Beginning in 2006, the Portland Trail Blazers began to assemble a core of young, exciting players that created high expectations. What ensued in the following years was a rollercoaster of hopes that eventually ended with a question of what could have been.
In 2006, with the second overall pick, Portland selected forward LaMarcus Aldridge out of the University of Texas. Coming off a 21-61 record the season before, Portland hoped that Aldridge would serve as a building block for the team's future. Four picks later, the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Brandon Roy and dealt him to Portland. Now, Rip City had two rookies with extraordinary potential.
Aldridge made an impact on offense from the beginning, but his rookie season was cut to just 22 games because of offseason shoulder surgery and a heart issue. Roy displayed a more consistent impact, averaging almost 17 points per game and winning Rookie of the Year. However, he only played 57 games because of an impingement in his knee, an issue that would eventually end his NBA career.
The Trail Blazers finished with a 32-50 record despite Roy's excellent rookie season and won the draft lottery. With the first pick, they selected Greg Oden, a center out of Ohio State. Unfortunately, he would not play his rookie season because of microfracture surgery on his right knee. Portland would have to wait yet another year to see their young core of three take the floor together.
Fast forward to the 2008-09 season. LaMarcus Aldridge is beginning to look like an All-Star and Brandon Roy is averaging almost 23 points per game, albeit following another offseason knee procedure. The Trail Blazers rallied to a 54-28 record -- good for a 4th seed in the Western Conference -- after winning 10 out of their last 11 regular season games. Two out of three stars really remained, as Greg Oden played 40 pounds heavier than his listed weight and raised concerns about his longevity in the pros.
The Blazers' first round opponent was the Houston Rockets, the team that handed out the one loss in their 10-for-11 season's end. Led by Yao Ming, the Rockets were simply too tough and experienced for the young Portland squad. Roy scored 42 points in a Game 2 victory, but he could not slay Goliath by himself. Though he gave his all, the Rockets took the series in six games.
At that point, there was a cautious optimism in Portland, but that feeling wouldn't last for long. One month into the 2009-10 season, Oden fractured his patella and underwent a second microfracture surgery. Adding insult to injury, it started to become clear that Roy's knees were becoming a problem. He tore his right meniscus during the playoffs, requiring yet another procedure to repair it.
The Blazers were now a revolving door of injuries and season-ending procedures. By the end of 2011, Roy's knees had been stripped of so much cartilage that they were practically bone-on-bone. He announced his retirement from the NBA on December 10 of that year. A few months later, Oden underwent yet another microfracture surgery, this time on his right knee to repair damaged cartilage. Portland waived him in March of 2012 to clear up cap space.
Just like that, a new era had begun in Rip City: "Dame Time." In June, Portland drafted their next franchise player, five-time All-Star Damian Lillard. The duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard made the playoffs twice before the former signed with the San Antonio Spurs in free agency in 2015.
Today, the Blazers are Dame's team to carry, Roy and Oden are out of the league, and Aldridge is nearing retirement at 35 years old. In the 62 games that Roy, Oden, and Aldridge were active simultaneously, they went 50-24. Portland fans will be forced to imagine what their team's trophy case would look like had the core stayed healthy.
Can any lessons be learned from this gloomy NBA tale? Unfortunately, no. Roy dealt with knee problems since high school. Oden looked great in college, but is one of the biggest draft busts in history. Aldridge was a constant during his teammates' struggles. The stars just weren't aligned for Portland, and they'll go down as one of the biggest "what if" scenarios in league history.