The History of the Portland Trail Blazers: The Whitsitt Era, Part 5--The End Comes

Did the Blazers fail Mo, or did Mo fail the Blazers? - Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Blazer's Edge reminisces about the history of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up: 2002, as the potential championship window slams shut.

If you've missed any of our historical retrospectives so far, you can find them here:  1976-77 1977-78 1979-1983 1984-86 1987-89 1989-90 1991-92 1993-94 1995-97 1998-99 2000 and 2001

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After an oh-so-close experience in the Western Conference Finals in 2000 the Blazers continued their formula of stuffing older, big-name players into an already-packed roster.  The addition of Dale Davis, Shawn Kemp, and Rod Strickland in 2001 theoretically should have pushed the Blazers over the top.  Instead the confused, bloated lineup under-performed, falling to win a single game in a first-round matchup with the Lakers.  Thus it was back to the drawing board for Bob Whitsitt and company in the 2001 off-season.

The first order of business, naturally, was to replace the coach.  Mike Dunleavy was out in favor of rookie coach Maurice Cheeks.  A perennially touted assistant, Cheeks sported a reputation as the ultimate player's guy.  He also carried an impeccable pedigree as a point guard from his playing days.   He was a legend in Philadelphia for his achievements with the Sixers.  For a Portland team suffering from chemistry issues and under-performing guards, Cheeks seemed the natural answer.

In the 2001 Draft the Blazers took a chance on a talented forward from Michigan State whose main drawback was his struggle with weight, one Zach Randolph.  With Rasheed Wallace on the team the immediate risk was non-existent.  Drafting a lottery-level player with a mid-level pick was a Trader Bob specialty anyway.  It was another natural fit.

Next up on the agenda: revamping the backcourt.  Greg Anthony got dumped to Chicago for a second-rounder.   Then Whitsitt shipped Steve Smith to San Antonio in exchange for the much younger Derek Anderson and sharpshooter Steve Kerr.

Anderson had been scoring in the mid-teens for the last couple of seasons and had recently developed a three-point shot.  The combination of Anderson and Stoudamire promised a smooth and competent offense, just as Smith had provided.  Even so, with Bonzi Wells on the rise at shooting guard this move created yet another logjam.  Most hoped that Anderson could play point guard to earn minutes, perhaps invoking the magic of Danny Ainge years prior.

The Blazers made a similar age exchange at small forward, letting Stacey Augmon go via free agency and signing Ruben Patterson, another of Whitsitt's seemingly endless Sonics connections.  Patterson was a physical dynamo given to intense bursts of defensive abandon.  He also carried with him the shadow of a conviction for sexual impropriety with a former nanny.  His reputation explained his exit from Seattle despite his talent.

Even with all this shuffling, Portland's biggest off-season maneuver was not executed by the front office at all.  Center Arvydas Sabonis, tired of basketball and Portland both, picked up his ball and went home...literally.  The Lumbering Lithuanian departed for friendlier shores, taking a year off after flat-out refusing to re-sign with the Blazers.  The stated reasons were injury and fatigue.  Everybody remembered a recent late-game incident against the Lakers, though, when Rasheed Wallace hurled a towel at Sabonis during a timeout huddle.  Sabas might have needed a break from his teammates and their chronic antics.

The Sabonis departure killed the team on two levels.  He was the only thing approaching a true center on the roster.  Dale Davis manned the middle at this stage of his career but he had been brought up as a power forward and always played more like a convert than a guy born to the position.  Ditto, except more so, for Shawn Kemp.  Whitsitt signed old standby Chris Dudley to try and plug the pivot gap but Dudley was 36 by this time.  In his 14th season he would barely top 300 minutes total.  Suddenly the team built specifically to give Shaq a knuckle sandwich looked more like a gooey, soft doughnut just waiting to be devoured by anybody who could run a decent post guy against two converted power forwards and an artifact.

The second level on which Sabonis' departure killed the team was public relations.  He was far and away the most popular Blazer of his era.  Normally that designation would belong to the team's best player but Rasheed Wallace, though productive, was becoming known for his technical fouls as much as his play.  Like a tsunami wave, his outbursts could be seen bubbling across the horizon from miles away.  The same fans who shouted "Sheed!" every time he caught the ball groaned audibly when he cut loose on the refs.  Some went so far as to question his mental stability.  Even his staunchest defenders began to wonder if he wasn't costing the team opportunities via loss of momentum and chemistry if nothing else.  His teammates simply shook their heads and walked away when his tirades started, an increasingly common posture.

The rest of Portland's roster was just as unsympathetic.  Their second-best player, Wells, had a breakout season in 2000-01 and his play would intensify in 2001-02.  He would score a career-high 17 ppg during the upcoming year.  But he had all the charisma of a deformed goat and half the public-relations acumen, all but disqualifying him as a rallying point for the suddenly Sabonis-less fans.  Stoudamire was a home-grown guy with his share of supporters but he had under-performed so chronically relative to the absurdly-high expectations he arrived with that he would never become a focal point for the masses.  Most folks loved Davis and Scottie Pippen but they were aging, losing steam, and were viewed as hired guns by a fan base craving hometown heroes instead.  Even his mom wasn't able to root for Kemp at this stage. Patterson and Anderson were newcomers and Ruben bore that legal stigma as well.  Once Sabonis left nobody remained in a Blazer uniform for fans to cheer without reservation.

Neither did the future look particularly bright.  Reality was coming home to roost for Trader Bob and his All-Star Brigade.  How many future Hall-of-Famers were going to be available year after year?  At some point the supply runs dry.  Because the Blazers were acquiring these players on the downhill slope of their careers their outgoing trade value after 2-3 seasons of service was lower than the Blazers had paid to bring them in.  Each round of trades brought less return.  By 2002 the franchise ended up in the same position they found themselves in during the 1994 season when Whitsitt came on board:  scrambling after single-dimensional, B-level players trying to recapture past glory never fulfilled.

The Blazers' desperate grabs for skill at the expense of character put them in an implicit contract with their own fans.  The implied message:  this is what we have to do in order to win.  Portlanders had ridden with Trader Bob through the ups and downs and seen him work magic.  It was a contract most were willing to sign, albeit grudgingly.  They'd give the these new moves a chance.  But it wasn't like past years when likable guys and solid effort were enough to earn full houses.  Victories were the only currency that would purchase fan loyalty.

When those victories didn't come, the results were disastrous.

The start of Maurice Cheeks' first term as Portland's coach resembled the start of P.J. Carlesimo's back in 1995.  The Blazers didn't play poorly; they just couldn't escape the clutches of the dreaded .500 monster.  They went 21-20 in the first half of the season, several small winning streaks interspersed with a 6-game losing jag.  The year turned upward when Portland defeated the Lakers on February 17th.  The confidence boost from that victory started a 12-game run.  Blazer fans remembered that earlier star-studded teams had required an adjustment period before hitting their stride.  Maybe this edition had finally found the magic.   It was fool's gold.  The schedule during this dozen-game foray was salted with mediocre teams or worse.  The Blazers lost a heartbreaking overtime game in Denver on March 7th to end the run but still managed to win 16 of 18 overall to ensure a shiny regular season record.  When the final month brought tougher, in-conference opponents, though, the losing began again.  Portland finished the 2001-02 season dropping 6 of 9, weighing in at 49-33, 3rd in their division with the 6th seed in the conference.

The sixth slot meant (sigh) yet another first-round date with the third-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.  Everyone knew what to expect.  Despite a new coach and new players the rallying cry was less "Let's Go Blazers!" and more "Assume the position."  L.A. bounced out Portland for the fourth time in five years with a 3-0 sweep.  At least the Blazers lost every game by single digits this year.  That was marginally better than the double-digit sweep in 2001.  But that kind of progress wasn't what fans had signed up for when they agreed to root for this cast of characters.  Rumblings began.  Maybe the cause was hopeless.  Maybe this wasn't the way to go.  What happened to the land of milk and honey that was the 80's and 90's?

The end of 2002 brought a strong sense of wandering in the wilderness. The past 18 months had seen Wallace openly swearing at charity events, Wells flipping off fans and dissing them in interviews by saying they "didn't matter",  Pippen lamenting the ease with which his teammates took losing, Patterson breaking schemes on the court, and Stoudamire bemoaning the team's lack of identity.  Attendance plummeted.  Viewership crashed.  Portland's Golden Goose had turned into a slimy, scabrous frog.

The Blazers were running into organizational dead ends as well.  Even though they were acquiring good players the production of those players inevitably dropped when they came to Portland.  Stoudamire, Smith, Pippen, Davis, Kemp, now Anderson...examples were legion.  This wasn't just attributable to age.  Part of it was reduced minutes on a crowded roster but per-minute production was dropping too.  Derek Anderson scored 15.5 per game, 16.0 per 36 in San Antonio.  He fell to 10.8 and 14.7 his first year in Portland and would never recover to his pre-Blazer levels.  Guys tabbed as the Next Big Thing showed themselves to be nothing special as soon as they put on a Blazers uniform.  Portland was becoming known as the place where careers went to die.

Despite this the Blazers were able to acquire players via trade or free agency using a simple tactic:  paying through the nose.  Five-for-one deals weren't about talent, rather the other team not getting their money's worth out of a supposed star and being willing to dump him for relief from the financial obligation (which Portland then assumed).  Free agents just followed the money.  Nobody thought paying Rasheed Wallace over a million dollars a month was a waste in 2001-02.  But the Blazers were paying three other players a combined $43 million for a combined 30 points of production per game.  $43 million for Shaq or Jordan producing 30 per game and leading a team to a title would have been a no-brainer.  $43 million for players clogging three roster spots averaging 10 points apiece?  Problem.  Portland's payroll was starting to set records.  That didn't match up with their 49 win actual record and a first-round playoff sweep.

There was only one way this story could end.  Bob Whitsitt's final year had the same comfort level as that last week when both you and your girlfriend suspect it's over but neither one is admitting it.  Conversation gets strained. Formerly passionate kisses become cheek smooches and pats on the back.  The only things that really spark are the fights.

No surprise, then, that the combination of a lessening pool of available stars, a lack of attractive trade bait on the roster, and ownership finally putting the brakes on rampant spending made the 2002 off-season fairly tame by Whitsitt standards.  With the 21st pick in the draft Portland selected Qyntel Woods.  See if this sounds familiar:  young with but one year of community college experience, troubled off the court, but hyper-athletic with supposedly huge potential, a lottery pick fallen to the lower-mid draft.

When free agency opened Shawn Kemp left for Orlando, where his career was about to come to an end, victim to weight and reputed drug problems.  The Blazers also traded Steve Kerr and change to the San Antonio Spurs for Antonio Daniels and change.  Portland also signed scoring point guard Jeff McInnis as a free agent in what was approximately the billionth move to communicate to Damon Stoudamire that they didn't trust him alone with their team.

And that was it.  There weren't any more Big Trades to bail out the franchise and its general manager.  No cavalry rode over the hill.  The Blazers were left stewing in their own juices.

The lone bright spot that summer was provided by Arvydas Sabonis, who decided to return to Portland and the cheers of its fans.  Perhaps with a real center the team could find its footing again.  Unfortunately Sabonis was not a real center at that point, good for fewer than 16 minutes per game.

Dale Davis retained the starting job at center, providing rebounding and little else.  Davis by this point was becoming frustrated with the dead end of being in Portland and started creating waves behind the scenes...as if this team needed more chemistry issues.

Wallace and Wells remained mainstays in 2002-03 but production dropped from both while tension and bad P.R. increased.

Anderson didn't improve.

Stoudamire got injured.

Pippen just shrugged his shoulders and played out his contract.

The most positive story of the year was sophomore forward Zach Randolph whose offense was starting to get noticed.  Randolph had an array of moves in the post but was developing a face-up jumper, making him sneaky-dangerous.  His .511 shooting percentage and impressive rebounding rate made people speculate that a replacement for the ever-more-unpopular Wallace was on the way.

This is not to say the Blazers played horribly.  They still had too much talent for that.  After beating the Lakers on opening night of the 2002-03 season the team idled at .500 through mid-December.  Then they embarked on one of their patented winning streaks, this one 8 games long and again abetted by a weak schedule.  But the victories provided the typical lift and by mid-March they owned an impressive 42-22 record.  Just as predictably the team faded down the stretch, finishing the year 50-32, once again 3rd in their division and 6th in the conference.

Fortunately the Lakers had slipped this season and Portland's draw was the 3rd-seed Dallas Mavericks.  They sported a young kid named Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-foot forward with incredible range and offensive versatility.  Point guard Steve Nash provided veteran leadership and forward Michael Finley buckets of points.  The Mavericks had the offense down, the Blazers the grit, physicality, and the bad attitude to take advantage of both.

The Blazers fell in their first two games in Dallas, Game 1 handily and Game 2 in closer fashion thanks to a 45-point outburst by the temporarily-forgiven Wells.  Nowitzki answered with 42 in Game 3 in Portland to propel the Mavericks to a 3-0 advantage.  In years prior this would have completed the sweep, Portland's third such defeat in a row.  But the league, ever starved for money and perhaps mindful that their prized Lakers were falling and likely to lose a short series, had extended the first round to seven games from the traditional five midway through this season.  The Blazers had a brief reprieve.

Portland won Game 4 in a rare team effort, holding Nowitzki to 26 and putting all five starters in double figures.  Portland's best scorer was none other than Randolph, inserted into the starting lineup as a desperation move.  He posted 25 on 9 of 17 shooting with 15 rebounds.  The Blazers high-fived then headed back to Dallas for the execution.  But Game 5 saw Randolph top 20 again with the four remaining starters in double figures as Portland edged Dallas to cut the lead to 3-2 for the series.

Spirits buoyed in Game 6 as Portland pasted a whuppin' on the Mavericks at home, 125-103.  Nowitzki had but 4 points.  This time six Blazers made double figures with Randolph at 21, Wells and Patterson (of all people) with 20, and Sabonis (of all people, again) with 16.  The Mavericks were in disarray.  The Blazers were flexing their muscles.  Could Portland return to Dallas and complete the impossible 0-3 series comeback?

This game was harder-fought than the Game 7 debacle in Utah years before but in the end the results were the same.  Portland got their six double-figures scorers but the Mavericks keyed on Randolph, holding him to 14 instead of 20+.  Meanwhile they fed all of their own shots to Nowitzki (31 points), Nash (21), Finley (14) and reserve guard Nick Van Exel (26 on 10 of 15 shooting).  Van Exel's emergence killed the Blazers.  Portland lost 107-95, finally displaying some heart and togetherness but ultimately ending another season steeped in first-round failure.

On June 26th, 2003 Bob Whitsitt led the Blazers in drafting yet another high school prospect, a 6'9" forward from Mississippi named Travis Outlaw.  The usual descriptors applied:  raw, untested, incredibly athletic, lottery potential grabbed with the 23rd pick.  Blazer fans hoped that Outlaw, whose father was a law-enforcement officer, would at least have the sense to get a driver's license unlike last year's pick Woods, who had tried to show his rookie card in place of legal I.D. when busted for speeding on the Terwilliger Curves.  They had seen so many raw draft picks fail that they weren't going to get excited about another.

With that draft selection Trader Bob made his exit, resigning after 9 years, countless trades, tens of millions spent, a handful of high-schoolers drafted, two Conference Finals visits, and a trail of broken hearts and broken fans behind him.  While his early moves had been hailed as genius and he had been feted accordingly, his departure had Portland fans pouring into the streets singing "Ding Dong the Wicked Witch is Dead".  He had become the Chief Villain in a team that featured an impressive cast of them.  The team was in disarray.  Never had 50 wins been so un-watchable.  His legacy in Portland, once golden, had been forever cemented.  Fairly or not, he was labeled as the man who destroyed the Blazers.

At the end of Whitsitt's tenure Portland fans were left asking the same questions they had at its inception:  What now?  Who will clean up this mess?

Ownership had an answer.  The headhunters were on their way and this wasn't going to be pretty.

Next Time: The Jailblazers era hits full swing.

As always, share your impressions of this era, these players, and these moves in the comment section below.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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