A Decade Retrospective: The First Three Years...Slipping from Glory

Since this is the last week of the decade we're going to take a look back at the fortunes of the franchise since the 2000 season.  When the series is finished we're going to run some polls on players and experiences during the last ten years.  In the meantime, feel free to share what you remember of the seasons and eras as we discuss them.  Enjoy!

1999-2000

Record:  59-23  Lost in Western Conference Finals to Los Angeles L*kers

Coach:   Mike Dunleavy

Additions:  Antonio Harvey, Joe Kleine, Scottie Pippen, Detlef Schrempf, Steve Smith

Subtractions:  Kelvin Cato, John Crotty, Jim Jackson, Isiah Rider, Walt Williams

Draft:  Roberto Bergerson , Boise State (52nd overall pick)

Leading Scorer:  Rasheed Wallace (16.4 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Arvydas Sabonis (7.8 rpg)

Most Minutes:  Rasheed Wallace (35.1 mpg)

The opening year of the new millennium heralded the height of the Bob Whitsitt era in Portland.  Since 1995 when the Blazers had traded away franchise icon Clyde Drexler, himself the definition of a franchise era, Whitsitt had been working to restore the team to glory.  The final piece to the championship puzzle was moving high scoring guards Isiah Rider and Jim Jackson for two consummate team players, ex-superstars at the tail end of their primes.  Steve Smith provided stability and shooting at the off-guard position. Scottie Pippen provided defense, playmaking, and championship experience at small forward.  They joined a lineup already heavy on talent.  Rasheed Wallace was just beginning to come into his own as an all-around power forward.  Aged Arvydas Sabonis ate space in the middle and provided passing and shooting at the offensive end.  Brian Grant bolstered the rebounding, post play, and toughness whenever he hit the floor at power forward or center.  Damon Stoudamire had not found his former-Rookie-of-the-Year groove at point but the new acquisitions would hopefully share the playmaking and defensive load, allowing him more freedom to be Damon.  Detlef Schrempf gave experience at forward off the bench, Bonzi Wells a little bulk and scoring, Greg Anthony and Stacy Augmon defense.  The team was stacked, picked by many to win the Western Conference.

Over-stuffed with veteran players the team gelled almost immediately, winning 13 of their first 15 and 28 of 36.  The largest losing streak of the season would be 3 and that would happen but once, in early March.  Portland thrived on a slower-paced, efficient offense, good position defending, and rebounding.  Because the defensive talent in the frontcourt was so strong the Blazers managed to smother opponents more often than not.  Stars could score against them but they'd cut the legs out from underneath everyone else and play the percentages that one star couldn't beat Rasheed Wallace and five other decent scorers.  They'd not let you take any edge.  They'd attack from so many places you couldn't stop them...at least not for 48 minutes.  There were just too many good, well-rounded players on the team for anyone to gain advantage for long.  The opponent would make mistakes and buckle before the Blazers would.

Portland ended up splitting the season series with their main competition for the Western crown, the Los Angeles L*kers.  Each team won a home game and an away game.  Though the head-to-head record was deadlocked the L*kers, looking for their first title behind the heretofore underperforming duo of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, stormed their way to a league-best 67-15 record.  The Blazers mustered 59 wins, good for second league-wide.  The top two teams in the game occupied the same division and were on a collision course.

The Blazers would dispatch the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz perfunctorily in the first two rounds of the post-season.  Foreshadowing things to come, the L*kers had trouble with the upstart Sacramento Kings in the first round, needing the complete five games to overcome them.  The Phoenix Suns cut ahead of previous champion San Antonio but could not dent L.A.'s armor in the second round.  The powerhouse matchup had arrived.

The series started in difficult fashion for the Blazers.  Shaquille O'Neal was a one-man wrecking crew in the first game.  Portland employed a strategy which has now become a byword but then was quite new.  They fouled O'Neal whenever they could, including in late-game situations when he was nowhere near the ball or the play, the better to take advantage of the only weakness in his game:  free throw shooting.  Though "Hack a Shaq" was ostensibly successful, as the Big Bricklayer made only 48% of his free throws, his production soared by sheer volume.  He attempted 27 free throws in that game, earning 13 extra points from the line, padding his final number of 41.  He also had 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 blocks.  Portland lost by 15.

Game 2 saw the Blazers storm back for a 29-point win in L.A. as Shaq, making only 29.4% of his charity tosses, was held to 23 and nobody outside of Kobe with 12 reached double figures for the home team.  Meanwhile the Portland scoring trio of Wallace, Smith, and Pippen all topped 20, ‘Sheed leading the charge with 29.  Having stolen homecourt the Blazers felt positive about their chances in the series.

Unfortunately for Portland the L*kers stole it back in Game 3 as five Blazer starters in double figures were edged out by Shaq and Kobe scoring 26 and 25 respectively in a 93-91 game.  Having stolen the advantage, the L*kers then came back and kicked the Blazers in the crotch with a 12-point win behind 25 from Shaq and 21 from Glen Rice.  Down 1-3 heading back to Los Angeles Portland was all but doomed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory parade.  The Blazers shook off O'Neal's 31 in Game 5 and trotted out a 96-88 romp, staying alive for a Game 6 in Portland.  When the Blazers took that by 10 the final showdown was nigh.

No Blazer fan will need much of a recap of that fateful 89-84 loss in the deciding game.  It's the stuff of legend by now.  Portland was up double-digits going into the fourth.  NBC play-by-play man Bob Costas spent much of the period composing a glowing eulogy to Shaq, waxing poetic about the complete game he had developed, win or lose.  (Side note:  If by "complete" he meant "now able to throw forearms into people on a regular basis to push them out of the way for a dunk" he was correct.  Forget Jerry Maguire three years earlier, the most tender moment in sports ever was actually Shaq turning to Bennett Salvatore and saying, "You complete me.")  Little by little the L*kers chipped away at the lead.  Play by agonizing play the Blazers began to tighten up in every aspect save their grip on the game.  By the time it was through the whole team looked as if they had just emerged from a 98-car pileup.  The L*kers went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers for their first of three consecutive championships.  The Blazers went home to a long summer of considering what might have been.  The outcome of that game changed the courses of two franchises in ways that could not be guessed on that Sunday in June.  It would take years before Portland realized the cost of that loss.

Click through to read about the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 seasons...

2000-2001

Record:  50-32

Coach:  Mike Dunleavy

Additions:  Erick Barkley, Dale Davis, Shawn Kemp, Will Perdue, Rod Strickland

Subtractions:  Brian Grant, Joe Kleine, Jermaine O'Neal

Draft:  Erick Barkley  St. John's (28th overall pick)

Leading Scorer:  Rasheed Wallace (19.2 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Rasheed Wallace (7.8 rpg)

Most Minutes:  Rasheed Wallace (38.2 mpg)

Portland had reason for optimism heading into 2000-2001.  After all they had been in the Western Conference Finals two out of the last three years and had come mere minutes from advancing to the NBA Finals mere months before.  It looked to be the start of a series of epic battles between Portland and L.A.  The Blazers could hardly be expected to lose all of them.

The main knock on the Blazers had been the lack of a go-to guy when the going got tough.  The collapse in the critical moments of that game only exacerbated the talk.  Rasheed Wallace was a fine all-around player and a legitimate, at times unstoppable, scorer.  But he was uncomfortable with the limelight, the pressure, and lacked the domineering swagger of a game-changing superstar the likes of Kobe or Shaq. 

Portland tried to address this perceived lack in a couple of ways during the summer.  They traded little-used high-school draftee Jermaine O'Neal to the Indiana Pacers for defensive/rebounding All-Star pivot Dale Davis.  Davis was literally the best defensive big man available in the league at the time.  O'Neal had never found minutes in the Portland rotation and was unlikely to in the near future with more experienced forwards and centers ahead of him.  It was hoped that Davis could bring Shaq down a peg...if not stop him at least hobble him a little.  And "a little" was all the Blazers were perceived to need.  But just in case they also danced a little jig with Miami and Cleveland, allowing the Heat to whisk away Brian Grant, clearing room for the acquisition of once-dominant scorer Shawn Kemp.  Kemp was at least a possibility for that primary scorer.  Blazer fans remembered the impressive 28-point drubbing he had put on them the prior season, almost single-handedly securing a Cleveland win against the awesome array of Portland talent.

Unfortunately for Portland, both of these moves would be ranked among the worst in franchise history.  Davis would give four serviceable years to the Blazers but, battling age and crammed into a roster that barely had room for him, he never approached his All-Star level production again.  Later he became dissatisfied with his situation and was reported to be among the team's many chemistry problems.  O'Neal, meanwhile, became an All-NBA-level player for Indiana before injuries hobbled him.  Blazer fans still invoke his name any time a trade involving a player under 27 is proposed, even if that player was a late-second-round pick.  As Shawn Kemp battled weight issues, drug issues, parental issues it began to dawn on Portland fans that last-seasons stellar performance may have been Kemp's only impressive outing of the year and worse, may have been his last ever.  Brian Grant, though perhaps overvalued production-wise, had been the heart and soul of the team, particularly in epic playoff battles against Karl Malone.  When he left the franchise lost one of its few banner-carriers...a quality which neither Kemp nor Davis supplied.  Grant would not have been happy remaining with the team in the crowded frontcourt, but could the team have found minutes for him he would have remained a Blazer for life.

The early and middle season went well enough for the Blazers.  They weren't as fluid or energetic as the year before and there were whispers of locker-room difficulties but they still won every game their talent entitled them to...and they had a ton of talent.  At one point during the year forward Detlef Schrempf referred to his squad as the "Traveling All-Star Team".  It all came to a screeching halt on March 6th, 2001 when the 42-18 Blazers, then leading the conference, met up with the lowly 13-48 Vancouver Grizzlies in Portland.  On that night the franchise was exorcising some of its bad juju by recognizing Clyde Drexler, whose relationship with management had fractured to the point that he all but demanded a trade back in '94-'95.  The silence from Blazer Headquarters regarding the man many considered the best player to put on the uniform had been deafening since.  But needing to stoke optimism and create strong associations with the past on a team that was seemingly ever-changing in the present, management decided to let bygones be bygones and retire Clyde's jersey.

The first half of the Grizzlies game was lackluster.  But the energy picked up when Clyde took the floor during intermission.  He gave a moving speech, admitting that not being able to bring a championship to Portland during his time here was a regret for him, as it was to his teammates of that time.  He said that Blazer management had been working to try and get it right and he believed that they had finally put together the right team to win it all.  The record at the time affirmed the possibility.  The talent was clear.  The depth was unmatched.  Portland had even signed Rod Strickland again, the guy they traded away four years earlier to get Rasheed Wallace from Washington.  He was supposed to shore up any weaknesses Damon Stoudamire evidenced at point guard...those that Greg Anthony couldn't compensate for, that is.  Bonzi Wells was emerging at shooting guard and challenging Steve Smith for time.  Pippen, Schrempf, and Augmon rotated at shooting guard.  Wallace, Sabonis, Davis, and Kemp pounded away at the big positions.  How could you lose?

Naturally the Blazers came out of the locker room and promptly lost.  To the Vancouver Grizzlies.  On Clyde Drexler night.  This set off a chain of what would become five losses in a row and an 8-14 finish to the season.  No longer first in the conference, the Blazers' free-fall left them in 7th...exactly the correct position to draw the 2nd-place Los Angeles L*kers in the first round of the playoffs.  Portland quickly figured out that getting the other guy who had lost to Shaq in last year's playoffs was not exactly the recommended way of bolstering your roster against Shaq.  They also found out that Shawn Kemp was not a way to bolster your roster against anything.  Portland got swept, losing three games by double-digits.  Not only was the wind out of the sails, the mast was in the water. 

 

2001-2002

Record: 49-33

Coach:  Mo Cheeks

Additions:  Derek Anderson, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, Rick Brunson, Mitchell Butler, Chris Dudley, Steve Kerr, Ruben Patterson, Zach Randolph

Subtractions:  Greg Anthony, Stacy Augmon, Gary Grant, Antonio Harvey, Will Perdue, Detlef Schrempf, Steve Smith, Rod Strickland

Draft:  Zach Randolph  Michigan State  (19th overall pick), Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje Georgetown (49th overall pick)

Leading Scorer:  Rasheed Wallace (19.3)

Leading Rebounder:  Dale Davis (8.8)

Most Minutes:  Rasheed Wallace (37.3) 

Winning 50 games but losing in the first round of the playoffs the year prior cost coach Mike Dunleavy his job.  At certain points during the season players had accused him of not being able to coach.  They accused him loudly, in front of media ears.  Coming on the heels of two tragic finishes to seasons, nobody complained when he was shown the exit.  The franchise decided they needed a player's coach, a chemistry and consensus builder, to steer this bucking roster.  So they tapped Maurice Cheeks, one of the fast-rising assistants in the league, a former star player, a champion with the Philadelphia 76'ers, a guy who had played on star-studded teams featuring the likes of Dr. J, Moses Malone, and Bobby Jones.

As in years past, management also turned over a substantial portion of the roster.  Aging defenders Greg Anthony and Stacy Augmon were gone.  Steve Smith and Rod Strickland were shown the door as well.  In came a bunch of offensive players:  draft pick Zach Randolph from Michigan State (who would turn out to be the franchise's only significant draft pick between 1996 and 2003), shooting guard Derek Anderson from San Antonio, long-range marksman Steve Kerr.  Portland didn't abandon the defensive side of the ball completely.  They picked up specialist Chris Dudley, the only man on the planet who could give Shaquille O'Neal a run for his awful money at the free throw line.  On board came Ruben Patterson from Seattle, the self-proclaimed "Kobe Stopper" who abandoned everything on the court no matter what or who it cost.

Even in the roster fiddling you could begin to see cracks developing.  Most of these players were highly regarded in one aspect of the game or another but none were anywhere near well-rounded.  You could have offense or defense, not both.  Throwing a Chris Dudley-Dale Davis frontcourt out there was going to severely inhibit your scoring even as it helped your rebounding and interior defense.  Derek Anderson and Damon Stoudamire didn't exactly make an imposing defensive pair.  On top of that Portland brought in a players' coach but then promptly turned around and acquired a bunch of players who were all but uncoachable.  Patterson, Anderson, and Randolph would all have issues in ensuing years.  Davis was souring by the day.  Shawn Kemp was getting paid approximately $3 million per point averaged at this point and would become just as big of a burden to team reliability as he was on the balance books.  Bonzi Wells and Rasheed Wallace, the foundation on which the team was built, were forming a toxic combination off the court and in the locker room.  Damon Stoudamire was in the midst of what would later be revealed as drug problems.  Veteran Scottie Pippen, used to playing high-level ball on composed teams, threw up his hands in disgust and prepared to walk.  The roster's only claim to legitimacy would turn out to be sporting a future NBA GM and a potential Oregon Governor.

Another telling blow came when Arvydas Sabonis, perhaps tired of the grind, feeling age or injuries, or smarting from a simmering feud that had erupted the prior season with a public towel-lashing from Rasheed Wallace during a timeout, opted to retire.  Dudley was a fine defensive player but no substitute in size, passing ability, or offensive floor-spreading.  Sabonis provided a quiet continuity on offense that the Blazers would spend most of a season trying to recapture.

These roster cracks became evident immediately on the floor.  Portland started with a tough schedule and emerged 1-3 after four games.  It would take until the 41st game of the season for the team to emerge from the .500 doldrums.  Past years had seen rough patches but this was disastrous by previous standards.  Nobody outside of Wallace and Wells was scoring.   The offense was still good but the defense had slipped from decent to mediocre.  Players were struggling in new roles.  Coaches were struggling to keep everyone happy, or at least on the same page.

The season began to look up as spring arrived.  After going 20-20 in the first 40 games the team finally established some on-court chemistry and firm roles, leading to a 29-13 finish.  When all was said and done the record was only 1 game worse than the season before.  Wallace and Wells both averaged what would turn out to be their career highs in the season.  Ruben Patterson was getting after it.  Damon Stoudamire was logging his best season so far as a Blazer.  It began to look as if this season could be an inversion of the last:  start mediocre and finish strong on into the playoffs instead of the reverse.

Unfortunately the 49-win performance placed Portland in 6th place in the conference...exactly the correct position to draw the 2nd-place Los Angeles L*kers in the first round of the playoffs.  To Portland's credit they did manage to make the home game close, losing by only 1.  It was the first time in five tries they had managed to lose by less than a double-digit margin.  But it was still a loss...one in which the team shot 38% and was only saved by a strong rebounding performance.  After the second consecutive sweep at the hands of L.A. nobody was banking on much of a rebound for this roster.  The Blazers were in deep.  At that time nobody knew just how deep.  But they wouldn't find out until the team had one, last brief playoff "hurrah".

Next Time:  2002-03 through 2004-2005

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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