Moving Right Along...
At times in the past the final few games of the regular season have been referred to as 'the calm before the storm.' But, the storm we were talking about was the post season. With the Trail Blazers being out of the race in the final weeks of this past regular season, the storm we started referring to involved the off season- the lottery, the draft, the free-agent signing period, and two very important hires that will be made by the team.
That's not to say that the final games of the season were meaningless, because they weren't. But, I can honestly say I was checking those last few off with big red Xs on my calendar. I think that's understandable, given all that happened.
Mostly though it was because I started looking so forward to this summer of opportunity. I know, that's what you say after a season like this one, and when you miss the playoffs you start to at least attempt to sell hope. I don't mean that like it's a bad thing, even if others interpret it as a last resort.
The flight home from Utah following yet another loss in the closing seconds of a game wasn't as long as you would think. Even if we weren't ramping up emotionally, anticipating the start of the playoffs, I think mentally we had all turned the page and were sensing some relief at getting the end of the regular season in the rearview mirror. We were only doing that because we knew what could possibly happen in the next few months.
While it's true that the Trail Blazers don't totally control everything that's going to happen in the next stages of our off season, there is a controlled sense of optimism about what could happen. The potential of owning two lottery picks, along with being a major player in the free-agent market, has everyone excited.
While others are weighing in on who should stay and who should go from this current roster, my thoughts are elsewhere. There are only a couple of decisions that have to be made concerning the players that finished the season with this team anyway. We all know that major changes are coming. That's the exciting part.
Before we even get to what might happen with the players, let's get to the other major developments that will happen before the roster is tweaked. There will be a general manager in place, and there will be a head coach named, in that order, probably before we get to the decisions on players.
I know I come at this from a different place, but I always found it interesting when people would say things like, "Portland doesn't have a general manager," this past season. Chad Buchanan has been around long enough, is talented enough, and has done enough to at least get some credit for having been on the job this past season. He was handed a very tough situation, and then did his best to assemble a roster on the fly when this team's "Mr. Everything" retired on training-camp eve. As we've said so many times before, this job was made even more difficult with the condensed camp that followed the lockout. You don't replace Brandon Roy, and even the harshest critic would admit that. So, with the days dwindling, and the season opener rapidly approaching, Buchanan and his staff did what they could to remedy the situation.
When the team won seven of its first nine games, and that included wins at Oklahoma City, and wins over the Sixers, Denver, Clippers, and Lakers, five playoff teams, it was easy to get excited. But, as we know now, the optimism started to fade as the near-miss losses began to pile up.
Being a team that goes from being an early-season contender to then being well under the salary cap, with a shot a two lottery picks, doesn't happen by accident. This is where Buchanan hasn't gotten the credit he deserves at making some bold, creative moves that potentially could get this team flipped around quickly.
Not only did he help the team clean up the locker room, while shedding salary, but also acquired a trade exception from Houston that made it possible for the Trail Blazers to claim J.J. Hickson off waivers- a move that nearly went unnoticed at the time. But, as painful as the final month of the season was, can you imagine how it could have gone without Hickson? Not only that, but the Trail Blazers will make Hickson a restricted free agent soon, and will have the opportunity to keep him. Again, they picked up an asset, and did it without hindering their cap situation this summer.
The moves he's made, and the poise, class, and leadership he's shown in a very difficult situation, one he was tossed into, should at least get his resume tossed into the stack of candidates for the permanent job. I don't know what his chances are to actually get the official job, but I know many around here would be more than content if that ends up being the case. I actually think this should be looked at as a who-is-better-than-Buchanan job search. If you land on someone you feel is head and shoulders above what Chad could bring, then do it. And, he'd been fine with that. He's told me as much.
Here's one thing I do know about the search- there are a ton of impressive candidates who are pounding on the door, never mind what some of the uneducated and cynical would have you believe. There is hero potential here in Portland, given the opportunity this franchise has heading into this summer. There's that, and then there's an owner who has shown an amazing commitment to putting a winning team on the floor- a guy who has always shown a willingness to spend whatever it takes to follow a blueprint. People around the country get that, believe me. That's why the line of applicants outside Larry Miller's office is so long.
That brings us to the next coach of the Trail Blazers. This line is forming as well, and you'd be pleasantly surprised to learn who has expressed major interest so far. The last coach was here six and a-half years, and made a lasting impression on this fan base, and nationally. The table was set for Nate McMillan, but fate conspired to poke major holes in the plan just as it appeared to be coming together.
Just as Buchanan was thrust into a situation he never expected, Kaleb Canales, the former unpaid intern, went from riding an exercise bike in our hotel in Chicago on the morning of March 15th, to a phone call telling him he was going to serve as the head coach. Given the circumstances, Canales did himself proud.
The players don't hire the head coach, as you know. But, if they did, Canales would have already had the "interim" tag removed from his title. With each passing interview, following the final meetings before scattering for the summer, the endorsements for Canales to get the gig were getting stronger and stronger. I've never seen anything like it. It's not because the players were angling to get a buddy selected, but because they had been around Kaleb long enough to know that he has an "it" factor when it comes to leading men. Again, I don't know that he'll get the job, or even made it to the final cut, but he deserves a shot, just like Buchanan does.
General manager, head coach, point guard, center. That's the order of business now for the Trail Blazers. Yes, those are pretty important things in the NBA. That's why this is exciting, and that's why we've labeled this the summer of opportunity. You don't get chances like this, to build around an all-star player, along with some other solid pieces of a one-time contender, very often. If the 2006 draft (Roy/Aldridge) was 1A as far as turning points go in a franchise's history, then this could be 1B, at least in the modern era.
It may not happen through the draft this time, as Buchanan has hinted strongly that Portland's picks (one or both) are definitely for sale, but things will happen. The ball is certainly on the tee.
Let the storm begin.