The History of the Portland Trail Blazers: The Whitsitt Era, Part 4--A Smidge Too Far

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Blazer's Edge reminisces about the history of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up: 2001, and an extended, half-season meltdown.

The last installment of our Trail Blazers history series covered the tragic grandeur of the 1999-00 season, from the elation of trading for Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith in the summer of '99 to the agony of the Game 7 fourth-quarter collapse at the hands of Shaquille O'Neal and the L.A. Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

For three straight seasons Portland General Manager Bob Whitsitt had addressed his team's shortcomings by making major off-season moves.  Credit where credit is due:  he successfully transformed a middling, under-staffed team into a powerhouse contender with his off-season acumen.  The Blazers had managed the second best record in the league in '99-'00.  Their next goal was clear.  If they could get past the Shaq ceiling the sky seemed limitless.  But this year's moves, though familiar in style, would turn out quite differently than those of previous seasons.

While teaching the basics of oil painting immortal artist Bob Ross used to advise PBS viewers, "It's your world...do anything you want with it."  Apparently Whitsitt took that advice to heart.  In the Summer of 2000 he took his Mona Lisa and began applying chocolate syrup in liberal doses.

The key figure in the summer from Portland's end was power forward Brian Grant.  A couple years prior he had provided the beating heart to the Blazers' playoff lineup as they advanced past Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz.  Since that point injuries and a crowded roster had cut into his playing time and production.  By 2000 he was frustrated, a shadow of his old self, and looking to get out of town.  Most fans knew Whitsitt was forced to move him.  Most fans regretted the move, as Grant was beloved, but accepted its inevitability.  Less acceptance was forthcoming when a three-way deal with Miami and Cleveland sent away Grant for Shawn Kemp, lately of the Cavaliers.  In his Seattle days--his initial Whitsitt connection--Kemp had been a superstar, the Rain Man, pouring dunks across the league and co-navigating the Sonics to the NBA Finals.  His Cleveland tenure had been a mess.  He still scored near his Seattle levels but he had gained at least a half-Kemp's worth of weight in three seasons.  His movement and jumping ability were far from Rain Man status.  It was more like Bon-Bon Dude.  Though it would be inaccurate to characterize Blazer fans as against the move entirely--the name value alone carried weight--questions accompanied the acquisition.  Could this guy still play?  Where was he going to get minutes when Brian Grant left for lack of them?  Could he get enough touches to be effective?  What would happen to the defense?  Did the Blazers care that they were paying this guy $37 million over the next three years?  Were they going to get anything close to proportional value?  This was going to be an interesting experiment.

The second big move of 2000-01 would pain Blazers fans for years.  Portland traded popular young F-C Jermaine O'Neal to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis.  O'Neal had won the hearts of Portland fans the year prior with a spectacular mano-a-mano snuffing of a Kevin Garnett dunk while defending the fast break.  Despite his obvious physical abilities he had never made it far off of Coach Mike Dunleavy's bench.  This is unsurprising considering the names ahead of him were Grant, Rasheed Wallace, and Arvydas Sabonis, all productive and far more experienced.  Had the Blazers understood what a talent O'Neal would become they might have balked at moving him.  But Indiana was in a position to take a chance that Portland was not.

Though it's easy to look back on this deal and facepalm, one must remember the circumstances at hand.  When they traded for Pippen and Smith the Blazers committed to winning immediately.  They didn't have the option to wait three years or even waste one.  Both of those star players were aging.  Sabonis wasn't a spring chicken either.  The Blazers weren't making moves to preserve long-term mediocrity.  They needed a title within the next two years.  Having already lost Grant and knowing Kemp's main contributions would be offensive, the Blazers needed another big man capable of manning the middle.  Davis was a current All-Star, considered one of the premier defenders and rebounders in the league.  He was the "win now" move.  He was also another chance at making the team Shaq-proof, certainly better than Grant had been and far better than a roll of the dice on Jermaine.  Even given these factors you'd balk at calling this trade "good" but "inevitable" certainly applied, if not "reasonable".  It wasn't a sudden lunge, rather the logical culmination of a process that had begun three years prior.

[Full Disclosure:  Since I claimed in the last installment that one of the foundations for becoming a Blazers blogger was my accurate prediction of the Blazers crawling out of a 3-1 hole against the Lakers in the 2000 WCF I'm compelled to admit that I defended the Davis-O'Neal trade pretty hard when it happened.  Obviously I still see how it made sense then.  Just as obviously giving Jermaine his shot would have been the right thing to do.]

For those keeping score (a severe necessity during the prime of the Whitsitt era) Portland's roster now looked like this:

  • PG:  Damon Stoudamire, Greg Anthony
  • SG:  Steve Smith, Bonzi Wells
  • SF:   Scottie Pippen, Detlef Schrempf, Stacey Augmon
  • PF:  Rasheed Wallace, Shawn Kemp
  • C:  Arvydas Sabonis, Dale Davis

That made six players will All-Star pedigrees, a former Rookie of the Year, and the greatest international player in history all jammed into the same lineup.  Though still numb from last spring's loss, fans were plenty curious to see how this would play out.

Portland got off to a shaky start in 2000-01 due to a tough schedule.  November, the shakedown cruise for this newly-armed battleship, resulted in an 11-6 record.  The team hit its stride in December and January though, rattling off a ten-game win streak amid several smaller ones to push the record to 33-14.  February and the first two games of March got even better.  After defeating the Golden State Warriors 122-91 on March 3rd Portland owned a league-best 42-18 record.  The road had been shaky, the play occasionally sloppy, but you couldn't argue with success.

But unbeknownst to Portland fans--and presumably even to the folks in charge--March 5th and 6th of 2001 would become turning points for the season.

The 5th of March saw Portland re-claim point guard Rod Strickland, the former passing wizard having been waived by the Washington team of the same name.  Four years prior, upon being traded for Rasheed Wallace, Strickland exacted his revenge by leading the league in assists.  His production and attitude had both fallen off since, eventually leading Washington to cut him.  Trader Bob, apparently viewing all former charges in dark, candlelit rooms (see also:  Shawn Kemp), scooped him up and threw him into the Blazer mix.  The problem was, Portland's mix was volatile despite its success.  Smith and Wells, Davis and Sabonis, Wallace and Kemp all struggled against each other for court time, sometimes to the point of trading starting and reserve roles.  Even with those daily battles at the larger positions, the most fragile position on the roster chemistry-wise might have been point guard.

Damon Stoudamire had been brought in during the '97-'98 season to lead the team, provide star-level play, and to bolster scoring with his brilliant averages.  None of those things had transpired.  In fact Stoudamire found himself in a constant war with defensive-minded reserve Greg Anthony who often claimed fourth-quarter minutes that should have belonged to the starter.  Having disappeared in the Conference Finals series the year prior--and in some corners blamed for the situation--Stoudamire had become particularly sensitive.  Now Strickland--a former Blazers starter himself, as productive as Stoudamire during his tenure if not more so, and definitely offensive-minded--appeared on the scene.  Portland's hometown hero no doubt felt the sting as microphones were shoved in his face and he was asked variations of, "Can you two get along?" and, "Do you fear for your starting spot?"  Even if the opening lineup announcement remained his, Damon had to know that Strickland's arrival would eat into his minutes.  Anthony, just as passionate about his playing time, wasn't willing to give up either.  It was like striking a match to gasoline.  Though another high-profile name on the roster solidified the Blazers' appellation as the league's "Travelling All-Star Team" they were about to disintegrate into a big, fat mess.

On March 6th, the date of the Blazers' next game and Strickland's first, Portland's new point guard was a secondary story.  This was the night when Portland management would publicly heal the long-simmering animosity between them and superstar Clyde Drexler by retiring his number at halftime.  The town was ready to celebrate.

Unless the retiree in question works for an opposing team, in which case the ceremony is held when that team comes to town, the selection process for jersey retirement games is simple.  You never see jerseys retired against opponents like the Lakers or Bulls.  Those games will sell out anyway.  Instead you retire jerseys when a sad sack team comes to town.  An arena that would have been half-full gets sold out, the home team romps over a patsy on the feel-good night, and everybody goes home happy.  The victims on this particular evening were the 18-43 Vancouver Grizzlies.

Though playing inconsistently--seemingly unable to rotate or stop the Grizz attack--the Blazers got off to a good enough start, beating the Grizzlies in each of the first two quarters and taking a 50-46 lead into the half and the all-important Drexler speech.  When Clyde took the floor the ovation alone lasted almost as long as a normal halftime.  He appeared genuinely moved.  It was well-known that he resented Whitsitt for the way the faithful members of the '90-'92 core were treated in their declining years but he buried the hatchet in the middle of his speech.  He expressed regret that he was never able to bring a title to Portland and then uttered the fateful words, "But I believe that now the Blazers finally have the leadership and the talent to do it."  The Rose Garden gasped and applauded riotously.  The Glide had given his blessing to this new group!  How could they fail?

After even more sustained applause for Drexler the teams finally took the court for the second half.  When Portland played a mediocre third quarter, tying 26-26 with the Grizzlies, the crowd started to fidget.  When were they going to get on with it?  Ahhh...they must be saving up for a fourth-quarter burst.  But the only thing that burst in the fourth was the Blazers' balloon.  Defense, a trouble spot all night, proved non-existent.  The team looked uncoordinated, out of sorts, fractured, late for everything.  Vancouver pasted 33 points on them.  The Blazers scored 21.  On the night when the jersey of the greatest player the franchise had ever known was retired, when that same Hall-of-Famer had declared them champions in waiting, the Wallace-Pippen-Smith-Sabonis-Davis-Wells-Kemp-Schrempf-Stoudamire-Strickland Blazers had managed to blow a home game to an 18 (now 19)-win franchise featuring such luminaries as Grant Long, Tony Massenburg, and Ike Austin.  Jaws dropped.  This was not good.  Had they collectively flipped off Drexler and called him a dummy for praising them it hardly would have been worse.

Oh, and by the way, this was the beginning of a five-game losing streak.  Remember that league-leading 42-18 record?  The Blazers would go 8-14 for the rest of the season, finishing fourth in their own division, seventh in the conference.  That left them a first-round date with last year's opponent, the team that had ousted them from the post-season 3 out of the last 4 years, the Los Angeles Lakers.

But this year would be different!  This year would be the chance to...yeah, no.  The Lakers swept the Blazers in three games, double-digit losses all.  All the pre-season Shaq-proofing moves seemed silly.  All of a sudden everybody remembered that Davis and Kemp couldn't stop O'Neal when they were on their old teams, let alone while platooned in Portland.

End result of the season:  fewer regular season wins, a playoff sweep,  no Blazer besides Wallace scoring more than 14 points per game, falling production for all of the major stars of last year besides 'Sheed, 7 points and 7.5 rebounds from Davis, 6.5 points and 4 rebounds from Kemp, 5 points and 3.5 assists from Strickland, and a whole bunch of angry players looking over their shoulders and pointing fingers.  This was not the campaign envisioned for this group of NBA glitterati.

The solutions were obvious...or at least obvious if you've read any of these histories so far.

  • Step 1:  Fire the coach
  • Step 2:  Make more moves!

This time it wouldn't work.  The Blazers had crested the hill.  They were about to descend the long road into darkness.

Next Up: The Whitsitt Era circles the drain.

As always, share your impressions of these players, moves, events, and this season below.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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