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Blazing A New Trail

In the end, Wednesday’s trade deadline wasn’t about big stars changing addresses (Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Steve Nash all stayed put), nor was it about championship contenders solidifying their roster (none of the Heat, Bulls, Thunder or Mavs made a move).

Instead, Wednesday was marked by the decisions of bubble teams on whether to go all-in or cash in their assets with an eye towards the future.

Houston, for example, was the most active among the all-ins, bolstering an already-deep rotation with veteran pick-ups Marcus Camby and Derek Fisher. Indiana (Leandro Barbosa), Milwaukee (Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown) and Los Angeles (Nick Young) also made upgrades without surrendering much current talent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Portland Trail Blazers. Anyone holding onto hopes that Rip City would stay the course and see what their current roster could produce saw their hopes go up in rather abrupt flames, as Camby and Gerald Wallace were shipped out, Greg Oden was waived and head coach Nate McMillan was shown the door.

None of those decisions would have been easy ones for whoever is at the reins of the currently GM-less Blazers (owner Paul Allen?).

In addition to being key veteran contributors, Camby and Wallace represented Portland’s own all-in approach, with Camby signed before last season and Wallace being acquired from Charlotte in a mid-season deal.

Oden’s departure, meanwhile, closes a disappointing, injury-riddled tenure for a player who wasn’t just a No. 1 pick (ahead of Kevin Durant), but a guy who came out of Ohio State as a near-sure thing.

Finally, McMillan has carried a rep as a well-respected player’s coach before reports of turmoil (Jamal Crawford and Ray Felton reportedly led an anti-Nate locker room mutiny) came to light recently.

Rebuilding is never particularly easy, but it’s been an especially trying process for a fan base that Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons refers to as the “Portland soccer moms” for their avid, unfettered support of their team. Camby, Wallace, Oden and McMillan join a parade of guys that have found their way out the Rose Garden exit door in the past year, including former GM Rich Cho (fired mysteriously) and Brandon Roy (amnestied / retired).

It’s hard to find a winner amidst this fire sale. Camby found a decent situation in Houston, but Wallace is actually farther from playoff contention with the Nets. Oden’s NBA career is now in jeopardy, while McMillan is out of basketball (for now) despite being recognized by many as one of the NBA’s best coaches.

Still in Portland, remaining franchise guy LaMarcus Aldridge has seen the team implode around him and will now waste a portion of his peak years in a rebuild.

Oh, and about that rebuild…

Beyond shedding some onerous contracts (over $30 million between Camby / Wallace / Oden) and, in doing so, gaining financial flexibility moving forward (not that Forbes’ richest people list regular Allen is exactly cash-strapped). it’s difficult to see just how the deadline moves helped expedite the rebuild process.

Trading Camby and Wallace netted the Blazers one attractive asset: the Nets’ top-three-protected 2012 first round pick. Beyond the conditional draft choice (and a second rounder from Houston), they picked up Mehmet Okur’s expiring $10.9 million contract, the soon-to-be-bought-out Shawne Williams and a pair of draft bust candidates in Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn. The New Jersey pick could be a major building block, but only if it falls in that 4-5-6 range – no higher or lower.

As things currently stand, the Blazers have under $50 million on the books in 2012-13 contracts (as a point of reference, the Heat have more than $50 million committed to just their Big Three for next season), with team options remaining for Thabeet and Flynn and player options on Crawford (will likely exercise) and Nicolas Batum (almost definitely will opt out). The question becomes whether they can do anything substantial with the remaining cap space.

No disrespect to Camby and Crawford, but it’s hard to pinpoint the last free agent of significance that signed with Portland (Kenny Anderson, maybe?). On top of hardly being a league power, this team has little to offer beyond the chance to play with Aldridge and, ideally, lottery pick X and Y (Portland’s own pick likely won’t be any lower than the fringes of the top 10).

Batum will likely have his choice of free agent suitors, leaving Crawford and Wesley Matthews to join Aldridge among the remaining veterans, in addition to a trio of young, unproven hopefuls in Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt.

The Blazers have made their decision to initiate a rebuild – there’s no going back now. Still, it’s a sorry state for what is a terrific basketball city that’s endured some hard luck and, yet, feels like it wasn’t all that far away from contention. Remember, they pushed the eventual champion Mavs to six games in the first round.

The franchise successfully managed to execute a positive franchise makeover once in recent history, going from the Jail Blazers to the likable, Roy-led group of the Allen era.

Now, they face a new challenge, with Aldridge and new head coach Kaleb Canales at the helm.

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