PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers’ homecoming after a tumultuous seven-game road trip hardly represented a return to normalcy.
While the team got Monday off, the Blazers introduced a pair of new players they acquired at the NBA trade deadline last week, a day that was marked by the dismissal of head coach Nate McMillan.
Only perfunctory attention was paid to center Hasheem Thabeet and point guard Jonny Flynn, while questions continued to swirl about the present and future of the franchise.
With 21 games left, the Blazers operate under an interim general manager, and now an interim head coach in Kaleb Canales, who started off in Portland as an unpaid video intern in 2004. But they’ve also got as many as four picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and they’ve created a considerable amount of cap space to use this summer on the free agent market.
“I think it was the right decision, because I felt like, what we’d observed of our team was very disappointing. It was time to give something a new shot, inject some new blood with having Kaleb take over and making a couple of moves that looked at the long term,” interim GM Chad Buchanan said. “I think in the short term, I wanted to see our guys compete again, and we weren’t doing that on a consistent basis.”
Thabeet and Flynn were acquired, along with a second-round draft pick, from Houston in exchange for veteran Marcus Camby last Thursday at the deadline. The Blazers also traded forward Gerald Wallace to the New Jersey Nets for center Mehmet Okur, forward Shawne Williams and a protected first-round pick. The two deals netted the Blazers cap space and added to a stockpile of picks for this June’s NBA draft.
But those moves were nothing compared to McMillan’s firing the same day. The former “Mr. Sonic” who had moved south to coach the Blazers for six-plus years was let go after Portland was soundly defeated by the Knicks 121-79 last Wednesday night.
“It all happened pretty fast. We were in the midst of all the madness going on that day,” Flynn said. “I was just looking at it as a great opportunity. The Blazers were going through a tough stretch at that time, and sometimes you make tough decisions to get the best out of your players.”
The fateful Thursday was capped by Portland’s decision to waive oft-injured former No. 1 draft pick Greg Oden.
After McMillan was hired in the summer of 2005, the Blazers set about repairing the “Jail Blazers” reputation of the first half of the decade. In 2006, they brought in guard Brandon Roy and forward LaMarcus Aldridge. The next year, Portland took Oden with the No. 1 pick, hoping the trio under McMillan would take the Blazers to an NBA championship.
Oden’s career in Portland and his repeated knee surgeries were well-documented. Then, shortly after the NBA lockout was resolved and training camps were set to open in December, three-time All-Star Brandon Roy abruptly retired because of problems with both knees that had plagued him for two seasons.
Aldridge, an All-Star himself for the first time this season, is the last player of the trio left.
Portland continues to operate under Buchanan, the team’s director of college scouting who took over when Rich Cho was fired at the end of last season. If the team has made any progress in finding a permanent GM, there has been little evidence of it. The plan is to name both a permanent head coach and GM before the draft.
The team goes into the final 21 games of the season under Canales, a likable and enthusiastic 34-year-old who won his first game as a head coach when the Blazers defeated the Bulls 100-89 in Chicago on Friday night. The Blazers fell 111-95 to Oklahoma City on Sunday, finishing the road trip at 2-5.
Portland is 21-24 overall and sitting out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. The Blazers host Milwaukee on Tuesday, opening a stretch where they play eight of their next ten games at home.
There has been rampant speculation that without a permanent general manager or coach, team owner Paul Allen is positioning the team for sale.
Last Thursday night after the dust settled with McMillan, Oden and the trades, Blazers President Larry Miller insisted that Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft who also owns the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, was not selling the team.
“If he wasn’t committed to this team, we wouldn’t be doing the things we are doing,” Miller said. “He absolutely is still committed to this team, he’s still the owner of this team, he’s still as involved as he’s ever been in this team.”
If sixth-man Jamal Crawford decides to opt out of his contract in the offseason, it appears that the Blazers will have some $25 million in cap space to maneuver into free agency. They’ll have up to four picks in the NBA draft, and it seems apparent that they’ll re-sign forward Nicolas Batum before going hard at a big-name point guard.
As for the future, Buchanan freely acknowledges that the Blazers are in a rebuilding phase, but they haven’t quite given up on the season. He maintains it is ultimately more preferable to make the playoffs, even if Portland loses in the first round, than to throw in the towel now.
“It’s been a challenging year, I would say,” Buchanan said. “There’s highs and low to any NBA season. You can’t ride the waves of the ups and downs. You’ve got to be steady and looking long term.
“The disappointing part for me was the consistent lack of competitive spirit, competitive fire, for such a long stretch, that really kind of defined our season to this point. We have 21 games to change that.”