of the yearly media event are as predictable as a sunrise: Player X doesn't care about minutes, he just wants to win; Coach Y says he'll use the whole roster and wants to run more this year; and Player Z added the proverbial 15 pounds of muscle and looks great.

Sometimes they're even true.

If you peer through the fog of clichés long enough, you still can glean an overarching message at these events. On Monday, the Trail Blazers offered just such an opportunity. The message, loud and clear, was one of focusing on the intermediate steps to the exclusion of the eventual prize.

Portland won 54 games last season, gave the Lakers as many problems as anyone in the West and has more young talent than any Western contender. These are inarguable facts. Equally salient is that they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Houston, a defeat they blame on their lack of playoff experience.

Thus, one can see the danger in extrapolating from Portland's 2008-09 regular season by having the Blazers anoint themselves championship hopefuls and worthy rivals to L.A. -- um, shouldn't they win a series first?

So on Monday, the Blazers came out in humble mode, with an answer for their season goal that seemed more scripted than a political talking point: "Win the division."

You had to be there to believe it. It wasn't one person or a couple of people saying this; it was everybody, from general manager Kevin Pritchard to coach Nate McMillan (both of whom talked with the media last Wednesday) to the deepest reserves. There was no ambiguity at all, no stuttering looking for the right words. Regardless of who talked, every single question about goals for this season met an immediate response of "win the division."

At first, this seems to be setting the bar awfully low. Portland tied Denver atop the Northwest division with 54 wins last season, losing the division crown on a tiebreaker, and even the biggest Blazers cynic would put them on an even plane with the Nuggets heading into this season.

But the message, internally, seems to be one of taking care of business: Win the division, get home-court advantage, win a playoff round. Then we can talk about the bigger stuff.

"Last year was a start for us," McMillan said. "We talked about our goal of getting to the playoffs and getting some experience. We were able to do that last year. And now it's Phase II. We've been young for a while, we still are young, but that's behind us. We want to win our division, that will be our goal; to get out of that first round and try to win the Western Conference."

That's how the Blazers talked about challenging for the Western title, on the few occasions they mentioned it -- as gravy, a brief clause appended to their main goal of winning the division.

Regardless, Portland will have to take another step forward from a year ago to challenge the likes of L.A. And to do that, it's counting on improving the defense -- again, a goal about which Pritchard, McMillan and the key players seemed to be in lockstep agreement.

"For most teams, when they took that next step, when they won consistently and they won big, those stars that team had committed to the defensive end of the floor," McMillan said. "It seems to me every team that wins the title, they end up talking about how they committed to the defensive end."

"Two years ago when Boston won it, some key guys who weren't really known for playing defense, that's all they talked about, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Kobe talked about it this past year. You're going to need offense, but those teams that seem to commit to the defensive end of the floor, they've taken steps to put themselves in a position to win [a title]."

He's walking the walk on that front, too. McMillan devoted the entirety of Portland's first practice on Tuesday to defense.

And that's where we get to the other big story from the Blazers' media day: Greg Oden. He's likely to stay a big story for much of the season, for the simple reason that he's the one wild card who could take this season in a radically different direction.

Most of the other Blazers are "knowns." Yes, they're young and improving, but Portland basically knows what to expect from nine of the 10 players in this season's rotation. That's what makes Oden so interesting -- nobody is totally sure what he'll do. Plus, the area he can impact the most is the defense, the area the Blazers are trying hardest to improve.

Monday provided encouraging news on this front. Conversation in Portland is that Oden seems lighter both emotionally and physically, and both seemed in evidence. Emotionally, "He doesn't feel the weight of the world on his shoulders," Pritchard said.

The players concur. "I think he's back to the guy that we met when he got drafted," LaMarcus Aldridge said. "Back to having fun, more easygoing, more laid-back. It seems like he's happy to be here again, like when I first met him."

Physically, Oden said he lost weight (he looked like it, too) and feels he's in better condition after working out all summer with Blazers assistant Bill Bayno.

"I want to be the guy who can protect the basket," Oden said. "This summer at the [Team] USA [camp] I tried to just focus on being the best rebounder and the best defender out there. Getting a lot of blocked shots and just being active. I want to take that from [the USA workouts] and bring it to this team."

Although Oden spent most of his summer in Columbus, Ohio, working with Bayno, his teammates effused over the improvement in his play during the team's pickup games in Portland before training camp.

"In the past I've always said, physically, he's so dominant," Brandon Roy said. "This summer I watched him, and he's stepping up the skill. He's not just beating on guys anymore, he's doing little shimmies, jumpers with the left hand, jumpers with the right hand. The most impressive thing is that he's facing guys up now and shooting that little touch shot. If he can continue to add that touch to his game, he's going to be pretty dominant."

Oden may find his contribution stifled by an inability to stay on the court. Last season he had the eighth-highest foul rate among players who played at least 500 minutes, averaging one every 5½ minutes. That won't cut it if he plans on starting -- "I love Joel [Przybilla] to death, but I want to start," he said -- and he's hoping the workouts and a year of added experience will help.

"It comes to me being lighter, being able to move my feet better and not being a half-second late and getting a foul call," Oden said. "Maybe it will be a charge this time, and I'll get to that right spot.

"[Last season] I'm out there working hard, and I'm thinking I'm in the right spot, but I'm not. But Joel, it comes naturally to him, he doesn't have to worry about that. Definitely having that experience and just being smart out on the court [helps]."

Oden versus Przybilla is one of three position battles that will make this Blazers training camp an interesting one. At point guard, Steve Blake and free-agent acquisition Andre Miller face off, and at small forward, a cast including Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster -- back after missing all but one game last season with a foot injury -- will duke it out.

With so many players scrapping for minutes, the question about playing time obviously emerges … especially in this town, where a previous edition of a deep, talented Blazers team imploded partly because personal agendas overtook team goals.

But the Blazers are quick to point out that they're a much lower-maintenance group of characters than the Jail Blazers of yore. Monday's low-key media day seemed to show it. Yes, the Blazers are good, and quietly, they know it, but they won't pump their chests out talking about the Lakers until they're good and ready. For now, they'll focus on the intermediate steps, and they'll deal with L.A. if and when they get there.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.