Summer plans for West also-rans (cont.)
Portland Trail Blazers
What went right: Just about everything short of a playoff spot. Cleansed of one of the last remnants of the Jail Blazers era with Zach Randolph's move to New York, the Blazers hustled, played defense and shared the offensive love in a .500 season. They also played to the league's second-slowest pace (Detroit being the slowest), which isn't a bad way to keep games close while reforming a team with an average age of about 24. It seemed to have worked as Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster posted the best numbers of their young careers. Yeah, Nate McMillan can coach a little.
What went wrong: Greg Oden spent his rookie season recovering from microfracture surgery (minus an unscheduled doubleheader at a local Portland gym) instead of learning the NBA ropes. Yes, he is supremely talented, but learning how to bump, push and wrestle in the NBA paint can only come from fighting the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming and Tim Duncan nightly. The same thing goes for learning how best to rotate the ball to an open shooter, helping on defense and anything else in a playbook. It simply takes time, the kind Oden lost this year.
Only 20, though, Oden shouldn't find his development set back too far, so long as both the former No. 1 pick and his seemingly patient team understand that the Oden who takes the floor next season won't be the same as the Oden who takes the floor two years from now, once his knee is fully recovered.
What's next: Transforming potential into juggernaut. With Oden set to handle the low-post chores for the next decade or more, the Blazers need only make sure the players who improved so dramatically this year fit. Can Steve Blake and Jarrett Jack work as a combo point guard? Will Aldridge learn to mesh with Oden or struggle for shots? All important questions; all only answered with time on the floor together.
What went right: A lot more than you may think: They won 48 games, a six-game improvement from last year and a total that is second best all time for a non-playoff team. They led the league in scoring and saw three players average 20 points, one of whom, Monta Ellis, has emerged in his third season -- at 22 -- as a legitimate go-to guy. No wonder the Warriors drew 19,631 fans per game, the sixth-best home attendance in the league.
What went wrong: Aside from playing in the wrong conference? How about playing defense with mirrors rather than effort? When a team surrenders an average of 108.8 points, no game is a done deal, and when you miss the playoffs by such a small margin, every blown lead is costly.
What's next: Figuring out how to keep this team together. Several key players are eligible to become free agents this summer, which could make for a lot of nail-biting in the Warriors' front office. Baron Davis could opt out of a deal that would pay him $17.8 million next year, a possibility that may not seem so far-fetched given his second-half benching in last week's loss to the Suns that eliminated the Warriors from playoff contention. Ellis and center Andris Biedrins will be restricted free agents. And not to be outdone by his players is coach Don Nelson, who has yet to commit to next season, though it would be hard to see him walking away from the $5.1 million he reportedly is due to receive.