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After disappointment, hope for the Portland Trail Blazers

By Anne M. Peterson

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21 2011 3:18 p.m. MST

Jamal Crawford, second from left, during introductions as the Portland Trail Blazers hold the annual Fan Fest at the Rose Garden Friday Dec. 16, 2011.

Bruce Ely - The Oregonian, Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — The lockout-shortened season looked to be an all-around disaster at the start for the Portland Trail Blazers.

In what has become known as Black Friday around the organization, the Blazers' hopes to see Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge lead the team to NBA glory were dashed.

Instead, Roy retired, Oden had another knee setback and Aldridge's training camp was delayed by a medical procedure for a heart condition.

But since that dark day at the start of camp on Dec. 9, the Blazers have become surprisingly upbeat.

The team, which continues to operate without a permanent general manager, added depth on the free agent market. They've embraced a new up-tempo style. Aldridge returned quickly. And they've even taken to playing music during practice, something coach Nate McMillan never allowed before.

"It's better than I thought and it will only get better," guard Wesley Matthews said after the first of two preseason games.

The Blazers finished 48-34 last season and were bounced from the first-round of the playoffs by eventual NBA champion Dallas. It was Portland's third straight first-round exit.

In late May, the team then stunned many with the dismissal of general manager Rich Cho after less than a year on the job.

The next month the Blazers conducted the June draft under owner Paul Allen, acting general manager Chad Buchanan and Larry Miller, the team president. They dealt veteran guard Andre Miller to Denver in exchange for guard Raymond Felton in a draft-night deal, while picking up guard Nolan Smith out of Duke with the 21st overall pick.

A few days later, Portland offered Oden, the team's often-injured former No. 1 draft pick, a qualifying offer of $8.9 million to stay with the team for one more year.

But then the lockout happened and the Blazers, like the rest of the league, were put on hold.

When an agreement was finally struck and preparations for the season got under way, Portland had little reason to celebrate: In less than 24 hours, the team was dealt three major blows.

Oden, who missed all of last season following microfracture surgery on his left knee, agreed to the qualifying offer but just a short time later learned that he had suffered a setback in his recovery and wouldn't play as soon as expected — maybe not at all this season.

Then Roy, the soul of the Blazers for the past five seasons, abruptly announced that his All-Star career was over because of an irreparable condition in both of his knees.

If that wasn't enough, Aldridge — the team's top scorer last season while Roy struggled with his knees — went to a routine cardiac exam and found out he needed a procedure to treat a heart condition.

Suddenly, the dreaded phrase "rebuilding season" was being tossed around in talk about the Blazers. But it didn't last very long.

Aldridge's procedure to treat Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which can cause an irregular heartbeat, revealed nothing troubling and he quickly returned.

Portland pulled off a flurry of key moves. First, they signed veteran forward/center Kurt Thomas, who helped the Chicago Bulls overcome injuries last season. Then they brought in former NBA Sixth Man award winner, shooting guard Jamal Crawford, and forward Craig Smith, known as "The Rhino" for his physical play.

The newly reassembled team has adopted a faster, up-tempo playing style, which will better suit Matthews, and perhaps Felton, starting in the backcourt with Crawford coming off the bench. The new offense should also complement forwards Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace, and it will be interesting to see how, after five years in the old system, Aldridge adjusts.

There are questions about the durability of veteran center Marcus Camby — who had knee issues last season — but the addition of Thomas should help out. Camby is 37, while Thomas is 39.

The Blazers are one of the deepest teams in the Western Conference.

"We like the identity of our team right now. We have some tough, hungry guys who feel that we're kind of overlooked in the West right now. I think our guys are going to come out there with a chip on our shoulders. I think the identity of our team will ultimately reflect Nate (McMillan) and his toughness and his business-first approach," Buchanan said.

Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, weighed in on his hopes for the season in a rare session with reporters before the preseason opener against the Utah Jazz.

He said he was pleased with the new additions to the team.

"People will talk about handicapping to say the usual suspects will be at the top of the conference but a bunch of us right below that — Are we just barely a playoff team? Are we potentially going to get out of the first round? Do more damage?" Allen asked.

"That's what makes sports exciting. You have to see how it plays out."

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