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Lest We Forget...

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There's been a fair amount of disappointment with the team's play on the recent road trip, which is completely fair.  It wasn't a great showing to say the least.  However along with this legitimate disappointment has come a fair amount of misery over our situation and our prospects.  There seems to be a general feeling that this is a hard time to be a Blazer fan.  I suppose it's human nature to have a reaction like that but to provide some perspective I'd like to take a walk down memory lane with you.  We don't have to go far...just a couple years.  To jog our memories, and perhaps our appreciation, let's take a look at the 2004-05 Blazer season.

The fall of 2004 marked the trial run for the "new look" Trailblazers.  We had traded Rasheed Wallace the year before at his request.  We had come off of our worst season in decades, netting only 37 wins.  It was hoped that a new, more balanced and dedicated lineup (sans Wallace's distractions) could reverse the trend and return us to the playoffs.

Taking Rasheed's place in the starting lineup and assuming the role of Face of the Franchise was young forward Zach Randolph.  Coach Maurice Cheeks had talked to Randolph over the summer and told him that now was the time to assume a position of leadership.  Zach began the year as he typically did, reporting to camp somewhat out of shape.  This did not stop him from taking the lead offensively, as was his right.  On the face of things his numbers looked promising:  18.9 points per game and 9.6 rebounds.  The fact that his shooting percentage plummeted 40 points when he became the focal point of the offense was troubling to some, but it was assumed that with experience he would learn to differentiate between good shots and bad.  His defensive woes were also evident, but again he simply needed experience on the court to become a well-rounded player and the leader his talent suggested he should be.  Off the court was another matter, as already unpleasant stories were starting to crop up, but many young players lack social maturity and the Blazers crossed their fingers that he would become a representative the team could market to a public starving for good news.

Randolph's scoring sidekick was veteran point guard Damon Stoudamire, now in the final year of a long-term, lucrative contract.  Stoudamire was fresh off of an embarrassing incident over the summer wherein he was cited for possession of marijuana in the Phoenix airport, having folded it in tin foil to keep it from detection.  After previous run-ins with the law he had sworn off of the wacky weed.  Speculation abounded that the habit was starting to affect his play.  Stoudamire responded with his best season as a Blazer, averaging nearly 16 points and 7 assists per game.  He was also one of the few Blazers who worked hard playing defense.  However his diminutive size negated much of his effort as opposing guards shot over him with ease all season long.  Though the team made some noises about asking him to return he had decided long before the season was through that this would be his last year with the team.  He did not like the direction they were headed and so he packed his bag and walked right into the waiting arms of the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies as soon as the season was through.

Another bright spot of the season was forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim.  Acquired in the Wallace trade the season before, he technically played the same position as Randolph.  He made an accommodation and agreed to start at small forward for the Blazers, averaging 17 points and 7 rebounds.  He was not quick enough to defend opposing small forwards and did not like the position, and made it fairly clear that he was not particularly interested in returning to the team under the same conditions the next season.  To the disappointment of many Blazer fans who loved his attitude and squeaky-clean reputation he chose to sign with the New Jersey Nets instead of returning to Portland.  New Jersey would soon reject him because of a knee problem, however, and he ended up signing with the Sacramento Kings.

Abdur-Rahim's tenure at small forward very much upset one of Portland's bright, young hopes...one Darius Miles.  Darius had been acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers the season before for a song and had immediately dazzled Blazer fans with his athleticism and occasionally impressive dunks.  He had reportedly been promised a starting role with the team and was less than thrilled to be playing only 27 minutes per game off the bench.  His production was sporadic and his attitude came into question.  The boiling point came when he unleashed a profanity-filled tirade (including liberal use of the "N"-word) against Coach Maurice Cheeks during a film session midway through the season.   The incident became a postcard-perfect snapshot of everything that was wrong with the team in the public's eyes.  Portland's bright, young hope immediately became one of its biggest pariahs.

The supporting cast that year was a mixed bag.  Veteran Ruben Patterson occasionally thrilled with his energetic defense and all-out play.  Knowledgeable observers, including his coach, cringed at the same displays, knowing that his individual forays were compromising the defensive schemes.  He ranged from heroic to heroically stupid, often in the same stint on the court.  Furthermore he had a propensity for complaining inside and outside the locker room, making his frustrations public and stirring dissent every time he felt he was wronged.  Rumors of his out-of-control personal life were widely accepted as legitimate and were later confirmed by Ruben himself after he reformed somewhat.

Derek Anderson was another stalwart who rotated between the starting lineup and the bench.  He was known as an all-around player but seemed to have trouble keeping up on defense.  Also he was shooting a miserable 39% for the season.  He only played 47 games because of injury, which would become a recurring theme throughout his tenure.

Nick Van Exel was a clutch shooter whose best days were long past.  We depended on him for scoring.  This was somewhat hampered by his 38% shooting percentage.  He did know how to run the pick and roll though, which earned him some playing time.

The picture at center was somewhat brighter as the Blazers appeared to have an exciting defensive duo of Theo Ratliff (also acquired in the Wallace trade) and Joel Przybilla.  Ratliff was a game-changing shot blocker who averaged 2.5 blocks per game in 04-05.  He had trouble rebounding, scoring, and even defending true centers one-on-one but the crowds loved his swatting style.  Joel Przybilla was a recent addition.  He was slightly better at individual defense, much better at rebounding, and averaged 2.1 blocks per game himself.  (All of those blocks meant our perimeter defenders were doing a horrible job containing their men, but that's another story.)   The general public felt that between these two players our center position was set for the next few years at least.

The Blazers also had their share of young hopes that season.  The youngster with the most buzz surrounding him was recent draft pick Sebastian Telfair.  Bassy was a dazzling passer who appeared to have a ton of raw talent.  He could not defend a mailbox or shoot to save his life and many of his passes went astray but when he connected people could see the promise inherent in his status as a New York legend.  This season was the first glimpse of the Telfair era.  With Damon fading into the background and one of the best point guards of all time in Maurice Cheeks guiding him, Telfair was sure to be one of the next big things in Portland.  People speculated that in a few years we'd have to fight the Knicks to keep him and hoped we made a good enough impression on him to convince him to stay.

Three other youngsters fired the imaginations of Blazer fans. Forward Travis Outlaw was wildly inconsistent but could jump out of the gym and had people on the edges of their seats every time they saw him head towards the bucket.  Many of Telfair's passes slipped through his fingers but fans were drooling in anticipation of the day when he finally caught them, finally developed a game, and used his athletic ability to become a dominant player.  Viktor Khryapa was the opposite of Outlaw.  He had a thimbleful of athletic ability but worked hard and unselfishly when he was out on the court.  He was the lunch-pail guy who would do the cleanup work that the prima donnas distained.  A guy like that was always welcome in Portland.  Finally 7'3" monster center Ha Seung-Jin, a long shot pick in the second round, loomed so large on the court that many envisioned him becoming a poor man's Yao Ming.

We even had a prospect coming from overseas...one Sergio Monia, teammate to Khryapa.  He was supposed to be a talented, yet unappreciated, offensive player with Khryapa's grit.

Coach Maurice Cheeks was the best public face of the franchise and was featured in most of the ad campaigns for the Blazers.  He had endeared himself to the nation by rescuing teenager Natalie Gilbert when she botched the words to the national anthem before a game and was heralded as one of the nicest guys in the business.

Of course we don't need to remind you how all of this turned out.

--Randolph's game never developed much beyond offense.  All of his shortcomings on and off the court intensified along with his production.  In the end his own teammates would ask for him to be traded.

--Damon Stoudamire never really found success in Memphis, falling to injury and suffering through seasons where the team performed below expectations.

--Shareef has barely produced for the Kings.

--Darius Miles has had knee surgery and has never recovered his standing on or off the court.  Re-signing him is now considered one of the Blazers' larger mistakes.

--Ruben Patterson has burned bridges everywhere he's been.

--Derek Anderson remains chronically injured.

--Nick Van Exel is out of the game.

--Theo Ratliff is another guy who is considered vastly overpaid.  He has not been healthy or played well since he signed the contract with us.

--Joel Przybilla's game has not developed beyond the average.

--Sebastian Telfair has widely been considered a bust.

--Travis Outlaw is still inconsistent.

--Viktor Khryapa, Sergio Monia, and Ha Seung-Jin are out of the game.

--Maurice Cheeks didn't even last the season.

--The Blazers won 27 games that year and would go on to win 21 the next year.  The off-court troubles and disconnection with the community would continue throughout.

The distinction between our troubles then and our troubles now is sharp.  Look at what you just read. There's no Brandon Roy in there and no Lamarcus Aldridge.  There's no Greg Oden on the horizon either.  There's little hard work, even less reason to empathize or fall in love with anyone, and damn few wins to soothe the pain.  Not one person in this whole list lived up to expectations or fulfilled their promise.  Many of them biffed it in spectacular fashion. It's a graveyard of failed expectations and broken dreams.  The only guy whose name we mentioned who has experienced any prosperity is Rasheed Wallace...the guy we traded away.  You want dark days?  You want reasons to be upset or discouraged?  Just three years ago we were in a hole so deep that no light came in and we couldn't tell which way was up.  We were in amazingly sad shape.  We couldn't get that far under this year if we lost all 82.  A streak of road losses or a 34-win season are gravy compared to what we had to endure just 1000 or so days ago.

So win or lose, for now keep at least part of your chin up.  This really ain't that bad.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)