View Full Version : Portland Trail Blazers: A cautionary tale

05-22-2006, 11:28 AM
Reading this article about the Blazers had me thinking about how things can turn and turn quickly for a franchise. I think this is a good warning to the Pacers. There is also some stuff in here about JO and his trade.

This is a rather long article, but I think it is worth taking the time. The similarities to the Pacers are quite striking to me.


Downward spiral begins

The Blazers' problems can be traced to the final quarter of a Game 7 loss in the 2000 conference finals

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Oregonian

Perhaps never before has one game -- and in particular, one quarter -- so stained an NBA franchise as that infamous fourth quarter from the Trail Blazers on a cloudless June day in Los Angeles in 2000.

As it turns out, the Blazers lost more than a trip to the NBA Finals that day. As an organization, they began to lose their way. So much so, that six years later, the Blazers find themselves heading to Tuesday's NBA draft lottery as the league's worst team, with massive financial losses, uncertain ownership and little hope of quick recovery.

A once-proud franchise, one that made 21 consecutive playoff appearances and was arguably one of the model organizations in all of sports, has become a laughingstock.

How did the Blazers get here?

Was it the regrettable trades, including one that sent away a future All-Star?

The questionable non-trades, which included turning down a deal for the most dominant center of this era?

The debatable financial decisions, including a $167 million spending spree in the summer of 2004 that still hounds the team?

Or was it the bad-boy characters who created such bad feelings that a die-hard fan base dwindled to financially crippling levels?

Those involved with the Blazers, both currently and in the past, have varying opinions of what, where and when things went wrong, probably because there are so many examples from which to choose.

The only consensus is that the Blazers have become so bad that no one wants to take responsibility.

"It's a shame," said Brian Grant, the rugged power forward who was the heart and soul of the Blazers during their back-to-back runs to the Western Conference finals. "There was a connection in this city between the team and the fans, and it's sorry to see that it's lost."

None of those questions seemed possible on that June day in Los Angeles. Not when Rasheed Wallace and Steve Smith were carving the Lakers defense. Not when Scottie Pippen was leading the charge, and not when Arvydas Sabonis was neutralizing Shaquille O'Neal.

The lead was 75-60 with 10:28 left.

The Blazers, seemingly, were headed to the Finals.

Then, it happened: A quarter, a game, and a franchise changed.

"What a weird ending," remembers Derek Fisher, a reserve guard for the Lakers in 2000 who now plays for Golden State. "But that's what's great about sports: That one moment, that one play, that one situation in time can alter the future. It changes people's lives, it changes a city." Road to fateful game

By the time Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals rolled around, Blazers fans were used to change.

After being swept by San Antonio in the conference finals the year before, general manager Bob Whitsitt did his own sweeping over the summer.

He traded Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson to Atlanta for shooting guard Smith, a deadly shooter with size who would play on the 2000 Olympic team.

Two months later, Whitsitt pulled off perhaps his greatest coup, sending six mostly nondescript Blazers to Houston in exchange for Scottie Pippen, who was nearing the end of his prime, but still had the championship elan and determination that helped Chicago win six NBA titles.

Whitsitt also traded for the draft rights to a bulky rookie named Bonzi Wells, and signed free agent veteran Detlef Schrempf.

The Blazers, with an NBA-high $74 million payroll, were built to win it all, and to do it now.

The moves worked, as a starting lineup of Damon Stoudamire at point guard, Smith at shooting guard, Pippen at small forward, Wallace at power forward and Sabonis at center -- coupled with a bench of Grant, Schrempf, Wells, Greg Anthony and Jermaine O'Neal -- bolted out of the gate to a 45-11 record.

The Blazers finished 59-23, the NBA's second best record that season, behind the Lakers, who went 67-15.

By the time both teams had reached the conference finals, the anticipation was palpable. The NBA's two best teams would go head to head for a trip to the finals, where the Western Conference champion would be a heavy favorite over Indiana.

After four games, Portland was down 3-1 and a smug Lakers coach Phil Jackson noted the Blazers were "at death's door."

A change to the Blazers' rotation, however, altered the series. Beginning with Game 5, Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy predominantly used a big lineup that featured moving Pippen from forward to point guard and using Wells, the bruising rookie, at small forward.

With the big lineup, the series turned. The Blazers won Game 5 in Los Angeles 96-88, then won 103-93 in the Rose Garden, with Pippen using the final seconds to confidently stride around the court with both arms raised, a moment captured in a photo that still hangs at the entrance to the Blazers' training room in Tualatin.

There would be a Game 7. Series ends in a quarter

"Back from the brink of elimination, to the brink of the NBA Finals . . . the Lakers have outscored Portland 25-4 in the last 9:50. Portland, which has played so well and with so much heart coming back from down 3-1, has picked a terrible time to experience an eight-point fourth quarter," said NBC commentator Bob Costas in the final minute of Game 7.

Six years later, Dunleavy can recite the Blazers' meltdown nearly play by play.

The Blazers led by 16 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but Brian Shaw banked in a three-pointer with four seconds left, cutting the Blazers lead to 71-58 heading into the fourth.

"I remember going to the bench, and I looked at the score, thinking, 'We couldn't lose if we wanted to,' " Stoudamire said.

Smith opened the quarter by making a running shot, and later, after Wells made two free throws, the Blazers led 75-60 with 10:28 left.

Then it unraveled.

Wallace, who had a dominant series and Game 7, missed six shots in a row. Smith, who had carried the Blazers in the third quarter, missed his next four shots. Pippen was 0 for 3. All told, the Blazers missed 13 consecutive shots.

"Typically, when you lose a big lead like that, you didn't execute your offense, but we got 13 shots -- 11 of them great, two of them just good," Dunleavy said.

The back breakers came in the final minutes. Wallace missed two free throws with 1:25 left and the Blazers trailing 81-79. Then, with the Blazers down four with 26 seconds left, Smith drove the lane and was sent to the floor by Shaquille O'Neal, without a call.

The series, and the dream, were over.

"That's it," Costas shouted in to the microphone at the final buzzer. "I'm not sure if the Lakers won, or if they escaped."

The Blazers were outscored 31-13 in the final quarter while making five of 23 shots. It was the largest comeback in the seventh game of a Western Conference finals.

Remarkably, Dunleavy says the game remains one of his all-time favorites because his substitution patterns and game plan worked as well as he could have expected.

"If I didn't coach the way I coached it, I would have jumped off a bridge," said Dunleavy, who now coaches, ironically, in the Staples Center with the Clippers. The wrong moves

In the course of one quarter, the power, and the pressure, had shifted.

As the losers of such an intense series, it was the Blazers who felt they needed to make moves to combat the Lakers' strengths, primarily the inside dominance of Shaquille O'Neal and the dynamic play of Kobe Bryant.

"When you are that close, the theory is you just make a couple changes and you can improve," Blazers owner Paul Allen recalled this spring.

Had the Game 7 outcome been different, perhaps the Lakers, who were exposed defensively at power forward, would have rebuilt to find an answer for the dominance of Wallace.

"There is a general rule of thumb in this game, that if you end up in second place in the NBA you probably stick with what you have been doing," Phil Jackson said last month. "But if you have a decided weakness, then you make your changes. But the key with that is that once people saw we were over the hump, we had reached a peak level. They had to change their style."

In the aftermath of the Game 7 loss, there were mixed messages about the Blazers' future.

Whitsitt was quoted as saying: "We have a really good team. One thing you don't want to do is start doing things to do things."

And Dunleavy said: "I am very happy with our team. We have a shot to win the title with this same group."

But by the end of the month, Grant opted out of the last four years of his contract, worth $40 million, and a disgruntled Jermaine O'Neal -- unhappy about limited playing time -- had decided he would boycott the team's summer league.

By the end of August, both would be traded in moves that arguably rival the 1984 drafting of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan as the worst in Blazers history.

Grant said he knew immediately after Game 7 that he had played his last game with the Blazers.

"After that series I could tell things were going to be on shaky ground," Grant said. "I knew Jermaine O'Neal was probably on his way out as far as being traded and I kind of had a feeling, that even if I stayed, I felt like their interests were in other players elsewhere and it was my time to leave."

Grant's decision put Whitsitt in a tight spot. He was caught between letting a player get away for nothing or making a trade that could keep the Blazers in what he called "the championship window."

Whitsitt's first move was to offer Grant a seven-year, $70 million deal, which Grant rejected.

Three days after the rejection, Whitsitt convinced Allen to deal Grant in a three-team trade that would bring Shawn Kemp, a former All-Star who was on the downside of his career, from Cleveland to Portland.

Allen says Whitsitt lobbied hard for Kemp, thinking the 31-year-old could rekindle the years when he played above the rim and was known as the "Reign Man" in Seattle. Whitsitt, however, says the move was endorsed by the entire coaching staff, which Whitsitt sent to Las Vegas for a week to work out Kemp.

The trade was a flop, as an overweight Kemp reported to Portland and never rekindled his glory years in Seattle, averaging 6.3 points in two seasons with the Blazers, which included his entering a drug rehabilitation clinic for cocaine abuse.

Today, Whitsitt says he wishes he would have let Grant walk, without worrying about getting something in return.

In addition to the Grant issue, a controversy that had been brewing throughout the 1999-2000 season began to surface.

Jermaine O'Neal, a talented 22-year-old post taken out of high school in the 1996 draft, was increasingly upset at his lack of playing time.

O'Neal wasn't the only one upset. On more than one occasion, Allen entered Dunleavy's office before a game to demand that O'Neal play more. Despite the owner's wishes -- and standout practices from O'Neal -- the future star averaged only 12 minutes in 1999-2000 as he was stuck behind Wallace, Grant, Sabonis and Schrempf.

"The guys who were there understood the talent he was," Grant said. "We were playing the games, but he was killing us in practice. And you felt bad for him; but at the same time, you were like 'I want to play, too.'

"Me and 'Sheed used to have conversations with him, telling him to keep his head up, 'Don't give up, your time will come.' But it's hard to hear that at that age, especially when you are coming into practice and busting guys up, and then those same guys are going out and busting people down, getting all the accolades."

Whitsitt, frustrated at Dunleavy's insubordination, and sympathetic to O'Neal's request to be traded, starting looking for a deal.

One day after the Grant trade, the Blazers sent O'Neal to Indiana for veteran center Dale Davis, who was coming off an All-Star season.

The next season, O'Neal began the first in a string of stellar seasons, averaging 12.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and tying for the NBA lead in blocks. The next season he would be named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the first of four All-Star appearances. Davis, meanwhile, made modest contributions to the Blazers, but never enough for the team to win another playoff series.

They are moves that still haunt Allen.

"Oh yeah, in retrospect I regret both," Allen said this spring. "But Bob argued very strongly to make both of those moves. I was frustrated about Jermaine because I lobbied every way I knew how to get Jermaine playing time, and the coaching staff wasn't receptive to it. You could just see the potential there. And of course, Bob Whitsitt had big hopes that Shawn Kemp would return to form and be the monster player he was at the top of his game.

"But of course, that didn't happen at all."

Both moves rankled Dunleavy -- in particular the O'Neal trade.

"I didn't want to do the deal," Dunleavy said. "The bottom line is I was told they were doing the deal because it was my fault that I wouldn't play Jermaine. I said, 'You are out of your mind.' . . . I said within two years he would be our starting center. Sabonis would be retired -- 'He'll be totally happy, he's a great kid, it will totally blow over.'

"I said 'He's not running the show, we are running the show.' But, we did it."

For Allen, it would be a hard lesson.

"Sometimes you make moves like that when you are close to a championship, but longer term they are not the right moves," Allen said. "Trading youth for veterans . . . you have to be careful when you do it." Stars don't align

Despite the controversial trades, the Blazers' mind-set hadn't changed entering the 2000-01 season. They adopted a slogan of "One Team, One Dream," suggesting that the overload in talent of the team's NBA-record $89 million payroll could overcome personal agendas to unite for a title.

And for a while, it worked.

The Blazers sprinted to a 42-18 record, and on March 3 they held the top record in the Western Conference.

Then, one team's dream became a nightmare.

The Blazers imploded down the stretch, losing 14 of their final 22 games, to finish 50-32. In the season's final six weeks, the Blazers dropped from the top seed to the seventh.

The buzzword throughout the free fall became "chemistry," as the collection of former All-Stars, Olympians and lottery picks never could adhere to that "One Team, One Dream" slogan.

Smith, one of the most accomplished players on the roster, and coming off a summer appearance in the Olympics, was demoted to the bench in December in favor of Wells, a move that divided the locker room.

In January, Schrempf was brought back to the team out of retirement when Pippen went down with an elbow injury. Schrempf agreed to come back, but only under the condition that he could miss practices when he wanted to spend time with his family in Seattle. Again, the move splintered the locker room, which had nothing against Schrempf but didn't find the preferential treatment fair.

Then, on March 5, Whitsitt claimed Rod Strickland off waivers from Washington, crowding a point guard position that already featured Stoudamire as the starter and Anthony as the reserve. Stickland's addition also ended a developing trend of using Pippen extensively at point guard, which had resulted in five wins in a row.

Whitsitt says he didn't want Strickland but made the move to appease the coaching staff, which wanted an insurance policy at point guard.

On March 6, the night after the Strickland signing, the Blazers celebrated Clyde Drexler's No. 22 jersey being retired. The Blazers lost 105-97 to a Vancouver Grizzlies team that would win 23 games that season.

"A lot of us guys still talk, and we always think back to that game when they honored Clyde," Stoudamire said. "It was never the same from that point forward.

"What people don't understand is that basketball is all about chemistry." It's not those players' fault, but what happened in the locker room after that, it messed everything up. It wasn't so much Rod -- people kind of accepted the fact Rod came in -- but when Detlef came back, guys didn't understand because it was like he was on a special plan."

What's more, Stoudamire said, players didn't think the team needed changes.

"We were like 42-18 -- what do we need? Why are we making changes and tinkering with this team?" he said.

The increasing losses down the stretch were made worse in the final 10 days of the regular season. Kemp entered drug rehabilitation, Wells blew out his left knee and Wallace was suspended for the final game after throwing a towel in Sabonis' face during a timeout in a nationally televised game on Easter Sunday against the Lakers. After that game, Wallace charged at Dunleavy in the locker room, but never reached the coach as teammates restrained him.

A team supposedly set on a dream headed into the playoffs in turmoil.

And worse yet, their playoff opponent was a familiar nemesis: the defending champion Lakers.

The series was never close, as the Lakers won by 13, 18 and 13 in a decisive sweep.

"I'm a strong believer in team chemistry," Schrempf said after the season-ending loss. "You can have a lot of talent, but you can't just throw it out there and win. It's pretty embarrassing. The playoffs were an accumulation of the last six weeks of the season: We basically fell apart."

Jason Quick: 503-221-4372;

jasonquick@news.oregonian.com To read his and Mike Tokito's Behind the Beat blog, go to www.oregonlive.com/ weblogs/blazersoregonian/

05-22-2006, 11:45 AM
Just another reason I don't care for Dunleavy. When Grant opted out, he should have gone to JO and made nice, promising him big minutes. Problem is, he'd already promised him big minutes the previous year, when he re-signed, and didn't deliver, so Jermaine probably wouldn't have listened.

05-22-2006, 12:51 PM
You mean TALE. Unless somebody's got a scary butt I don't know about.


Will Galen
05-22-2006, 12:56 PM
The similarities to the Pacers are quite striking to me.

I thought so too. Good find Uncle.

05-22-2006, 01:52 PM
Good read, thanks for posting it UB

05-22-2006, 03:31 PM
The parallels and similarities are apalling:

Blazers fell apart after going 59-23, losing to the Lakers in 2000 WCF
Pacers fell apart after going 61-21, losing to the Pistons in 2004 ECF

Blazers slogan: One Team, One Dream
Pacers slogan: One Goal

Blazers retired Drexler's # and lost the game
Pacers retired Miller's # and lost the game

Blazers' team rep damaged by individual misbehavior
Pacers' team rep damaged by the brawl

Blazers: evident discord between head office and coaching staff
Pacers: evident discord between head office and coaching staff

Blazers locker room: bad chemistry
Pacers locker room: bad chemistry

EDITED: (thanks to Jermaniac for the correction)


Some of those factors are just anecdotal, but the whole picture is really a caution to Indiana. What did Portland do wrong, that Indiana can avoid? It seems like the lessons are:

1. Don't trade youth for suspect aging talent (Kemp, Davis)
2. Don't take the locker room problems lightly
3. Don't fail to supply a team the fans can support
4. Don't make trades just to preserve value (Brian Grant)
5. Don't "Fall in love with talent"

05-22-2006, 05:54 PM
We lost to the Pistons in 6

05-22-2006, 06:11 PM
Thanks for the article, UB. I read the Oregonian fairly regularly. I've even got into it a bit with Jason Quick via e-mails. (He's written some extremely homerish stuff.) I hadn't read this yet.

I'm not a fan of the Blazers. Never have been, but I've found them pretty fascinating for years, in terms of team dynamics.

I started really paying attention to them when they got JR Rider and Rasheed. I thought that was an interesting tandem, in terms of chemistry. Then you pick up guys like Shawn Kemp, Qyntel Woods, Zach Randolph. They set up a culture of knuckleheadedness that turned into a sort of institutionalization.

What amazes me is that they haven't dumped the last vestiges of the Jailblazers: Darius Miles and Zach Randolph. As long as those guys are still on the roster, the potential for maintining status quo stupidity will remain.

Relating this to the Pacers, that's why I think we MUST trade Tinsley and Jackson. I know both players have their fans, but I feel the general consensus is that they separhead the disruptive influence in the lockerrom and on-court.

To this day, I don't think Bob could have seen that trading JO was a mistake. How could he? There are lots of great practice players who's talent doesn't translate to the court. (I'll leave it at that. )

The mistake was banking on Kemp (come-on!) and giving Detlepf preferential treatment.

Relating back to us, look at how Stephen Jackson gets some wierd sort of preferential treatment. Think that doesn't grate on some in the lockeroom?

Bob Whitset gets slammed and derisively called "Trader", but the guy knows how to make some moves. He just let emotion overcomes senes at times and that was his downfall.

I'm afraid we are going to err on the side of being to conservative and in doing so, fail to cut all the cancer out, like Portland, and set ourselves up for continued failure.

05-22-2006, 06:14 PM
Also exposes the problems Sheed has with Mike Dunleavy. Seems like every time the Pistons play the Clippers, they have words. Obviously stems back from their Portland days, and not just because of some gimmick.

05-22-2006, 06:47 PM
Sheed always hated Dunleavy. He hates the intentional foul strategy with a passion, stemming back to the 2000 WCF.

05-24-2006, 05:44 AM
So basically if you could do everything over again:

Let Grant walk instead of getting Kemp
Keep Jermaine and make sure to give him big minutes instead of getting Kemp
Don't bring Detlef Shrempf back
Keep Steve Smith as the starter
Don't bring in Strickland

kind of funny how everything could be different now if they had just done that instead of making little mistakes like bringing in strickland+schrempf+kemp.

05-24-2006, 07:45 AM
So basically if you could do everything over again:

Let Grant walk instead of getting Kemp
Keep Jermaine and make sure to give him big minutes instead of getting Kemp
Don't bring Detlef Shrempf back
Keep Steve Smith as the starter
Don't bring in Strickland

kind of funny how everything could be different now if they had just done that instead of making little mistakes like bringing in strickland+schrempf+kemp.

I don't think it's what they did, it's how they did it. They gave Detlef preferential treatment, which chafed the rest of the team. They gave Steve Smith's starting job away with no explaination or massaging of egos. Rod Strickland was brought in as an insurance policy, but then they ended up giving him major minutes, taking away from Greg Anthony.

It wasn't that the moves were that bad, but rather, they botched the execution.

If Rod was brought in as a third PG, then give him low minutes and make him earn his spot.

Tell Detlef to suck it up and practice/play like the rest of the team, or we'll get someone else. Handle the Bonzi/Smith transition better. The Kemp move was a stupid risk, in my book, and who coujld have know Jermaine was going to be as good as he was.