Tonight marks the start to the 36th season of Portland's longest-running melodrama, "All My Trail Blazers."

The city's only big-league sports team opens its preseason at the Rose Garden, facing the same questions as any long-running soap opera would after losing 15 percent of its TV audience over the past two years.

The people who bring you the Blazers have made significant cast changes, unloaded expensive contracts and added new plot lines in hopes of recapturing an audience that once regularly tuned in. Here's a guide:

What's the same: The key management characters remain in place: owner Paul Allen and his henchmen, team president Steve Patterson and general manager John Nash. All they want is a little time and understanding after the team missed the playoffs last year for a second straight season.

What's new: The coach: Nate McMillan, who spent the past 19 years as a player, then coach, in Seattle. The assistant coach: former NBA enforcer and Blazers fan favorite Maurice Lucas. Both have well-earned reps as hard-asses.

The plot lines:

1) Can the hard-asses control a team with an average age of 24 and a history of run-ins with authority?

One potential sign of maturity: Darius Miles' marriage this summer. Miles, whose past problems include being investigated for a fight outside a Portland strip club and firing obscenities at former Coach Maurice Cheeks, calls marriage "peaceful."

2) Can all the players get along?

The team has at least four identifiable cliques. There's an established veteran cast of Theo Ratliff, Joel Przybilla and Ruben Patterson. There are new journeymen Blazers Charles Smith, Juan Dixon, and Steve Blake. There are foreigners: Korean Ha Seung-Jin, and Russians Viktor Khryapa and Sergei Monya. And there are young guns, led by power forward Zach Randolph, the Blazers' closest thing to a star.

3) Can Randolph's surgically repaired right knee survive an entire 82-game season?

If it does, will he learn not to hog the limelight? If it doesn't, who will pick up his lines?

4) With past stars Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Nick Van Exel cut from the cast, who will fill their roles?

This drama's future certainly seems to lie with its child stars, namely straight-outta-high-schoolers Sebastian Telfair, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster. During media day last week, one of the youngsters, Webster, said he stumbled onto a good book over the summer.

"I've been reading Lord of the Flies," he said. "You ever heard of that one?"

Sure have, but youngsters' descent into barbarity might not be quite the image this team needs when the regular season begins Nov. 2.