Its Black Friday, Trail Blazer style
- Kerry Eggers
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Issues with Roy, Oden, Aldridge overshadow start of camp
Team Trauma outdid itself Friday, and on the opening day of training camp, no less.
No team has been more synonymous with injuries in recent years than the Trail Blazers, whose 11 able-bodied participants at the start of camp were totally overshadowed by three who weren't on hand:
• Brandon Roy, whose brittle knees have forced him into retirement at age 27.
• Greg Oden, whose own knee problems could mean he has played his final game in a Blazer uniform.
• LaMarcus Aldridge, who underwent his second heart procedure in four years.
Other than that, everything was hunky-dory Friday with Portland's NBA club, as you can imagine.
Demoralizing is the word that comes to mind in describing the scene at the Tualatin training facility. This was Black Friday, Trail Blazer style.
Surprised, but understanding
News came in waves at the media, which spent a good portion of the day waiting for team officials to parcel news on the health of the three players of interest.
Roy's retirement came via an ESPN report in the early-morning hours, a wild departure from the comments made during a Monday press availability in which Nate McMillan declared the guard's health to be good and pronounced him a starter for the upcoming season.
The coach was taking Roy's word for it. Not a wise move.
Four days later came the report that Roy's knees are so bad his career is over. Everybody - including his teammates - was caught off guard.
'I heard all the talk a couple of days ago that Brandon was going to be our starter,' center Marcus Camby said. 'I saw him when we took our physicals. Thought he was going to be at the team dinner last night, but he wasn't.
'When I woke up this morning, (there were) 40 text messages, Twitter is going off, everybody is talking about B-Roy retiring. It's sad.'
McMillan and interim general manager Chad Buchanan were among the first to know, but not until Thursday night.
'We were shocked,' Buchanan told me Friday night, long after the last of the media had left the training facility. 'I received a call from his representative (agent Bill Duffy) with the news.
'We had a great meeting on Monday and were looking forward to having Brandon in practice today. But after he went through his annual physical with the doctor, Brandon started thinking about the long-term health prospects he might be facing down the road.'
The message to Roy was this: Your knees are getting worse. If you want to be able to walk at age 40, now is the time to retire.
'Brandon wants to be able to play with his kids and run around freely and live with good health as he goes through life,' Buchanan said. 'He decided (retirement) was the route he wanted to go. We were very surprised to get the news, but also understanding.'
Roy eventually issued this statement through the Blazers; it came shortly before 1 a.m. Saturday: 'This is a very difficult and painful day. I love the game, I love the Portland Trail Blazers and I love our fans, but after consulting with my doctors, I will seek a determination that I've suffered a career-ending injury, pursuant to the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. My family and health are most important to me and in the end this decision was about them and my quality of life. I want to thank Paul Allen, Larry Miller, Coach McMillan, the entire Trail Blazers organization and our fans for all of their love and support during my time in Portland. It was a great ride.'
At the same early hour, the Blazers issued this comment from owner Paul Allen: 'Like every Blazer fan, I am very sad to learn that Brandon's playing days have ended. Up until Thursday night we were looking forward to seeing him back on the court Friday for the first day of practice. I want to personally thank Brandon for all he's done as a Trail Blazer, on and off the court. He is a true All-Star and we all rooted for him as he gave us so many amazing moments during his five years as a Blazer.'
Scary day for Aldridge
But Roy wasn't the only one who brought unexpected news to the organization.
Friday afternoon came news that during Oden's physical examination in Aspen, Colo., on Thursday, something had been discovered amiss in the left knee that underwent microfracture surgery in November 2010.
Blazer officials wouldn't comment specifically, but word was that a non-weight-bearing ligament in the knee showed some sort of abnormality. As a result, the Blazers and Duffy negotiated a one-year contract extension for less than the $8.8 million qualifying offer the club had originally extended.
'Based on the results of the MRI, there was some concern on our end,' Buchanan said. 'We have come to an agreement on a one-year deal that both sides feel is fair.'
The Blazers had hoped Oden might be able to return after the All-Star break in February. Now, another season could be lost for the 7-footer.
'I don't think we're quite as optimistic as we were before that Greg will be out there this season,' Buchanan said. 'But it is a possibility.'
Well, sure. And Halley's Comet could make a surprise appearance this year, too.
During a discussion with reporters in late afternoon, McMillan said Aldridge was undergoing tests he takes annually since the forward's 2007 surgery to correct a problem associated with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a heart condition. McMillan called the testing 'routine.' When asked if Aldridge would attend Saturday's practice, the coach answered, 'I certainly hope so.'
Aldridge was actually on the operating table, undergoing a similar procedure to the one administered in '07. By 7 p.m., Buchanan was able to deliver news that the surgery was successful, and the hope is Aldridge can return to practice in a week or two.
I asked Buchanan if he is concerned with Aldridge's future as an NBA player, given this is his second dealing with the problem in four years.
'All we can do is listen to the experts,' he said. 'The cardiologists feel it was very rare for it to appear again, but feel like they took care of it. They feel confident in him coming back from it, that he'll be back on the court soon.
'But yeah, it's a little alarming to have LaMarcus go through this kind of scary day again.'
Bigger roles for some
The same can be said for the Blazers in general.
There may have been more dismal days in franchise history, but not many.
It would have been fitting for radio play-by-play man Brian Wheeler to adjust his catch phrase to, 'Not a great day to be a Blazer.'
Roy's loss, forward Gerald Wallace said, 'is a big blow for us. We were looking to have everybody back healthy. We wanted to get the season started off on the right foot.'
Blazer officials will have to decide whether to use the amnesty clause on Roy or allow him to retire. If amnesty is employed, the three-time All-Star guard would be waived, his salary comes off the books and the club would be given an additional $2 million with which to spend in free agency. Retirement would mean that insurance would cover a good part of his contract, but his 2011-12 salary - prorated from $14.9 million - would stay on the team's cap this season.
The loss of Roy means Wesley Matthews returns to his spot as starting shooting guard. Camby thinks the Blazers will be able to adjust.
'We pretty much didn't have Brandon the last couple of years,' the veteran center said. 'He was in and out of the lineup.
'One thing about the Blazers - when guys go down, guys always seem to step up and rise to the occasion. Wesley was harping about wanting to have a bigger role, and now he's going to have his opportunity.'
Nicolas Batum becomes sixth man, and will probably get some time at shooting guard. Unproven second-year players Elliot Williams and Armon Johnson, along with rookie Nolan Smith, will get their chance to earn rotation minutes. Williams, a natural shooting guard with coils for legs, and Smith, a natural point guard, have both impressed Blazer coaches immediately.
But they won't be Roy - at least the Roy who scored 18 points in the fourth quarter of Portland's miracle comeback victory over Dallas in Game 4 of the playoffs last spring.
'At least we go into the season knowing,' assistant coach Bob Ociepka theorized. 'Last year, we were in a position where we weren't sure.
'That playoff game, if you knew you were getting that ... when I was coaching other teams, we feared him. We knew what was going to happen when he got the ball at the end of a game. He was a closer. You put the ball in his hands and he's going to close out games for you. Those guys are hard to find.'
Numbers in the rafters
The Blazers have at least the mini-mid-level exception with which to sign another player - three years and more than $9 million. Buchanan wasn't sure if it meant adding a guard or a player to the front line. He said they'll have to wait for the first line of free agents to be signed - many of them at the regular mid-level exception beginning at $5 million a year - and see what talent remains available.
All the Blazer players spoke reverently about Roy on Friday.
Camby looked up at the string of retired numbers hanging from the rafters at the practice facility and offered, 'His number sure belongs up there.'
It will be soon enough. Roy is the third-greatest Blazer player of all-time, behind only Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton in terms of impact on the franchise.
I can't help but think back to draft day in June 2007, when Oden was taken with the No. 1 pick. General manager Kevin Pritchard envisioned him teaming with young stars Roy and Aldridge to lead the Blazers to an NBA championship one day.
Roy is 27. Aldridge is 26. Oden is 23. They should all still be developing, still be reaching their peak years.
Now Roy is gone. Oden may have played his last game as a Blazer. Aldridge's heart has raised concern again.
If it wasn't for bad luck, this team would have no luck at all.