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At the end of our last installment the Trail Blazers had rejuvenated themselves by acquiring Kenny Anderson, Rasheed Wallace, J.R. Rider, and Stacey Augmon in the space of a single season, sending public interest soaring and pushing their regular-season win total to a P.J. Carlesimo-regime high of 49. Despite a bevy of big men those same Blazers were destroyed by Shaquille O'Neal, Elden Campbell, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 1997 playoffs.
The most direct casualty of the playoff defeat was Coach Carlisemo himself. In three years with an array of (admittedly fractured) talent he had not managed to get his team over the 50-win mark or out of the first round of the playoffs. Controversy and change haunted his tenure from beginning to end. The Blazers put a stop to it in the summer of '97, replacing Carlesimo with former Lakers head-man Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy was most famous for replacing Pat Riley in L.A. His biggest accomplishment during his two-year tour there was beating the Trail Blazers in the 1990-91 Western Conference Finals. Following his L.A. stint he spent four years coaching solidly under .500 in Milwaukee, then surfaced for air by joining the Blazers. Where Carlisemo had been brusque, Dunleavy was slick. He was talkative, energetic, less the college professor and more the salesman. The Blazers asked him to turn their young, talented, yet mercurial roster into a cohesive unit capable of challenging the conference elite.
Besides the coaching change the biggest decision of the '97 off-season revolved around the future of Cliff Robinson. Since the Drexler decline Robinson had been the shining star for the team, scoring 20+, playing multiple positions, trying to make the leap from star to superstar. In 1994 he was heralded as the future of the franchise. By 1997 that future had stalled. At 6'10" with decent bulk and stellar mobility, hops, and a nice jumper Robinson was a nightmare matchup from mid-range and in. He could spin around bigger defenders and shoot over smaller ones. As his career progressed, however, he fled the lane and engaged in a long-running affair with the three-point arc, much to the frustration of his coaches. By the '96-'97 season full a third of his shots were coming from beyond the arc. Cliff was also renown for his defensive skills, many of which he resolutely forgot to employ on a regular basis. The same held true for his rebounding. Robinson had become the ultimate "darn good, but what if..." player yet he was still the team's star, in name anyway. Would the Blazers stay with "good enough" or could they find a way to live without their highest scorer?
In August of '97 General Manager Bob Whitsitt made his move, signing power forward Brian Grant away from the Sacramento Kings. Grant excelled in all the areas Robinson avoided. He was a post player, a hard-nosed rebounder, a passionate competitor who threw his body around and backed down to nobody. He was nowhere near Robinson's level of scoring but in three years he had become a Sacramento favorite and one of the focal points of his club. There was every reason to believe that Grant could become a breakout star. Similar arguments for Cliff were scarce. Acquiring Grant left neither court space nor money for Robinson, who immediately fled to the Home for Retired Blazers, Phoenix.
Whitsitt's other significant move of the off-season was trading uni-dimensional center Chris Dudley to the New York Knicks for draft picks. This left Dunleavy with only a couple options at center: Sabonis and More Sabonis. The crumbs Sabas left behind would be gobbled up by last year's first-round pick Jermaine O'Neal and this year's big draft-day acquisition, Kelvin Cato. Blazer fans were pleased.
An 18-10 start through the end of December seemed serviceable enough. The performance was up and down but you'd expect that from a gelling lineup. Sabonis was getting all the minutes he could eat. Grant and Rasheed Wallace made a formidable forward duo, Grant endearing himself to Portland immediately with his heart-filled approach and Wallace wowing fans with spectacular alley-oop finishes. Isaiah Rider was turning in the best season of his Portland career, averaging nearly 20 per game and giving the team much-needed scoring punch. Gary Trent, Augmon, O'Neal, and Cato all had their moments in reserve. The team looked promising. The only guy struggling consistently was point guard Kenny Anderson. The year prior he had made Whitsitt look like a genius, scoring 17.5 and dishing 7 in his inaugural Blazers campaign. This year the only serious looking was Anderson over his own shoulder. His scoring dropped 5 points per game. His shooting percentage plummeted well below 40%. The assists weren't there but the turnovers sure were. Perhaps he couldn't gel with this new, stacked starting lineup. More likely he, like everyone else in the Portland area, had heard rumors that Whitsitt was about to pull off the biggest trade he had yet engineered.
If those rumors did reach Anderson's ears his play did nothing to dispel them. Nor was the team finding the next gear under his watch. Thus on February 13th, 1998, one day shy of three years after trading away Clyde Drexler, Whitsitt pulled off the Big One, making Portland's dreams come true by acquiring hometown boy Damon Stoudamire from the Toronto Raptors. Stoudamire had been named Rookie of the Year three years prior. He was a 20-point scorer. He could drive and dish like no other. He was THE hot young point guard prospect, a budding superstar in the making. Yes, the Blazers had to trade Anderson, Trent, Alvin Williams, two first-round picks, and a second rounder to get him, but who cared? After years of waiting the Blazers finally ended up on the right end of a headline-making deal! Stoudamire was crown prince of the city before ever playing a game in the uniform and Whitsitt was the genius behind the throne.
Along with Stoudamire came veteran forward Walt Williams and deep reserve Carlos Rogers, but those other names were afterthoughts at the moment of consummation. Oddly enough, though, Williams had a more striking immediate effect on the team than Stoudamire did. Damon got his assists but his scoring dropped precipitously when he ceased playing 40 minutes per game as the focal point of the offense. Prior to the trade the Blazers had been playing converted power forwards at the small forward position. Walt's sweet three-point shooting was a breath of fresh air, opening up the middle for the big guys...a quickly-appreciated nuance to the deal.
Also oddly, at least in the eyes of those who had partied like it was 1999 at the announcement of the trade, Stoudamire's arrival had no effect on the team's record. After their 18-10 start the Blazers had played exactly one game over .500 up until the deal was made. Following the trade the Blazers played exactly one game over .500 through the end of the season. They finished with a 46-36 record, logging three fewer wins than they had the season prior. This was less sizzle than fans had expected. But the team quickly found a chance to redeem themselves as once again they faced the mighty Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Had the Blazers finally accumulated enough talent to stare down Shaq and company?
No, they had not.
For the second straight year the Lakers facilitated Portland's departure from the post-season with a 3-1 series victory. Granted the games were closer this time and Shaq not quite so dominant, but despite all the moves Portland still wasn't in L.A.'s league and it showed.
That was about to change though.
The 1998 off-season was complicated by a lengthy lockout. The season ended up being shortened to 50 games, play beginning in early February. No matter...neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor hail nor collective bargaining difficulties could keep "Trader" Bob Whitsitt from his appointed rounds. And his appointment was always with a big name. In this case that name was Jim Jackson, a former 26 ppg guy in Dallas who had still managed 16 the last couple years bouncing around between teams. Jackson strengthened Portland's bench scoring and provided a credible alternative to the occasionally unsteady Rider at shooting guard. Whitsitt would also find long-term help at the two in the person of Bonzi Wells, a recent Detroit draftee whom the Blazers pried away with a couple of future picks. Finally Whitsitt added Seattle point guard Greg Anthony, a heady reserve with a great nose for defense. Portland now looked just as flush at the small positions as they did at the bigger. Just reading Portland's roster list in early 1999 was intimidating:
Damon Stoudamire, Greg Anthony, J.R. Rider, Jim Jackson, Walt Williams, Stacey Augmon, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant, Arvydas Sabonis, Jermaine O'Neal
Offense, defense, size, mobility, scoring, shooting, experience, athleticism...this team had it all. That new depth began paying instant dividends. The Blazers won 17 of their first 21 games, significant in a season which would total but 50. It would take 39 games for their losses to hit double digits at 29-10. They finished the year at 35-15, showing off one 8-game and two 6-game winning streaks in the process. At no time did they lose more than two games in a row and they only surrendered back-to-back losses three times total. This was what Blazer fans had been wanting to see. It wasn't the beautiful fencing of the Walton era nor the sharp, springing trap of Drexler and company. This team hit you like a sledgehammer over and over and over again until you just quit. Didn't like what Rasheed just did to you? Here comes Brian Grant. Tired of Walt Williams' shooting and Damon Stoudamire's penetration? Try to score against Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony then. It was brutal. It was incessant. And it worked.
The Phoenix Suns found this out in the first round of the playoffs. They sported nice players: Jason Kidd, Rex Chapman, Danny Manning, Tom Gugliotta, and of course recent Portland ex-pat Robinson. These guys were skilled enough but they didn't want to battle. Portland didn't know how to do anything else. The series was like a multi-car pileup on the freeway. J.R. Rider provided the initial impact. The Suns had nobody near his physical stature anywhere in the backcourt. He flat-out abused every defender they sent against him in unquestionably his finest moments as a Blazer. Another possession, another Suns defender on his butt and the ball in the hoop. After that Grant, Wallace, Jackson, Sabonis, Stoudamire...everybody just piled onto the wreckage. The Suns didn't know what hit them as Portland swept the series 3-0, finally advancing out of the first round.
Next up was a date with the Utah Jazz. This was trouble not only because the Jazz were great but because they held homecourt advantage. The Blazers never won in Salt Lake. The last time they'd tried in a playoff setting was the humiliating 40-point, Game 5 loss that led their General Manager to begin his Great Overhaul in the first place. From the beginning of this series Karl Malone was determined to throw his weight around, reminding the Blazers that the Jazz weren't the Suns. Not only did he score 25 in the opening contest, he punctuated his points with elbows overt and covert, bullying Portland into a loss and laughing about it. This was all-too familiar territory. Malone would play Big Bear, backed up by John Stockton's scoring, then Byron Russell and Jeff Hornacek and the rest of the Jazz would skitter around like mice, putting the ball in the bucket while you were fixated on the ursine roaring of their superstar. Portland had fallen this way multiple times in the Robinson-Strickland era.
But that era was long gone.
The Blazers made that clear in Game 2. Like Popeye eating his spinach, Brian Grant bulked up to enormous size and battled Malone bucket for bucket, elbow for elbow. Malone scored 23, Grant scored 23. With the distracting bully stalemated the rest of Portland's team proved better than the rest of Utah's. Rider's 27 led Portland to 84 hard-fought points while Utah managed only 81. The sacred altar had been desecrated. Portland won in Utah's building. The team was on a high coming home.
Malone responded to that loss by getting even more physical in Game 3. He pushed, shoved, and continued to elbow. Brian Grant again met him head-to-head and despite getting his forehead cut and receiving a technical foul for swinging his 'bows out (while Malone remained un-whistled) Grant prevailed. He didn't meet Malone in the scoring department this time, falling behind 25-16. But the image of him running down the court during this game, bandage on his head, gaze steely-eyed and murderous--making clear his team would fall to no-one--is burned into the psyche of everyone who saw it. 15 rebounds and 43 hard-fought minutes later Grant had finally pulled the teeth from the bear. Malone's 25 and 14 were meaningless. The Blazers' Next 6 had once again beaten Utah's Next 6. Portland took a 10-point victory and the series lead 2-1, a lead which they would never give back. Again behind Rider's scoring Portland prevailed in a defensive struggle in Game 4. They lost Game 5 handily in Utah but by no means were they losing Game 6. Perhaps exhausted by their near-continuous battle, both Malone and Grant scored in single digits in that final game. The difference is Grant took but 5 shots to get his 7 points while Malone took 16 to get his 8. Rider, Wallace, Sabonis, and Jackson carried Portland to a clear dozen-point victory and the Blazers were going to the Conference Finals for the fifth time in their history.
Up next were the San Antonio Spurs. David Robinson, now 33, still manned the middle for them. He was a shadow of his former MVP-level self but the cavalry had arrived in the form of second-year power forward Tim Duncan. Seven feet tall--agile, capable of blocking shots, rebounding, and scoring with ease, as fundamentally sound of a player as you could find in the league--Duncan was big-man basketball personified. The Spurs also featured young shooter Sean Elliot, former Blazers Mario Elie and Jerome Kersey, and point guard Avery Johnson about whom Damon Stoudamire had uttered the phrase, "No team with Avery Johnson at point will ever win a championship." The Spurs had just handled the Timberwolves 3-1 in the first round before sweeping the Lakers out of the second round 4-0. They had depth and the Blazers had depth. They had experience and the Blazers had experience. They had two dominating big men, the Blazers had half a dozen good ones. If Portland could get past the starting lineup the advantage would be theirs but that San Antonio starting lineup was a tall mountain to climb.
The Blazers acquitted themselves well in Game 1 as Rasheed Wallace exploded all over Tim Duncan, scoring 28 with 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. Only two other Blazers scored in double figures though (both low) while Duncan and Robinson each scored 21 to give their team a narrow 80-76 win.
Portland left that game feeling that they should have won it. That belief and indignation showed in Game 2. The Blazers pounded the Spurs every way possible and took an 18 point lead in the third quarter. Then the tide turned as San Antonio went on a 17-2 run. The teams battled back and forth until Damon Stoudamire was fouled with 12 seconds remaining, Portland up 1. He made only 1 of the 2 free throws, leaving the Spurs down 2. On the ensuing inbounds play Augmon futilely dove for the steal instead of staying in front of Elliot. Wallace was late getting around a screen to help. The Spurs' small forward calmly sank a three-pointer to put his team ahead. When Portland failed to score on the ensuing possession the game was over, 86-85. Twice the Blazers had come close, twice they had failed.
There was plenty of reason for optimism heading back to Portland. This was home territory, sacred ground for the Blazers when their play was good. The road losses had been narrow, if heartbreaking. The series had all the hallmarks of being a classic. But it wasn't. San Antonio's Memorial Day Miracle appeared to have drained all the fight out of the Blazers. Portland lost by 22 at home in Game 3 and by 14 in the final game, surrendering the sweep. What should have been an epic series known for fierce clashes and tight finishes was instead remembered for an epic collapse, Rasheed Wallace's technical tantrums, and the Spurs' dominance...all themes which would prevail in the coming years.
What were Portland fans to make of this? The ending had been horrid but the season as a whole had been great. This team made the Western Conference Championship and turned in some incredibly impressive performances on the way. They lost to the eventual champions. Could they become the eventual champions?
While Blazer fans were pondering these questions Trader Bob returned to his workshop. It was time to change the mix again and this time his moves would make the front page of every sports section across the nation. Nobody was ever going to forget the Summer of 1999. Bob Whitsitt would make sure of that.
Next Up: The Whitsitt Era gets even bigger!
Be sure to share your reflections about these years in the comment section.