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Chemistrys just the start

Blazer groundwork's laid now for future glories to come
by: , PRITCHARD

You think the Trail Blazers are rolling along pretty well right now?

Just wait and see where they are in a couple of years.

At least that's the master plan of General Manager Kevin Pritchard, who is thrilled with Portland's today, but enthralled with the possibilities of Portland's tomorrow.

For next season, the Blazers will add injured center Greg Oden - they hope he will be a candidate for NBA rookie of the year - and probably Spanish shooting guard Rudy Fernandez, whom Pritchard considers the best player in Europe this season.

After the 2008-09 campaign, the Blazers are positioned for some major changes, should they choose to make them. They have 10 players with potentially expiring contracts, which will leave Pritchard and the rest of the Portland brain trust with some big decisions to make about the club's future.

'Over the next year and a half, we'll look hard at our players and their development,' Pritchard says. 'The biggest thing is, we'll have flexibility moving forward, both financially and from a roster spot standpoint.'

Portland's payroll is at about $71.4 million, which puts the Blazers in the top third of the league this season. Dallas leads at more than $93 million.

The NBA salary cap is at $55.63 million this season, with the luxury tax threshold at $67.865 million. That means Portland owner Paul Allen will have to pungle up more than $3 million in luxury tax to the league coffers at season's end.

The Blazers have every player secured contractually after this season except rookie guard Taurean Green, a second-round draft pick who is on a one-year deal, and small forward James Jones, who can opt out of his pact.

But after the 2008-09 season, Portland can discard the contracts of a host of players, including Steve Francis (up to $17.18 million) and Raef LaFrentz ($12.72 million).

The only players who are tied up contractly for the 2009-10 season are Darius Miles ($9 million), Joel Przybilla ($6.86 million), Oden ($5.36 million), LaMarcus Aldridge ($5.84 million), Brandon Roy ($3.91 million) and Sergio Rodriguez ($1.89 million).

Miles - still rehabbing after November 2006 microfracture knee surgery - could opt for a medical retirement next summer if he doesn't play this season. In that case, his final two years would go off the Blazers' cap.

If he came back to play for another team, though, he would go back on Portland's books. Since Miles says he is ready to play now, that scenario seems unlikely.

The Blazers could negotiate a buyout with Miles and get salary cap relief, as they did with Francis before this season.

With the 2009-10 cap projected to be at approximately $60 million, and the Blazers obligated to players making a total of only about $33 million - plus the salary of a first-round pick and Fernandez's contract, if they sign him - the team could have substantial room to play the free-agent market.

But that would mean letting go of the likes of Jones, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Martell Webster, Jarrett Jack and Channing Frye, players who have made big contributions to Portland's success this season.

The way those players have performed of late 'hasn't changed' Portland's long-term plan. Pritchard says: 'We're still able to evaluate our guys and let them grow. Ultimately, we'll have to make a decision on how we want to move forward, but we don't have to do that for a year and a half.'

Last summer, Pritchard signed Outlaw and Blake to front-loaded free-agent contracts. Both deals are for three years, with the final season at the team's option, an attractive situation to an opposing club looking to trade for either player.

The way Outlaw and Blake have played so far this season, though, the Blazers could wind up re-signing one or both after 2008-09.

'It's too early to try to figure everything out,' Pritchard says. 'We like the way all the guys are playing right now. We have a nucleus of really solid NBA players. And down the road, we think we'll have some nice options.'

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