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The Decade Retrospective: The Middle Years...Frustration and Failure

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Here's the second installment of our decade in review, covering the years between 2002 and 2005.  You can find the first section here.   Feel free to share your own memories and perceptions of these years in the comment section.

2002-2003

Record: 50-32

Coach:  Mo Cheeks

Additions:  Antonio Daniels, Jeff McInnis, Arvydas Sabonis, Charles Smith, Qyntel Woods

Subtractions:  Erick Barkley, Rick Brunson, Mitchell Butler, Shawn Kemp, Steve Kerr,

Draft:  Qyntel Woods (21st pick), Jason Jennings (42nd pick), Federico Kammerichs (50th pick)

Leading Scorer:  Rasheed Wallace (18.1 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Rasheed Wallace (7.4 rpg)

Most Minutes:  Rasheed Wallace (36.3 mpg)

After the 2001-2002 season ended in stunning collapse culminating in a second straight first-round sweep at the hands of the hated L*kers, Blazer fans heralded the onset of the 2002-03 season with a mix of cynicism and guarded optimism.  On the bright side the most gaudy symbol of Bob Whitsitt's excess, Shawn Kemp, had departed from the team under the weight of recurring substance abuse issues.  Though his salary remained an albatross to the franchise his removal betokened a new leaf in public perception.  Bolstering this was the return of briefly-retired, and wildly popular, center Arvydas Sabonis.  In addition Whitsitt had managed to pick up yet another point guard to offset Damon Stoudamire, this time the slicing, scoring Jeff McInnis who had just averaged 15 per game for the Clippers.  Antonio Daniels was a high-flying guard and Portland drafted super-scorer and amazing athlete Qyntel Woods with their first round pick, another high school prospect who would hopefully ease the sting of having lost Jermaine O'Neal.  Nobody thought all of these moves would work, but if even two of them did the Blazers would be in great shape.

The rotation still revolved around Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells.  Wallace was yet considered one of the best all-around players in the game, though some were starting to mutter that his offensive game was suffering now that ex-coach Mike Dunleavy was no longer around to hammer into him the need to post up instead of drifting to the perimeter.  Wells was coming off a career-high 17 points per game scoring average and appeared poised to make a step into stardom.  Along with Sabonis, veterans Dale Davis and Scottie Pippen continued to shore up the frontcourt.  The hope was that these three old salts would provide enough of a foundation to keep the Blazers in games so the younger, higher-powered players could take them over the top.  The backcourt of Stoudamire and Derek Anderson was competent, occasionally great.  Defender Ruben Patterson hawked anyone he came across.  The lineup was solid, giving the team a chance every night, obliterating the opponent when everything clicked at once.

Unfortunately the behind-the-scenes drama continued to hamstring the team, preventing that clicking from happening on a regular basis.  Wallace and Wells had formed their own club, heedless of anyone else including their coach.  Pippen and Davis were fed up with the antics.  Pippen was dogged by injury as was feel-good story Sabonis, who averaged fewer than 16 minutes per game on the season.  The score-first ways of Jeff McInnis didn't sit well with his teammates.  Damon Stoudamire continued his love-hate relationship with his hometown franchise...a franchise that seemingly yearly brought in a new point guard to replace him.  Even while scoring the third most points on the team guard Derek Anderson was considered soft and disappointing.  He never came to peace with his own role splitting minutes with G/F Wells.  Center Chris Dudley barely saw the floor because of injury.  Even rookie Qyntel Woods got into the act, failing to obtain a driver's license, instead showing one of his rookie trading cards when stopped by police on the Terwilliger Curves.  Once again talent was marred by a lack of chemistry on the court and common sense off of it.

One redeeming feature of the season was the nascent emergence of last year's draft selection, Zach Randolph.  Given 17 minutes per game, Zach began to show his ability, shooting 51.3% from the field, scoring 8.4 per game, and nabbing 4.5 rebounds.  Some began to regard him as the heir apparent to Rasheed's throne, especially as Wallace's popularity fell with the public.

Speaking of popularity falling, this season also continued the all-too-public rift between the organization, the local media, and the public.  Tales of the boorish behavior of Wallace and Wells began to emerge, first in rumor, then in print.  The high point came on January 15th when Wallace had a post-game confrontation with referee Tim Donaghy from the Rose Garden loading dock.  Combined with his long-time penchant for drawing technical fouls and his recent erratic play and demeanor, these incidents made him an increasingly unsympathetic figure.

Rasheed joined General Manager Bob Whitsitt on Blazer fans' intensive crap list.  With the break-up of the '99-'00 team and several off-season clutches at restoring glory, Whitsitt's philosophy had come under serious fire.  He had famously claimed that he didn't care about chemistry.  He turned over half of the roster annually.  He brought in public relations nightmares.  His explanation was simple:  winning was all that mattered.  Except in the eyes of Portland fans who still remembered the tantalizing brush with glory a couple years earlier, constant first-round exits from the playoffs didn't qualify as "winning", or at least wasn't enough winning to justify the culture cost the franchise was experiencing.  Fan favorites had been moved.  A local woman had been ejected from the Rose Garden for simply brandishing a "Trade Whitsitt" sign.  Local media had been called on the carpet by front office members.  By 2002-03 everybody had seen enough.  The phrase "Trader Bob" completed its metamorphosis from a term of admiration to one of derision.  Most folks felt the clock was ticking on the ex-Wunderkind's regime.

Despite all of the turmoil the Blazers still posted a respectable 50-32 record for the season, the same record achieved by the hated L*kers.  Fortunately the vagaries of seeding had decreed that the two were not to meet in the first round for a third straight year.  The L*kers, in possession of the tiebreaker and thus the 5th seed, would face 4th seed Minnesota.  The Blazers drew the 60-22 Dallas Mavericks, captained by forward Dirk Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash.

Unfortunately it looked as if the series would end before it even started.  The Blazers lost three games in succession before winning the token pride game at home to go 1-3.  That fourth game coincided with the insertion of Zach Randolph into the starting lineup.  The Blazers had nothing to lose at that point and Zach responded with 25 points and 15 rebounds, leading the team in both categories.  The Blazers went big in Game 5, keeping Zach as a starter and returning the displaced Dale Davis to the starting lineup, replacing Scottie Pippen.  Zach scored 22 and Portland outrebounded the Mavericks by 16 to manufacture a shocking 4-point win.  Game 6 saw another punishing performance on the glass, another 21-10 double-double from Zach, 4 points for Nowitzki, and a 22-point victory in Portland.  The Blazers were now on the verge of doing something unprecedented and widely considered impossible:  coming back from an 0-3 deficit in a best-of-seven series.  Hopes were high among Blazer fans, especially given the crushing nature of the Game 6 victory.

Unfortunately for Portland Game 7 would prove a substantial letdown.  Randolph barely got off the launching pad, scoring 14.  Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace led the team in scoring with 17 each.  Dallas exposed Portland's defensive weakness at power forward and point guard with Nowitzki posting 31 and Nash 21.  The ultimate comeback bid fell short as the Blazers lost 95-107.

With the last dregs of disappointment downed to the full, it was time for the Whitsitt era to end.  The team announced that Trader Bob would step down as General Manager following the June draft.  His last significant act would be drafting another high school phenom:  Travis Outlaw.  He left behind a 50-win team, a perennial playoff participant, but also a roster in shambles and ready to explode, a public relations nightmare that was about to intensify, and a financial situation that the franchise would spend years digging out of.  The last, feeble clutch for the brass ring had ended in indignity and futility.  The free fall was about to begin.

Click through to relive the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons...

2003-2004

Record: 41-41

Coach:  Mo Cheeks

Additions:  Sharif Abdur-Rahim, Matt Carroll, Omar Cook, Dan Dickau, Kaniel Dickens, Desmon Ferguson, Eddie Gill, Darius Miles, Tracy Murray, Wesley Person, Theo Ratliff, Vladimir Stepania, Slavko Vranes

Subtractions:  Antonio Daniels, Chris Dudley, Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, Charles Smith

Draft:  Travis Outlaw (23rd pick), Nedzad Sinanovic (54th pick)

Leading Scorer:  Zach Randolph (20.1 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Zach Randolph (10.5 rpg)

Most Minutes:  Damon Stoudamire (38.0 mpg)

The Blazers entered the 2003-04 season under new management.  The team of Steve Patterson and John Nash, both veterans of NBA front offices:  Patterson serving with the Houston Rockets and Nash in Washington, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

By this point it had become apparent to even the most casual observer that the Blazers had no chance of returning to conference contention with the current roster.  Year after near new pieces had been grafted onto the same core.  None of them had taken well.  With each set of moves the talent level coming back became more speculative.  The same team that had parlayed Walt Williams, Kelvin Cato, and Isiah Rider (and more) into Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith in 1999 had been reversing that trend ever since, absorbing more and more B-level players in an attempt to cover lack of A-list talent with depth.

A by-product of this trend was the ever-increasing salary ledger.  Former stars like Kemp and Pippen commanded exorbitant rates.  Younger players were available for trade precisely because their current teams didn't feel they were worth the money they asked.  The Blazers had become a deli sandwich made out of overpriced ingredients that didn't mesh.  They sounded fancy on the menu but the shop down the street could give you one just as good for five bucks and without all the folderol.

The first task of the new regime was to sort out the team core.  From there they would attempt to streamline the supporting cast, losing expensive appendages and cutting the fat out of the payroll.  Gone were the days of gaudy veteran acquisitions.  "Value" was the word of the day.

The single greatest issue facing the organization was the expiring contract of Rasheed Wallace.  ‘Sheed had been the heart of the team for years.  Love him or hate him, the Blazers would not have enjoyed the success they did without him.  But Rasheed was dissatisfied with the organization, the public scrutiny, the media, and life in general in Portland.  He made it clear to management that he would not re-sign with the Blazers at the end of the year.  The roster shake-up was at hand.

The first tremor came on December 3rd when the Blazers moved Bonzi Wells to the Memphis Grizzlies for aging shooter Wesley Person and a first-round pick who would later become Sergei Monia.  A year ago neither would have been considered anywhere near sufficient compensation for a player of Wells' ability but Bonzi had worn out his welcome on the court and set fire to the welcome mat off of it.

The second tremor came on January 21st when Portland moved Jeff McInnis and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje to the Cleveland Cavaliers for forward Darius Miles.  Miles, then 22 and in his fourth year in the league, was a former high school draftee who had created considerable buzz while with the Clippers because of his athleticism and his potential to rebound, lead the break, and finish all by himself.  The Cavaliers had traded young point guard Andre Miller in order to obtain Miles, a deal which was rumored to have been made because of both players' dissatisfaction with their current situations and their current teams' mistrust of them despite their obvious talent.  Miles, used to the freewheeling Clippers offense, sunk like a lead-covered lead ball in a lead case in Cleveland.  Just two months into the season he had already earned the ire of new head coach Paul Silas, an old-school, tough-nosed former player.  His production was disappointing, his attitude grated, and the Cavaliers were happy to see him gone even though McInnis was no chemistry expert himself.

Then 18 days later the full quake hit.  Rasheed Wallace was traded to the Atlanta Hawks along with the recently-acquired Wesley Person for scoring forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, shot-blocking specialist Theo Ratliff, and hometown boy-made-good Dan Dickau.  Neither Abdur-Rahim nor Ratliff approached Sheed's talent level and impact individually but combined the package was considered reasonable...as much as a team over the barrel could expect.  In Portland the exchange was marketed as the dawn of a new philosophy where character counted along with talent.  Both Abdur-Rahim and Ratliff were considered model citizens.  The explanation for the move almost always included the burgeoning play of Zach Randolph who was expected to become a steady double-double power forward in the mold of Elton Brand, a #1 overall pick.  The move may have been lateral, perhaps a shade less, but it was both necessary and subtly advantageous...or so the explanation went.  The team had not won big since the start of the decade.  Rasheed's antics were legendary and his curtness with everyone outside his circle evident.  It didn't even look like he was trying anymore on the court either.  The first months of the season featured some of the biggest disappearances since the heyday of Isiah Rider and his pouting.  Few mourned Rasheed's departure.

On the surface the moves appeared to work just fine.  Miles was not a fundamental small forward in the mold of Pippen but whenever he got loose on the run he'd finish at the rim with spectacular dunks reminiscent of an even older, more cherished Blazer:  Jerome Kersey.  Miles' appearance also lessened the Blazers' dependence on Ruben Patterson, another player who had become a pariah with fans and routinely fought with the coaching staff as well.  Theo Ratliff also became an instant crowd pleaser with his blocks.  Shareef Abdur-Rahim seldom stood out but he was a competent scorer and rebounder.  It appeared that Portland's frontcourt was solidified and re-energized.

Those appearances masked deeper problems, however.  None of the new acquisitions were defensively apt.  Neither were most of the existing rotation players, including the entire backcourt and Randolph himself.  Ratliff's blocks were memorable and he could change games with them, but the fact that he was getting so many blocks meant that the Blazers as a whole were also allowing penetration down the lane.  No matter how good the shot-blocker, only a small portion of those attempts are actually swatted back.  The rest were just attempts at the rim...attempts that often succeeded.  In the space of five years Portland's defense had gone from sterling to reputable to average and now, a victim of Wallace's indifference and his replacements' inability, it just plain stunk.

What's more the offense, the hallmark of the turn-of-the-century Portland teams, turned out surprisingly mediocre.  Randolph was going great guns but Abdur-Rahim, clearly the best player acquired by the Blazers in the Wallace trade, struggled to produce in the same lineup as Zach.  Both liked to do the same things:  face-up from mid-range, post, dribble, use the lane, rebound.  They duplicated rather than complemented each other.  The veteran Abdur-Rahim resented being asked to change positions for young Randolph, much the way Wallace had vetoed the same plan when he was asked to play small forward beside Brian Grant years ago.  Any way you slice it, having your second best offensive player and the keystone of your once-a-decade deal fit poorly and underperform is a sure sign of trouble.

When all was said and done the new-look Blazers performed almost exactly the same as the Rasheed-led squad.  Portland went 24-25 with ‘Sheed, 17-16 after he left.  They ended up 41-41 overall, missing the playoffs for the first time in over two decades. 

Nevertheless, people were confident that the new era would hold more promise than pain.  With the frontcourt revamped attention could now be turned to the aging, mediocre backcourt.  Guards were always easier to come by than big men.  With a little spark at the small positions the big-man wood would surely kindle and burn for years to come.  The new players were younger, hungrier, and by all appearances more motivated than the old crew had become.  Things were looking up.

Management was so confident in their new direction that they began their era of fiscal prudence by offering center Theo Ratliff--the congenial shot-blocker--a new contract worth more than $50 million over 5 years.  It was a vote of confidence in, and a show of appreciation for, Theo himself but it also signaled to the team's fans and players that reward was still possible if you did the right things:  work hard, treat people right, not embarrass the franchise.  Darius Miles and Zach Randolph later signed lucrative deals.  Miles ranged from $7-8 million per year, Randolph between $10 and $15 million.  Combined the team committed around half of its salary cap to these three players.  The new leaf the franchise was turning was gilt with gold.  The frontcourt of the future was assured.

Ratliff, Miles, and Randolph were about the only people in the organization for whom the year would bring windfall, however.  Plummeting interest rates had made the once-acceptable loan on the Rose Garden ghastly and turned the franchise into a financial Superfund Site.  Paul Allen and the Blazers relinquished control of the arena to creditors in early 2004, setting up an acrimonious situation in which the team and arena management were frequently at odds.  Local businesses were caught in the middle.  Many long-time Blazer staffers were let go in order to save money.  Rumors swirled about the team moving.   Public relations were heading for a new low.  As it turned out the performance on the court would not be far behind.

2004-2005

Record: 27-55

Coach:  Mo Cheeks/Kevin Pritchard

Additions:  Maurice Baker, Geno Carlisle, Richie Frahm, Viktor Khryapa, Joel Przybilla, Ha Seung-Jin, Sebastian Telfair, James Thomas, Nick Van Exel

Subtractions:  Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, Matt Carroll, Omar Cook, Dale Davis, Dan Dickau, Kaniel Dickens, Desmon Ferguson, Eddie Gill, Jeff McInnis, Tracy Murray, Wes Person, Vladimir Stepania, Slavko Vranes, Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Qyntel Woods

Draft:  Sebastian Telfair (13th pick), Sergei Monia (23rd pick), Ha Seung-Jin (46th pick)

Leading Scorer:  Zach Randolph (18.9 ppg)

Leading Rebounder:  Zach Randolph (9.6 rpg)

Most Minutes:  Zach Randolph (34.8 mpg)

During the summer of 2004 the new management team clearly showed a break from the old Blazer philosophy by drafting a high-school phenom with no college experience.  This time, however, the phenom came equipped with his own movie.  Sebastian Telfair had been a New York legend since he was a kid.  His NBA passport was assured.  Only the destination remained in question.  As it turned out that destination was Portland.  The Blazers also picked up a couple of Russian stars in the late first round in the persons of Viktor Khryapa and Sergei Monia.  Their second-round selection was a Korean center with Yao Ming size and Gilligan coordination by the name of Ha Seung-Jin, a pet project of new GM John Nash.

The more interesting additions came via veteran moves, however.  The Blazers wanted to clean house.  They moved Dale Davis and Dan Dickau to the Golden State warriors for guard Nick Van Exel.  Van Exel was slated to split point guard and shooting guard duties behind Damon Stoudamire and Derek Anderson, pushing both laid-back players and providing a spark the team desperately needed in the backcourt.   John Nash's second pet project was a somewhat-overweight, injury-prone, and heretofore underperforming center originally drafted by the Bucks and now gaining spot duty in Atlanta by the name of Joel Przybilla.  Portland was clearly Przybilla's last chance in the league but Nash needed more big bodies and Przybilla's skill set was just what the team needed.

As it turned out Przybilla's acquisition would pay immediate dividends as the Frontcourt of the Future started unraveling before everyone's astonished eyes.  The first to stumble was Theo Ratliff who got injured and even when healthy saw his playing time, shooting percentage, shot attempts, blocks, and rebounds dwindle.  Eventually he lost his starting job to Przybilla completely.  Darius Miles had trouble cracking the starting lineup himself and spent about a quarter of the season injured.  When Zach Randolph also fell prey to knee injuries it appeared the team was snakebit.

Meanwhile Coach Cheeks, the consummate player's coach and nice guy, was having serious trouble keeping everyone happy and on the same page.  Ruben Patterson was a constant source of complaints, ratcheting up the volume every time he felt he didn't play enough.  Abdur-Rahim wanted a bigger role, a role which Randolph was unwilling to share.  Ratliff was underperforming.  Darius Miles dropped a racial epithet on Cheeks during a film-viewing sessions, a story which made national headlines.  Derek Anderson excused himself from practice and games because of toothaches.  Damon Stoudamire was quietly frustrated and lost, questioning his role in this mess as he had for years.  The team made Nick Van Exel look like a wise old sage when for much of his career people had questioned whether he was even sane.  Fans were upset at the off-court incidents, the on-court performance, the lack of playing time for young guys they assumed were more promising.  Everything crumbled at once.  Coach Cheeks was fired 55 games into the season after compiling a 22-33 record, a total which ensured that the Blazers would miss the playoffs again this year.  In his place came a young executive, a former Kansas point guard and minor league coach by the name of Kevin Pritchard.  Pritchard was not in the plans as a permanent replacement.  Rather he was to evaluate the roster, particularly the younger players, with an eye towards making the correct moves in the future.  Under Pritchard guys like Sebastian Telfair, Viktor Khryapa, and Ha Seung-Jin got more than a fair chance to show their stuff.  But Pritchard couldn't correct the defense of a lineup that featured Stoudamire, Telfair, Anderson, Van Exel, Miles, Abdur-Rahim, and Randolph.  The experimentation and interim status didn't do the offense any favors either.  The Blazers finished the season 5-22 for an unimaginable 27-55 record.  Inverting those numbers would have yielded a finish that most Blazer fans would have considered acceptable but not spectacular.  Winning fewer than 30 games just didn't happen to this franchise.

Between the record, the team's financial status, the lack of charismatic players, the disappointing performance of high-priced talent, reporting of chronic embarrassing off-court incidents even among this new batch of players (including among team leaders and stars), the relationship between the Blazers and the public had reached its nadir.  Nobody was wondering if the team could win a championship anymore.  Nobody was wondering if the team could get back to the playoffs even.  People were wondering whether the team would even survive.  Some were openly wondering if it should.  In the space of six years the franchise had gone from "12 minutes from the Finals" to the precipice of oblivion.  The team needed something, anything, to pick it up again.  The few fans who remained in the open desperately needed a reason to believe.

Fortunately several were coming right around the corner...

Next Time:  The slow rise to respectability.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)