It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Nate McMillan and the Trail Blazers. They were supposed to be running evenly with the Thunder as the league’s most improved franchises.
It was 2007 when the then-Seattle SuperSonics (soon-to-be Oklahoma City Thunder) took Kevin Durant with the second overall pick after the Blazers had selected Greg Oden with the first pick. The two were supposed to face off for years in similar fashion to MagicJohnson and LarryBird.
But knee problems derailed Oden, who has not played in a game since 2009.
Brandon Roy then became the Blazers’ cornerstone player, and the competition for the league’s most promising franchise was back in stride, with Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge expected to lead Portland to prominence.
Then Roy’s knees became creaky, and the day before free agency began last December, he abruptly retired after being told that his arthritic knees would never allow him the same explosion as before.
The Blazers were again relegated to patchwork, acquiring players such as Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, and Jamal Crawford. And the season began in promising fashion with a 7-2 record.
Yet the burden of having to overcome career-ending injuries to two cornerstones has been too much for McMillan and the Blazers to bear. They turned in an embarrassing performance Friday against the Celtics, falling to 19-21 and prompting speculation of a house-cleaning in Rip City.
The Blazers seemingly gave up on McMillan against the Celtics, and it was difficult to envision those players in uniform transforming into a contender with such little preparation and so many catastrophic losses.
“It’s really our organization having to look at where we are,’’ said McMillan. “To lose an All-Star and to lose a No. 1 pick, that’s a lot. Some franchises, the recovery time is big time.
“Think about Cleveland losing LeBron [James] and what it does to a team, and we’ve lost an All-Star and No. 1 pick, and we really never had them for a long period of time. But I think we have to look at where we are and where you go from here.
“Brandon Roy retires on the first night we can meet [with free agents]. So that’s where you are.’’
With the current elite Western Conference teams - Lakers, Mavericks, and Spurs – showing signs of age, the Blazers were supposed to join the Thunder and Grizzlies as the next in line to take control. Yet the Blazers are fighting just to claim the final playoff spot, with a team that is hardly ready to challenge for the NBA Finals. And the fan base waits impatiently for a consistent winner.
“It seems like over the last 10 years the West has been getting better,’’ McMillan said. “You look at some of these teams that are on the top, they are still really good. Some of these teams that were rebuilding are now starting to play better basketball.
“Oklahoma City is a contender now. Everybody wants to be part of a winner, and even though you’ve had these injuries, [the fans] want to win. Some people will look at it, ‘Well, you made the wrong decision. You drafted wrong [Oden instead of Durant].’ We felt like we made the right decisions.’’
Durant’s superiority over Oden wasn’t apparent five years ago when Oden showed no signs of knee issues after a dominant freshman season at Ohio State. Oden was the consensus No. 1 pick, a defensive-minded franchise center whom some even compared in potential to Bill Russell.
“We drafted the people that we felt could put us in a position to one day give us a championship, and you’ve had some unfortunate situations where a young All-Star is forced to retire, and a lottery pick didn’t have the opportunity to perform, and we’ve been able to continue to win some games and get to the playoffs,’’ McMillan said. “That, a lot of times, has crippled an organization.
“We’re really going through some tough times. You try to look where you are and keep yourself from being crippled by the loss of two players that were really considered franchise guys.’’
Instead, the Blazers have had to build around Aldridge, who is a gifted power forward but more of a workmanlike player than a superstar. The Blazers have advanced to the postseason the past three years, but each time were eliminated in the first round. They are currently 11th in the West, with Wallace and Felton having disappointing seasons.
“When you look back and you got Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, and LaMarcus Aldridge, that’s a pretty good group to build with,’’ said McMillan. “But we never had the opportunity to see those three guys together, not even for a season, so we never really had that chance to see it develop.’’
McMillan said the organization just has to move forward and forget lamenting what could have been.
“We did the right things, but they just didn’t work out, so we have to try it again,’’ he said. “That’s the reality that we’re in.’’
CHASING THE DREAM
Son is hoping to rise in pros
A year ago, Jeremiah Rivers was finishing his senior season at Indiana University, unsure of his professional future. But he found an opportunity to play in Serbia, and that experience has given Doc Rivers’s son the confidence to give the NBA a try. He has returned from his overseas experience to recover from a foot injury and prepare for NBA Summer League.
“It was a great experience, I had never been to Europe before,’’ said Rivers, who averaged 6.2 points and 2.1 rebounds in 14 games for KK Mega Vizura. “I played real well out there. Everything was going great and my shot really developed, and I was able to really get better because we practiced twice a day every day. I was just out there grinding, trying to accomplish my goals.’’
Rivers worked out at the Celtics practice facility after last season and was determined to play professionally. During the lockout, Doc traveled to Serbia to watch his son’s first game and came away impressed.
“He thought it would be a great situation for me to get better,’’ Jeremiah said. “To get out of the college mind-set and try to get my swag back in a way, and that’s exactly what I did.
“The team was just so supportive the minute I got there. I was doing things, especially offensively, that I haven’t done since high school. For me that was a big step forward. I really wanted to finish the season but I’ve got to [take care of the injury].’’
Rivers was scheduled to have bone spurs removed before resuming workouts. NBA Summer League begins in July.
Talent show in Philadelphia
His first year in the NBA admittedly was difficult for Sixers guard Evan Turner. The No. 2 overall pick in 2010 out of Ohio State, he took three weeks off following the draft and before Summer League, and never quite worked himself into proper playing condition or into coach Doug Collins’s system.
Turner struggled through his rookie season, averaging 7.2 points in 78 games, and he has had an inconsistent second year. But he did capitalize on the Celtics’ weariness last Wednesday to score a career-high 26 points in Philadelphia’s 103-71 victory, playing much the way he did when he dominated the college scene during his junior season.
The 76ers are one of the league’s rare teams without a true superstar, relying on several solid but not spectacular players to contribute, including All-Star Andre Iguodala, who possesses many of the same skills as Turner.
So for Turner, playing time has been an issue, and so has position.
Jrue Holiday is Philadelphia’s starting point guard, but against Boston, Collins allowed Turner to run the point, something the coach wants to do more often.
“I was really happy for Evan Turner,’’ Collins said. “He was absolutely fabulous. He had the bounce back in his step, he had the pop in his game. He was playing confident basketball.’’
Turner has bona fide star talent, but confidence has been an issue, especially with a demanding coach such as Collins and a deep roster.
“I understand that I’m going to have some good nights and some bad nights,’’ said Turner. “As a player and a pro, you understand that.
“You’re always blessed to play a great game and come out with a win. I’m trying to build off this and not sit there and say, ‘I told you so,’ or point fingers. I’m just enjoying the moment.
“It’s definitely easy to blend in. If you’re playing the right way, it’s easy to feed off other people. Sometimes it’s rough when you don’t get things going, but at the same time, you don’t feel so much pressure because you know you have seven or eight other people who are capable.’’
The issue with the 76ers is that they lack a closer. Lou Williams has served in that role this season, but he comes off the bench. Turner has been envisioned as a cornerstone, but that will likely take longer than expected.
Getting more minutes, said Turner, “definitely helped me a little bit. Coach told me his role for me. Getting some shots up and getting my game legs and coming in on an off day to work with [assistant coach Michael Curry] helped me.’’
YOUNG AND HUNGRY
Frisky Wolves are at the door
The Timberwolves were dealt a blow when point guard Ricky Rubio was declared out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Rubio’s splendid rookie year was one of the many highlights in a season of resurrection in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves have been largely insignificant since the trade of Kevin Garnett to the Celtics, but general manger David Kahn - in his own unique way - has assembled enough young talent to show marked improvement.
Going into Saturday’s games, the Timberwolves were a half-game behind Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Rubio’s passing, along with the post presence of Kevin Love and the potential of rookie Derrick Williams, make the Timberwolves a team to watch in the future.
Williams, an afterthought as a recruit to the University of Arizona, emerged as an NBA prospect with a dominant NCAA Tournament last year as a sophomore. He was the second overall pick in the draft behind Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving but has had to come off the bench because of the Timberwolves’ depth.
Williams has been brought along slowly, but his numbers are improving every month. He was averaging 13.4 points in five games this month, including a 22-point outing Friday against the Lakers.
Williams does not have a true position. He has the girth but is shorter than most NBA power forwards, and he possesses the uncanny athleticism of a small forward.
“I haven’t [come off the bench] in a while but it’s been a fun experience,’’ he said. “I just have to try to stay consistent in the second half of the season.
“In the middle of first half, I was trying to do too many things at one time, but it’s such a short period of time. I’m just trying to focus on those things I know I can do, stay with the pace, and not try to go too fast.’’
With new coach Rick Adelman, the dominance of Love (25.5 points, 13.7 rebounds), and young, athletic depth, the Timberwolves are proving to be a difficult matchup for older teams.
Things finally seem to be working in what is the third or fourth rebuilding project since Garnett’s trade. They tried with the pieces they acquired from the Celtics and tried again with Kurt Rambis and his triangle offense, but now there is newfound hope for a winner.
“We’re that close,’’ said Williams. “We [exceeded] our total number of wins from last year, so just imagine, if we had 82 games, how many wins we could have.
“That’s the main thing, just getting more wins on the board and trying to make the playoffs. I feel like that’s our goal this year. I feel like if we don’t make the playoffs, everybody is going to be disappointed.’’
You couldn’t see the Stars
As part of the “NBA Cares’’ program, the league mandates that the 24 All-Stars attend a community service program a few hours after media availability on Friday of All-Star Weekend. Well, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, and Kobe Bryant (who also missed the media availability) skipped the event and were fined. The cost reportedly was $20,000 for Rondo and Pierce, and $40,000 for Bryant. Rondo and Pierce attended the media session and participated in the rest of the activities.
Injury really hurts Knicks
There was a reason Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni held out Tyson Chandler for a key stretch of the Celtics’ overtime win last Sunday. Chandler revealed that he has a stress reaction in his left wrist, which, combined with a strained left hamstring, also cost him a chance to play Wednesday against the Spurs. Many NBA insiders believe Chandler is the Knicks’ most essential piece, despite the attention Jeremy Lin has received in the past month. Chandler provides defensive resistance for a team that has struggled to stop opponents all season.
Kings make Smart move
Coach Keith Smart has been a pleasant surprise for the Kings in terms of working with the younger players, and the club exercised the option on his contract last week. Smart did not get much of a chance with the revolving roster in Golden State, and his fate was sealed there when ownership changed. What may have sealed the extension was Smart’s relationship with mercurial forward DeMarcus Cousins, whose play and attitude have improved since Smart took over for Paul Westphal.
Look for the Rockets to be active in the trade market in the next week. They have a wealth of young but unused talent that could be moved for draft picks or more desirable commodities. The players who registered a “DNP-coach’s decision’’ last Tuesday against the Celtics were Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, Terrence Williams, Jonny Flynn, Hasheem Thabeet, and Marcus Morris, all of whom but Budinger were first-round picks. Hill, Williams, Flynn, and Thabeet are due to be unrestricted free agents, while Budinger will be restricted in 2013. Morris is a rookie who has spent a portion of the season in the NBDL but is considered a potential cornerstone . . . Another free agent this summer will be Charlotte’s Boris Diaw, who is one of the league’s more underrated players - when he is focused. But that hasn’t always been the case, especially with the Bobcats. Coach Paul Silas commented last week on how much better the Bobcats are when Diaw is mentally invested. Not a ringing endorsement for a contract extension. Diaw was a potential star when he played for the Suns but has struggled to stay in shape and gotten by on his basketball intelligence. Silas seems to have caught on to that.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.