McMillan sees positive signs all around as the season wraps up
by: L.E. BASKOW, The Blazers could be celebrating more often next season, bringing back a core of young players who have shown flashes of promise.

After the All-Star break each season, Nate McMillan begins to log entries into a journal that he continues to feed right up to training camp in October.

Need to spend more practice time on V-cuts through the season, the Trail Blazer coach might write. Or: Have to do a better job in sticking with screens and with spacing. Or: Big men need to do better with the blitz on the pick-and-roll.

A year ago, as Portland was stumbling to an NBA-worst 21-61 record in McMillan's first season as coach, his entries often reflected frustration. This year, as the Blazers have improved their record and talent base, the jottings have reflected a more optimistic view - with an eye on the future.

'I started thinking about next season a long time ago,' says McMillan, who completes the second year of his five-year, $27.5 million contract with Wednesday's season finale against Golden State at the Rose Garden. 'We've started in the right direction. I've felt that change from last year to this year.

'Every year - including last year - the goal is the playoffs. We could have gotten ourselves into position to do that this year, and I'm disappointed we didn't get there. But I like what I've seen as far as the potential of our young guys, and the change of our team's culture, and even in our management. We've done some good things. We have an opportunity in the offseason to get even better.'

The change in management began with the recent general manager hiring of Kevin Pritchard, who oversaw last year's draft that reaped the likes of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Sergio Rodriguez. In the coming weeks, Pritchard will hire three men who will help shape the future - an assistant GM, a director of pro personnel and a director of scouting.

'With Kevin in place as GM, this will really be his team now,' McMillan says. 'We'll sit down with our coaches and scouts and management team at some point and decide where we want to go from here. Do we continue to build this team through the draft, or do we add a veteran or two through a trade or free agency?'

'The biggest thing is, there's not going to be a wall between the coaches' and management sides,' Pritchard says. 'We're all going to be able to express our ideas. I want an open line of communication, after which we'll come to a consensus opinion. That's best for everybody.'

Pritchard says the most important accomplishment is a move away from the 'Jail Blazer' image.

'We weren't fostering a winning culture,' he says. 'Now we have one of the best locker rooms in the NBA. From what we had in the past, we've made quantum leaps.'

Pritchard says he loves the heart and fight he saw th is year.

'It comes back to the pride,' he says. 'There are a few guys on our team who make sure when things get tough, they are glue guys. It's not always the same guy, and that's usually a sign that things are getting better. There's a collective responsibility to keep your teammates up and yourself up.

'We're not perfect; in every family you have issues. But the good thing is, the small issues haven't become huge issues.'

Pritchard faces many personnel and philosophical decisions. Among them:

• What to do with Zach Randolph and Darius Miles.

Randolph ranks 15th in the NBA in scoring (23.6) and 12th in rebounding (10.1) and is the only player in the league averaging more than 23 points and 10 boards. But does the sixth-year power forward have the character the Blazers desire in their new 'culture'?

Also, Randolph is at his best when the Blazers pound it in to him and let him score with an array of shots inside or on midrange jumpers. Does he fit with the rookies, who seem suited for a more uptempo style?

If the right trade offer came for the 25-year-old Randolph, who is due more than $61 million in salary over the next four seasons, Pritchard and McMillan might be inclined to make a deal.

The enigmatic Miles, also 25, sat out the season after microfracture knee surgery and spent little time around his teammates. The 6-9 small forward is working with a trainer and says his goal is to be ready for training camp. No team would be interested in acquiring Miles, who is owed $26.25 million over the next three years.

If Miles can't make it back and doesn't play again, an insurance policy could kick in at the end of the 2007-08 season and cover the final two years of his contract. If Miles were to retire - and it's the player's choice, not the club's - his deal would go off Portland's salary-cap figures. But if he came back and played within that two-year span, his numbers would go back on the Blazers' cap.

• Portland will be slotted somewhere in the middle of the 14-team draft lottery. If the Blazers strike it rich and land either the first or second pick, they'll keep it and take Ohio State's Greg Oden or Texas' Kevin Durant. If they have a lower choice, they'll consider packaging it in a deal that could land them a veteran.

• What to do with free agents Jamaal Magloire, Ime Udoka and Travis Outlaw.

Pritchard and McMillan appreciated the professional way Magloire handled the logjam at center this season, with Joel Przybilla and LaMarcus Aldridge requiring time. If Magloire would be willing to re-sign for the midlevel exception - about $5.3 million - and accept a similar role next season, the Blazers would be willing.

But Magloire, who made $8.3 million this season, wants more minutes and probably more money. His return is unlikely.

Udoka's agent, Erin Cowan, met Monday with Pritchard. Udoka, who turns 30 in August, would love to sign a long-term deal to stay. Pritchard and McMillan appreciate Udoka's talents and would like to keep him at the right price - probably a portion of the midlevel exception.

Portland is on the books for a $2.2 million qualifying offer for Outlaw, a restricted free agent. If the Blazers don't extend him a new contract offer, he can become unrestricted at the end of the 2007-08 season.

• Will the Blazers be a halfcourt or uptempo team?

The Blazers were last among NBA in fast-break points this season, a major reason why they are next-to-last in scoring and among the league's worst in field-goal percentage.

'We can't have that happen again,' Pritchard says.

But Jarrett Jack, who had a solid second season at point guard, seems better suited to a halfcourt game. Rodriguez is more effective in transition. McMillan is more comfortable at this point with Jack running the show.

The logical next step for the Blazers is a run at the playoffs.

'If we can get everybody back and keep everybody healthy,' Jack says, 'we have a good shot at making the playoffs next season.'

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A slowdown at the Rose Garden

NBA's best fast-break teams …

(points per game)

Golden State 20.2

Denver 18.4

Phoenix 17.0

Washington 15.7

… and worst fast-break teams

Minnesota 8.8

L.A. Clippers 8.0

Houston 7.4

Portland 6.3

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

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