For an embattled Portland Trail Blazers franchise the major themes of the 2004 off-season were renewal and rebirth. The worst offenders of the "Jailblazer" era had been swept out by the house cleaners in the front office, team president Steve Patterson and general manager John Nash. Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells were the most prominent victims. Center Dale Davis would follow them out the door in the summer of '04, heading to Golden State along with Dan Dickau for guard Nick Van Exel. With that, the renovation was all but complete. The expensive veterans and head cases were, for the most part, gone. Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Arvydas Sabonis, Jeff McInnis, Davis, Wallace, Wells...the players missing from Portland's roster would have been a formidable team on their own. In their place was a young, talented, and presumably eager group ready to lead the team into the future.
At the head of this new class stood Zach Randolph, a 23-year-old power forward flirting with a 20-10 average. Z-Bo was Portland's next All-Star, waiting only for national recognition to take the stage. He made the departure of Wallace not only bearable, but a cause for celebration. Close on Randolph's heels, in fan adulation if not production, were a pair of players picked up in last year's big trades: Darius Miles and Theo Ratliff. Miles had been a tantalizing prospect with the Clippers before wilting in Cleveland. Both energy and promise seemed to be restored in Portland as the small forward found himself on the receiving end of many a slashing dunk. If the rest of his game wasn't coming along as quickly, well...he had time. Ratliff awed fans on the other end of the court with spectacular, game-changing blocks. He wasn't the all-around center that Sabonis had been or even the dependable rebounder and defender like Davis but his swats brought crowds to their feet.
As you may recall, upon taking the helm Nash and Patterson had been issued a three-part directive by ownership: clean up character issues, lower costs, and remain competitive. Miles and Ratliff showed yet again the impossibility of doing all three at once. Both appeared to have character and talent but Miles was a restricted free agent and Ratliff's contract would come up the following year. The Blazers opened the pocketbook yet again to guarantee their continued service. Miles got a 6-year, $48 million deal. Ratliff signed an extension for $11.6 million per year for three extra years. Collectively the Blazers dropped $82 million on two players they presumed would start for them for the next half-decade. Why? First, each player was loaded with promise. Even though the gaps in their games were obvious, spectacular moments outshone their drawbacks. Second, what choice did the team have? They had no viable trade chips, no stars waiting in the wings outside of Randolph. If Miles and Ratliff didn't work out the team was up a creek. In hindsight it's easy to see that these two contract signings left the Blazers up that same creek, just $82 million poorer. But that perspective wasn't available in 2004. Indeed, these deals were seen as a promise to the fans. "We're going to do the right thing with the right people, re-creating the era where you grew up watching the same exciting stars improve year by year on their way to glory. You can believe in us again."
The team had to rely on the Randolph-Miles-Ratliff frontcourt to generate interest because the guys surrounding them was uniformly pedestrian. In the old days if you didn't care for Wallace you could always root for Pippen. Now those players were gone. Portland's backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Derek Anderson proved competent but throwing support behind them was like trying to win Iron Chef with a bowl of mashed potatoes. Nothing against smashed spuds. Everybody likes them well enough but they're not exactly a reason to go out on the town. The same held true of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a talented offensive forward picked up as part of the Wallace deal. He averaged 17 a night but he played the same position as Randoph and had no sizzle to his game. Ruben Patterson was plenty exciting for the two minutes per game he was generating steals but his game was as disruptive to his own team as the opponents' and fans still hadn't forgotten his shady past. Folks would pop for Van Exel but he wasn't a team leader. New signee Joel Przybilla was a throwback to the Blazers' blue collar roots. Although he was a pleasant surprise for fans he was a complementary player, not a huge draw on his own. Collectively this group was worthy of a strong golf clap but would have nobody jumping out of their seats.
The Blazers did have one hope for the Next Big Thing: rookie point guard Sebastian Telfair. The 6'0" New York hotshot already had a movie and a book made about him before he notched his first assist for the Blazers. Under coach Maurice Cheeks, himself a famed point guard, Telfair would presumably grow into stardom, driving the team through its next big wave of success. Fans were juiced to see Bassy play. But they assumed it would take at least half a season for him to hit his stride.
Summarizing: the Blazers had one rising star in Randolph, two exciting companion players in Miles and Ratliff, a hope for the future in Telfair, and some decent odds and ends as the '04-'05 season began. It wasn't much compared to 2000 but it was a start. As long as these players remained likable and played hard perhaps the Blazers could swim out of the public relations swamp in which they had been languishing. The team even ran a set of "block party" ads to that effect, showing various players interacting with fans in city neighborhoods, being normal guys. The message was simple: here are a bunch of players you want to be buddies with.
Unfortunately the opposite was about to occur. The next two seasons with this group would send fans screaming and running the other way as the would-be heroes turned into pariahs and the franchise resurrection evolved into a horrifying farce.
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Normally we give you a rundown of each season as these histories progress but recounting the 2004-05 season blow-by-blow would just be cruelty. Here's a synopsis:
The Blazers played .500 ball for their first 20 games or so and then...
- Zach Randoph got injured
- Theo Ratliff got injured
- Shareef Abdur-Rahim got injured
- Nick Van Exel got injured
- Derek Anderson got injured multiple times and started enduring questions about his toughness, likely because one of those extended injuries was for a toothache.
- Rumors started about Randolph making use of his time off with clandestine activities, not savory enough for public consumption
- Darius Miles got suspended for using racial profanities against coach Maurice Cheeks during a film session. At the same time he said he didn't care if the team lost 20 straight because Cheeks was going to get fired.
- Damon Stoudamire barely cleared 39% field goal shooting but registered a 54-point night against the Hornets...for a single game fulfilling all the promise Portland fans had wanted to see for years.
- Sebastian Telfair shot the same bad percentage plus proved he couldn't play any defense plus didn't look like an NBA point guard.
- Ruben Patterson got into constant scraps with his coach over playing time and role.
- Travis Outlaw barely played.
- Qyntel Woods got waived.
- Joel Przybilla played well.
That, my friends, is not much of a season.
55 games into the debacle, facing a team with a 22-33 record and devolving into chaos, coach Maurice Cheeks was fired. Ironically this turned Darius Miles into a savant, proving the point of his rant. A young staff executive named Kevin Pritchard took over the head coaching position. His goals were to play faster and to get a better look at Portland's younger players. Telfair saw a little life under his tenure. Everyone else seemed to coast. The team finished the season 5-22, leaving them with 27 wins and 55 losses. It was the lowest win total since 1974. Respectability seemed a distant memory.
It wouldn't be accurate to say fans were outraged at this performance. In reality they didn't care. Nobody followed the Blazers anymore. People were suspicious of the supposed turnaround from the start, having endured several seasons of public gaffes by players and empty promises from management. At the first hint of a rumor of impropriety everyone tuned out, ducking back in only to say "I told you so" when the huge news broke about the Miles tantrum. All the folks who had bought into the "win at any cost" mantra of the Whitsitt years dropped out in the face of two dozen victories for the season. Worst of all the Rose Garden was still in bankruptcy and owner Paul Allen had put the team up for sale, stating publicly that "all options were open" to resolve the situation. "All options" presumably included moving the team entirely.
We summarized the situation at the beginning of the season, so let's summarize at the end: The Blazers won only 27 games. The "Jailblazer" aura surrounding the team had not lessened but intensified. Portland's young stars were turning out to be ineffective, unlikable, or both. A coach was fired. The team could move at any time. Fans found zero reasons to watch the team, no hope for the future (not even a sure hope of the franchise existing), and anybody who would have held on because of past loyalty had long since been driven away. Every impulse to care about the team was quickly undermined by these stark, horrible realities.
The remaining group of Blazer fans was infinitesimal, kept alive only through the relatively new technology of online message boards and forums. Fans sorted into two rough groups: those who passionately defended the team at any cost, brooking no disagreement, and those who delighted in torturing those passionate defenders. Once upon a time Portlanders were able to walk into any bus stop, nursing home, or elementary school in the city and strike up a warm conversation about the team. Now silence reigned universal save in those internet enclaves where your head would be chopped off the moment you peeked in and said "boo". Blazermania had not only died, it had come back in cannibal zombie form, a grotesque, destructive parody of itself where fans and players alike were cranky, often crazy, and utterly unsympathetic.
It's hard to imagine how things could get worse, but the ghosts of 10,000 Blazermaniacs would have screamed in horror had they understood the implications of the team's next move.
The best--maybe only--benefit to finishing with a horrendous record is a decent spot in the draft lottery. Technically Telfair had been a lottery selection but that was a double-digit pick. This year the Blazers were in prime time, the third spot. At #3 you expect a franchise-changer, a ticket-mover, a guy whose jersey would be plastered on Fred Meyer display walls and downtown billboards. As the six dozen remaining Blazer fans held their breath to see who this guy would be, news stations announced a trade. Portland would move the third pick to Utah in exchange for the 6th pick, the 27th, and a future first-rounder. Wait...the franchise-changer was going to slip? The Blazers must be onto someone that nobody else suspects! Who is it? Who is it???
It was Martell Webster. He was a 6'7" small forward straight out of high school. He had a great body and a great shot. Maybe he could make Miles obsolete. That was the hope. Meanwhile Utah selected point guard Deron Williams with the third pick. Right after that the New Orleans Hornets took a guy named...hmmmm...what was it? Oh yeah. CHRIS PAUL. Fans couldn't know at the time that Williams would become a perpetual All-Star and Paul a yearly MVP candidate while Webster would struggle to adjust to the NBA game for years and the extra picks would turn out to be Jarrett Jack and Joel Freeland (all three of whom combined don't equal half of a Williams or Paul) but if they had known, they probably would have just shrugged their shoulders and said, "It figures". As it was, the Blazers supposedly didn't need a point guard. They had Telfair.
The rest of the 2005 off-season involved more housecleaning and salary dumping. Anderson, Abdur-Rahim, and Van Exel were cast off. In a much-publicized move the Blazers also let Damon Stoudamire walk. The hometown boy's multi-year run of competence (but not brilliance) was over. Outside of Theo Ratliff, these four had been the only veterans on the squad. When the new season rolled around only three players in red and black could claim 5 or more years of experience in the league. Two of those were Miles and Pryzbilla at exactly 5 years each. The Blazers were sending fuzzy yellow chicks to a cockfight.
The summer of '05 did provide one huge move, though. The Blazers lured away esteemed head coach Nate McMillan from the Supersonics with a huge financial offer. This made headlines not only because of McMillan's reputation but because it was the first unabashedly positive move in years. McMillan was a hard-liner, the type to whip a bunch of youngsters into shape. If owner Paul Allen spent that kind of money on that promising of a coach maybe it meant he still cared and was trying to build something in Portland instead of taking it away.
Immediately as training camp started McMillan faced rebellion from fowards Randolph and Miles. Neither possessed the diligence and discipline he was trying to instill in this team and each had been used to getting his way for years. McMillan would soon run up against Ruben Patterson's chronic complaining about minutes and role as well. Patterson would be traded later in the season and neither Randolph nor Miles would survive long under McMillan.
But before those changes happened the Blazers had to endure another 20-ish win season...21 to be precise. Absent veterans, any scorers outside of Randolph, and any defense period, Portland couldn't sustain winning play for more than a quarter at a time. Sometimes they got lucky and hit the right quarter to pull out the victory, most often not.
Portland's off-court problems in 2005-06 became more localized but more intense. Randolph and Miles made plenty of headlines for infractions that in the abstract would be minor: street racing, carrying firearms, obnoxious behavior at strip clubs. In the Jailblazers context these scratched at old wounds. Each incident blackened the cloud above the franchise. Again, few argued these were capital offenses, but most Portlanders were tired of the stupidity evidenced by millionaires in public positions risking their reputation (and their teams') for silly reasons. Portland's not-so-dynamic duo were poster children for that.
In addition the local media--particularly the local newspaper, the Oregonian--began feuding openly with the Portland management team. Management's beef was the supposed "negativity" being spouted by reporters and columnists despite the upward trend in team character and everybody in the front office trying really hard. Journalists countered with the scope of buffoonery evidenced by the Blazers' hierarchy over the years, mistakes which they seemed less interested in correcting than covering for. Reports surfaced of growing media paranoia at Blazers HQ, including e-mail searches and strict lectures. Meanwhile local columnists turned doughnut delivery into a toxic subject, inflating the slightest infraction into mammoth proportions like busybody neighbor Gladys Kravitz on "Bewitched". These all-too-public volleys between the Blazers and the paper did not help the credibility of anyone involved. Neither would again be viewed with the once-sacrosanct public respect they formerly took for granted. Despite the noise, most fans continued their by-now-routine practice of tuning out the whole affair. Like Punxsutawney Phil they'd peek their heads out of their holes when a controversial story hit, only to determine that the Blazers' winter would last at least six more weeks. Then it was back to doing whatever occupied their time before they had been disturbed. The bright spot for the Blazers: at least nobody saw their worst season in modern history. The dark spot? How in the world were they going to crawl out of the dark Pit of Doom in which they had buried themselves?
Fortunately for the team a beam of light lay just ahead. Interest was about to be rekindled behind the most complex draft day anyone could remember, two new players on which the franchise would pin all its hopes, and a perky front office guy with a true gift for gab.
Next Time: The upswing begins!
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