GREG ODEN needed a dry cleaner. Last Thursday afternoon the Portland Trail Blazers' rookie center was two days away from accompanying the team on a sadistic seven-game, 12-day road trip when he suddenly realized that, from his inventory of 20 suits, only three were clean. "Think I can find a place with a 24-hour turnaround?" he wondered aloud. But before he got his answer, a wide, gap-toothed smile illuminated his face like a flare. "I can mix and match," he said. "You're only in each city once, right? No one will know." ¶ By now, Oden has grown accustomed to applying an optimistic gloss to any situation. You know the story: After a sensational freshman season at Ohio State, Oden was the top pick in the 2007 draft, a 7-foot sentinel who recalled Bill Russell with his defense-first sensibilities. As a bonus Oden was a kid with bottomless charm whose (warning: NBA-speak) "character issues" didn't extend beyond an inexcusable fondness for wearing a fanny pack.
Oden's selection by the Blazers awoke a dormant franchise and triggered a run on season tickets. Then, while playing summer league ball, he felt a searing pain in his right knee and experienced swelling so severe he couldn't step into his jeans. Doctors discovered articular cartilage damage, which required arthroscopic microfracture surgery in September. Faster than the Portland faithful could say Sam Bowie, Oden's first season was over before it started. "Man," says Oden, "it was like, Welcome to the NBA! Now sit down, son!"
At least he has found comfort in the play of his teammates. With Oden out, the conventional wisdom held that the Blazers were in for another annus horribilis after their league-worst 21--61 finish in 2005--06. Even the players steeled themselves for a tough season. "It's not that we wrote [the year] off, not by any means," says swingman Martell Webster. "But when we heard about Greg, that was devastating to us."
Yet the Odenless squad has become the feel-good story of the NBA this season. Through Sunday the Blazers were 22--14, having won 17 of their last 19, and were a half-game back in the Northwest Division. Despite the third-youngest roster in league history—average opening-night age: 24.1 years—Portland has relied less on its spry legs than on old-fashioned virtues: perimeter shooting, ball movement, defense, grit. Only two of those 17 wins could be characterized as blowouts; the outcome of the others hung in the balance in the fourth quarter, and the Blazers simply met the moment. Not for nothing is the team's cornball slogan H2O (Humble, Hungry, Overachieve). "We're playing the right way," says coach Nate McMillan, thus far on the short list for Coach of the Year. "But that's the character of the players we've brought in. They're professionals, and ... that wasn't always the case here."
IN A CLASSIC case of addition by subtraction, last summer Portland all but gave the New York Knicks its leading scorer from '06--07, talented-but-toxic forward Zach Randolph, perhaps the last remnant of the notorious Jail Blazers era, during which countless team members ran afoul of the law. Randolph's off-court transgressions included a visit to a strip club while on "bereavement leave." (Last Friday he got into a shouting match with Knicks coach Isiah Thomas after being pulled from a game and spent the second half on the bench.)
In Randolph's absence 6'6" Brandon Roy has emerged as the team's unmistakable star. The reigning Rookie of the Year, Roy does a convincing impersonation of Dwyane Wade circa 2006, slashing through defenses, offering imaginative playmaking and swinging seamlessly between point guard and shooting guard. (He was averaging 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists at week's end.) Support has come from a variety of precincts, not the least power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (17.9 points and 7.5 boards), who, like Roy, is a future All-Star. Reserve forward Travis Outlaw won the first game of the streak at the buzzer and had scored 20 or more points in six of the victories. Still, it's largely an anonymous bunch. After the 21-year-old Webster torched the Jazz for 24 third-quarter points on Jan. 5, Utah reserve Matt Harpring observed, "It was tough when what's-his-face got hot."
Swingman James Jones, who at week's end led the NBA in three-point shooting (53.2%), was with Indiana when the Pacers won 61 games and with Phoenix when the Suns won 115 games over two seasons. He claims that Portland has "by far" the deepest unit. "I've played on teams with really great players, established players who have done remarkable things in this league," he says. "I've never played on a complete team like ours, where you have 12 guys and someone new stepping up every night."
In most cases successful teams coalesce gradually, their chemistry improving as they go. The Blazers, however, can point to a single moment of reckoning. On Dec. 1 Portland was 5--11, winless on the road and prepping for a game against the defending-champion Spurs in San Antonio. McMillan held a shootaround that was a WWE audition masquerading as a basketball practice. As he told The Oregonian, the session "was basically set up for a fight to happen."
Frustrated and edgy, the players obliged, colliding with each other like bumper cars at the county fair. At one point, center Joel Przybilla leveled Webster with an aggressive screen. When Webster complained, Przybilla asked why he whined so much. Webster responded, "Why don't you make a dunk for once?" Moments later Webster drove the lane and was met in midair by Przybilla, who body-slammed him. The two had to be separated.
Meanwhile, Aldridge and forward Channing Frye were engaging in trash-talking soliloquies, and Roy was testily slapping away the hands of his defenders. Then guard Steve Blake angrily kicked a chair. For the first time all practice McMillan became irate, noting that the Blazers were guests at the facility. He ordered Blake to pick up the chair. Blake did, then smashed it into timber. Afterward, McMillan gathered the players and encouraged them to channel this passion and aggression into games. Portland lost to the Spurs but beat the Memphis Grizzlies the next night at the buzzer—and off the team went on a 13-game winning streak, the longest in the league this season.