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Where to now for Portland?

By John Hollinger

PORTLAND -- It was perhaps the ultimate irony: On a night where the Blazers wore their retro uniforms from the 1970s, their star center fell to a season-ending injury. As it was with Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, so it goes with Greg Oden. The Blazers' big man suffered his second season-ending knee injury in three pro seasons, fracturing his left patella in the first quarter of the Blazers' 90-89 win over Houston tonight.

Yet it was another retro -- back to the halcyon days of 2008-09 -- that may be the ultimate takeaway from tonight’s game, and it leads me to a significant silver lining in this cloud.

More on that in a minute, but first let’s get to the main story. Yes, we can officially say Greg Oden is injury-prone. By the end of this year, Oden will have played 82 of a possible 246 games since Portland took him with the first overall pick in 2007. While broken bones are rarely career-altering, this injury is franchise-altering in the sense that it seems a pipe dream for the Blazers to count on Oden going forward. They can take his contributions as gravy if he’s healthy, but they can’t build a team around him.

His latest setback appeared to happen without any contact: He planted both feet to block a shot by a driving Aaron Brooks, and his left knee simply gave way as he went up. Brooks lofted in a bank shot while Oden grimaced and began to clutch his knee while still in mid-air. Photographs in the immediate aftermath showed his kneecap displaced several inches down and to the right from where one normally expects a kneecap to reside.

All this seems horribly unfair to Oden, a gentle giant who, as general manager Kevin Pritchard somberly noted afterward, had worked so hard to come back from his first knee injury. Oden felt bad enough that Brandon Roy said, "He looked at me and he was like, 'Sorry,' and put his head down." He also was asking for score updates while being carted off for his MRI.

In a roundabout way, it's unfair to Pritchard too. I know what you’re all thinking, so before we go any further: All you second-guessers out there, just stop it. All 30 NBA general managers were prepared to take Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. All of them. There wasn't even any question about it. One can fairly ask whether this consensus was borne more of the hope that infects every personnel evaluator upon seeing a talented 7-footer than of common sense. That said, it's hard to single out a front office for doing what everybody else would have done too.

A more salient point is how Oden's injury puts the rest of Portland's season in a much different light. As Blazers coach Nate McMillan noted, Oden had been the team’s most consistent performer in what had otherwise been a largely disappointing season for Portland.

“This is a setback,” stated Pritchard, and it’s one that leaves him running low on players. With Travis Outlaw slated to miss most of the year with broken foot, Nicolas Batum still out, and Rudy Fernandez (sciatic pain) the second-most prominent addition to the injury list tonight, a Blazers team that began the year wondering how to allot minutes among so many talented players suddenly finds itself playing with a skeleton crew.

Little-used subs like Jerryd Bayless, Dante Cunningham and Juwan Howard all saw extensive action on Saturday night. With rookies Paddy Mills and Jeff Pendergraph also hurt and the maximum 15 players under contract, the Blazers will have only nine healthy players until Fernandez comes back (he had an MRI Saturday night and the results were not available).

Pritchard dryly noted that the league doesn’t allow injury exemptions until a team is down to seven healthy players, and that he wasn’t rooting for two more injuries. But he admitted it may be time to look at roster moves to bring in reinforcements.

A trade is one possibility, especially one that uses the expiring contract of Outlaw. Another is to cut Mills and sign a “stretch 4” from among the league’s waiver-wire flotsam, since that spot is the most glaring roster need at the moment.

But in a weird way, Oden's injury takes some of the heat off a Blazer team that was visibly pressing, and off a front office that may have felt pressured to do something rash. Expectations bred by last year's 54-win season had caught up with this team, and with Oden's injury they can get back to relaxing and playing basketball without feeling like they need to win every game by 20 points.

They could also get back to playing a similar style to a year ago, when Joel Przybilla started at center and Oden came off the bench. I mentioned to Roy that tonight’s game was the first one of this year that felt like last season's games, and he didn’t disagree. McMillan made similar comments in his postgame press conference, admiring his team’s cohesiveness and scrappiness in rallying to beat the Rockets.

For whatever reason, the guards had a much easier time than in other Blazer games this season. Andre Miller -- the official scapegoat of the 2009-10 Blazers -- had his best game in a Portland uniform with a season-high 24 points, leading a third-quarter rally that got Portland back in the game, while Bayless needed only six shots to score 13.

Roy also seemed more comfortable with the added driving lanes created by not having Oden in the post. Tonight he scored 28 points on just 15 shots, the first time he'd scored more than 20 points while making at least half his shots in nearly a month and only the fourth all season. Three times in the last minute he scored on the type of 1-4 isolations plays that he killed opponents with last season, including the game-winner with 3.0 seconds left.

I’m not sure this just a coincidence. If one looks at the results of the Blazers’ five-man units a year ago, the starters tended to play much better with Przybilla, and the subs much better with Oden. While much of the focus has been on Roy’s inability to pair with Miller in the backcourt, it appears that attention may have been misplaced and glossed over a bigger story -- the inability of either of them to play with Oden. This isn’t a knock on Oden, as McMillan was correct in noting how well he’s played. But the pieces don’t fit together smoothly, at least yet.

Because of that, I don’t think this injury is the death knell that some suspect. Oden was playing extremely well, but if Roy and Miller revert to their long-term averages in his absence, it will offset the loss.

That said, the Blazers face a difficult road to the postseason now, something that seemed all but assured at the start of the season. Their once-formidable depth now is more a liability than strength, with the frontcourt in particular looking thin. For instance, when they signed Juwan Howard this summer I don’t think the idea was for him to be the first big off the bench.

Oddly enough, then, Oden’s is a franchise-altering injury, but I’m not sure it’s a season-altering one. Tonight’s game leaves me with the sneaking suspicion that Portland will continue more or less on its previous trajectory toward a low playoff seed. That would have been a huge disappointment with a healthy Oden; it now will likely be seen as a pleasant surprise.