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With the departure of Bob Whitsitt in the Summer of 2003 Trail Blazers fans looked for a reprieve from the chaotic whirlwind that seemed to have engulfed their team. Just three years after the heady days of 2000 the Blazers were lost, adrift in a maze of bad character, selfish play, playoff impotence, and media relations disasters. Owner Paul Allen called upon two veteran front office executives to set the team back on course. President Steve Patterson was a second-generation manager who made his name in Houston with both the Texans and the Rockets. General Manager John Nash was a grizzled ex-Sixer, Net, and Bullet. Allen gave the pair three directives:
- Cut costs.
- Improve team character.
- Keep the team competitive.
These seem fairly straightforward until you consider that in 2003 Portland was known for its incredibly bloated cap load and utter lack of character, plus the Blazers were barely competitive in the first place. If you'd like to simulate the difficulty of this tripartite command try this simple experiment: Pat your head. Simultaneously rub your tummy with your other hand. Now jump on top of the moon. Did you manage it? Neither did Patterson and Nash.
At any given time Portland management could handle two of the three directives. Each move they made failed in at least one area, however. The failure zone kept switching with each transaction. Sometimes they'd blow the money aspect, sometimes character, sometimes talent. The result was a tepid mush, solving none of the problems they had inherited.
The first three moves of the Summer of 2003 involved shedding ballast. The Blazers jettisoned Antonio Daniels, Scottie Pippen, and Arvydas Sabonis in short order. While none were providing a serious competitive edge all three were popular. Portland fans' perception of the team did not improve.
The big summer signings after that were an aging Tracy Murray and Euro-forward Vladimir Stepania. Both were cheap and neither would embarrass the franchise but neither one was going to make a difference to the win-loss total either. This was indeed a far cry from the Whitsitt years.
An all-too-familiar cast of Blazers (minus some big names from the good years) started the 2003-04 season in all-too-familiar fashion, hanging right around .500. The happy news came from Zach Randolph. With a huge infusion of minutes courtesy of his playoff performance against Dallas the year before Z-Bo was pouring in 20 per game, leading the team. This was balanced by diminished play from Rasheed Wallace. Always mercurial, 'Sheed turned downright sour in '03-'04. His tirades didn't even have a purpose anymore. He'd go off at random intervals, shocking fans and teammates alike. He began making noise in interviews, inferring that he'd rather be somewhere else...a viable threat since his contract was expiring. Worse, his play indicated he'd already departed. Like Isaiah Rider of old, Rasheed would check out during large portions of games, standing flat-footed and watching rebounds, refusing to take shots that he would have hit with ease in years past. Portland's love-hate relationship with their best player turned solidly to "hate". The loss of production from the old guard muted any gains earned by the new. Thus the Blazers lost as much as they won.
On December 3rd, 2003 Nash and Patterson made their next move. They shipped Bonzi Wells, until this season Portland's second-best player, to Memphis for veteran sniper Wesley Person and a mid-level 2004 first-round pick. Person was a more-than-likable guy but even stellar three-point shooting didn't put him near the talent level of Wells and everybody knew it. The antipathy Bonzi had garnered was so great that most fans were happy to see him gone no matter who was coming back in return. But the move also tipped management's hand. They were not here to reinvigorate this team; they were here to tear it apart. This wasn't a remodel, rather slash and burn.
Now absent Wells, the team slipped below .500. Their play wasn't so much awful as inconsistent. They'd win or lose regardless of opponent. Some nights they were on, others not. It seemed like the players themselves were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Who was next to go?
That drop came on January 21st, 2004 when the Blazers moved Jeff McInnis and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje to Cleveland for Darius Miles. The 6'9" small forward had always tantalized with his hops and speed but had not fulfilled his potential with the Clippers or Cavaliers. He immediately became known in Portland for his thunderous dunks...an instant crowd favorite. It looked like the headhunters had paused in their scalp-taking to actually add talent to the team. Portland fans applauded.
The arrival of Miles couldn't dispel the sense of uneasiness around the team, however. As the weeks progressed all eyes turned to Rasheed Wallace. His discontent was obvious to all, as was the resolve of the headhunters. Everyone within 300 miles could see the axe coming. After he responded to the six-billionth post-game question about his status with "just CTC [cut the check], baby" most of Portland was ready to ride him out of town on a rail. The move happened on February 9th, 2004. The Blazers traded Wallace and the just-acquired Person to Atlanta for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau. Ironically the king of Portland's rage circus received word about the deal while attending a live WWE event in the Rose Garden. Just like that, the most prominent player in the last decade was history.
Rasheed would be moved immediately after to Detroit where he would win a championship as part of a star-studded team, more cohesive and organic than he had seen in Portland. The Blazers, meanwhile, struggled to fit their new hodgepodge of talent.
Abdur-Rahim was a sweet scoring power forward who worked well facing up or in the post. His rebounding was a little light but he could notch 20 without breaking a sweat. Ratliff was a one-dimensional shot-blocking center but he'd change the course of a game with those blocks. It didn't take too many quintuple-swat evenings for Blazer fans to take to him despite his lack of offense or post defense ability. Dickau was an automatic hit with fans, having grown up in the area as a fan of the team. The Blazers had hit the jackpot in the character/popularity department. They also began to win more, nursing a 17-24 record up to a healthy 41-37. This looked good!
Wise observers noted, however, that the Blazers were capable of beating up on weak sisters but regularly fell to tougher teams. Four consecutive losses against playoff-bound teams to end the season sealed Portland's fate. They finished 41-41, 10th in the conference, two games out of the playoffs. A 21-year run was over. For the first time since 1982 the Blazers would not play in the post-season.
Just as his team exited the limelight owner Paul Allen re-entered it. On February 27th, 2004 the Oregon Arena Corporation--parent company of the Rose Garden Arena--declared bankruptcy. Allen had financed the arena project in an earlier era when interest rates were near quadruple the early-2000's level. The contract forbade early repayment. Allen was stuck paying an outrageous sum on a building whose primary tenant was drawing record low numbers. Bankruptcy was his way out. Outrage swelled from several quarters. Small business creditors would not be paid for services rendered at the arena, hurting mom and pop operations. Among other things the huge creditors depended on Allen's payments to fund pensions. They began crowing about retirees doing without benefits. The local media took up the "stingy billionaire" chant. Allen's name was mud. The play of the Blazers provided no distraction...indeed worsened the situation. When the franchise began laying off employees as a cost-cutting measure fans turned to full revolt. On-court or off, the Blazers became a taboo subject. When conversation did arise derision reigned. Once proudly-worn jerseys disappeared into closets. Sports radio stations slotted the team fifth in the discussion rotation behind college football, college basketball, the NFL, and whatever other story they could dig up for the day. The Blazers were dead in a town that once embraced them.
The 2003-04 season would be remembered for management controversies, draconian cuts, and for who left the team more than who joined or number of wins. Despite the disappointment--from the arena situation to not making the playoffs--many thought the Blazers were about to turn a corner on the court. With Wallace and Wells shown the door the Jailblazer era was over. They had been replaced by favorites like Randoph and Miles, Ratliff and Abdur-Rahim. The backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Derek Anderson wasn't as impressive as once expected, but at least they weren't embarrassing. Things were looking up, especially when you considered that the by-product of missing the playoffs was Portland's first-ever lottery selection in the upcoming draft.
Little did Blazer fans know that five out of the six names just mentioned were about to enter the doghouse and the lottery pick would not only be underwhelming, it would have ramifications that would haunt the team for years. The light at the end of the tunnel was a 92-car locomotive. It would flatten an already-weakened franchise almost beyond their ability to recover.
Next Up: The Darkest Days
It's kind of like drinking a bowl of rancid soup, but go ahead and share your memories of these days in the comment section if you wish.