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At the start of the NBA season there were still a few constants in life. Breathing. Death. Taxes. And a combustible Portland Trail Blazers team.
Blazers GM John Nash has been working furiously to try to change the image of the Blazers. He spent the last few months cleaning house and evicting some of the Blazers' most infamous residents.
Bonzi "The Spitter" Wells was shipped to Memphis for Wesley Person and a first-round pick. The Cavs agreed to send Darius Miles for Jeff McInnis. The Hawks sent two talented, stand-up guys -- Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff-- for one talented, seriously troubled guy -- Rasheed Wallace.
NashIn the space of three months, Nash managed to turn the Blazers from Bad News to Good News and has played to rave review among his peers. Several GMs used words like "remarkable" and "extraordinary" to describe the job Nash has done so far in Portland. The team rattled off a streak of five wins after the last trade, and hope sprung anew from the ashes of what once was the Jail Blazers.
"We have been down so long; but with the changes we have made with the trades, it has just given us new life," coach Maurice Cheeks told reporters recently. "The new guys have given us some energy, and they see that something special could happen. It has just been a breath of fresh air."
The new additions couldn't be more different from the selfish, defensively challenged Blazers of old. Abdur-Rahim agreed to come off the bench for the first time in his career in an effort to make third-year forward Zach Randolph more comfortable. Ratliff's shot blocking has given the team a new defensive identity that fans can resonate with.
"Words can't explain what he [Ratliff] does for us," Anderson said. "He alone changes the outcome of every game we will play in."
When Wallace returns to Portland tonight expect the focus to be on the Blazers' turbulent past and their more harmonious present. The cancer is in remission and that's reason enough to celebrate. But until Nash finds a way to cut it all the way out, the community of once faithful Blazers fans will remain wary.
Cutting the Cap
Despite the serious changes made to the team, the fans are still, for the most part, staying away. Last season the Blazers averaged 19,420 in attendance at home games. This year that number is down to 16,208. Since the trade deadline that number has actually slightly decreased to 16,154.
Once one of the hottest tickets in the NBA, they now rank 24th out of 29 teams based on their ability to fill their own arena. Season ticket sales aren't doing any better, and the Oregonian recently reported that only seven of the 47 owners of the arena's luxury suites have said they will renew leases after their seasonal expiration.
Nash told Insider that while the team has yet to see any increased revenue from the fans, the flood of e-mails and calls the team received after the Wallace trade ran about 85 to 90 percent in favor of the move. Nash also claims that, while they haven't seen the increase in tickets or luxury box sales, one important revenue stream, sponsors, have come back in force since the trade.
The Blazers' makeover won't be complete until Damon Stoudamire (right) has left town.
Nash knows that he's just beginning the rebuilding project -- not finishing it. Players like Dale Davis, Damon Stoudamire, Qyntel Woods and Ruben Patterson are still around representing the Hard Knock Blazers of yesteryear.
Nash worked the phones desperately before the trade deadline trying to cut a deal that got all of the bad seeds off the roster. A three-way trade with Seattle and the Raptors fell through that would've gotten rid of Davis. Patterson was pursued by the Knicks. Stoudamire was . . . well, pretty unmovable. Woods, according to sources, almost got shipped to New Jersey. The Nets were offering Brandon Armstrong. The Blazers wanted Zoran Planinic. The Nets balked and Woods stayed put.
"We still have players who have been involved in troublesome behavior left on our roster," Nash told Insider. "I think it's safe to say that you'll be seeing more changes in the future."
Nash's charge this summer will be to finish what he started this winter. The team's payroll goes from a whopping $82 million down to a much more palatable $68 million next season. When you factor in the fact that there will likely be no luxury tax in 2004-05, the Blazers are looking at almost $40 million in savings next season.
With Stoudamire, Davis, Abdur-Rahim, Ratliff and Randolph all in the last year of their contracts in '05, the Blazers will have two very important options.
One, the team can try to move an expiring contract or two (always a valuable commodity with or without the luxury tax) for another proven player who fits the vision of the franchise.
The other option is to let contracts expire and hit the 2005 free-agent market with a boat load (around $25 million) of cap space available. Right now, Nash claims that his preference is to clear the cap space.
"We have the ultimate flexibility right now and I doubt we'll do anything to jepordize that," Nash told Insider when asked about the possibility of extending Abdur-Rahim's or Ratliff's contract or swapping an expiring contract for a player with more years left on his deal.
"The plan all along is to get the cap room and maintain our flexibility. I haven't seen anything yet that makes me think we're changing it."
Apperances can be deceiving, however. To get that $25 million under the cap in '05, the Blazers wouldn't be able to re-sign any of their players.
Re-signing Randolph is a priority, meaning that he'll eat into some of the room. The team has also fallen in love with Ratliff and would consider offering him a contract extension if he can stay healthy. Factor in two first-round picks this year (their own and the Grizzlies') and another first-rounder next summer and the Blazers' cap room will be much closer to $10-15 million, not the $25 million they are projecting.
How do the Blazers get better this summer? Insider takes a look in the first of on ongoing series on what the offseason holds for a handful of NBA teams.
Blazers' Summer Blueprint
Ultimately for Nash to succeed he has to figure out a way to put a winner on the floor that connects with the fans. Good citizens and a lousy record won't win back fans. Neither will the same crew of misfits with a good record.
Nash's ability to change the team's culture will be as important as anything else he does this summer. With Rasheed and Bonzi gone, part of the work is done. But until Stoudamire, in particular, is also shown the door, there are still too many vestiges of the Jail Blazers for Nash to convince fans that the team has changed their ways.
DRAFT: The team has the Grizzlies' first-round pick as long as it's not in the top three. If things stay the way they are right now, the Blazers would end up with the 14th (their own) and 23rd (Grizzlies') pick in the draft. The draft is pretty weak on impact players, but long on young international and high school big men who could contribute down the road.
Most of the team's position issues can be addressed via trades and free agency, meaning that the team can take some chances, as it did with high school phenom Travis Outlaw, looking to hit a home run two or three years down the road. Among the top players who could be available to them in that range: Russian 7-foot-1, high school forward Ivan Chiraev, Wisconsin point guard Devin Harris, high school point guard Sebastian Telfair and Stanford versatile small forward Josh Childress
Portland Trail Blazers
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
57 9.8 4.3 2.0 .461 .618
FREE AGENCY: The team's first big decision will be what to do with Miles. He's shown a lot of promise in Portland, and if they can get him inked at a reasonable number, he's worth the risk. Nash declined to discuss whether the team would make Miles an offer, but he sounded like the team was interested. "We like him," Nash told Insider. "He's been a plesant surprise on the defensive end. I think he's been a good fit."
The team will also have its mid-level exception. If the Blazers could land a veteran point guard or sharp shooter at the two, they might be willing to spend the money.
"We need to upgrade and improve our backcourt," Nash told Insider. "We probably have one too many forwards and one or two too few guards." With Stoudamire's future in Portland in doubt, point guard or a combo guard would seem like the way to go. They had a lot of interest in Brent Barry before the trade deadline. He could be a very good fit there.
TRADES: Expect Nash to be busy. Stoudamire ($12.5 million) and Davis ($10.1 million) are much easier to move now that they're in the last year of their contracts. Nash has made it clear that he won't take back bad contracts in return. However, he won't mind taking back the right contract if it helps build his team. He knows Davis, in particular, wants to be traded and he said he'll try to accommodate him.
"I think Dale would like to be in a situation where he is able to play or contend, and I respect that," Nash said. "But it's not my job to put him in that position. It's my job to do what is best for the organization. When players take long-term, secure contracts, they really give up control of the future in exchange for what is a wonderful financial reward."
Nash told reporters just after the trade deadline he received interest in Davis from six teams before the trade deadline, but the offers involved the Blazers inheriting long-term contracts.
"And I have made it clear that we are not going to take long (contracts) in exchange for short (contracts)," Nash said.
The other player he's going to have to make a decision on is Abdur-Rahim ($14.6 million). Right now he's fine coming off the bench, but that's not a long-term solution for the Blazers. He and Randolph play the same position and the team can't afford to have them both on the roster in the long run. If Randolph is the future of the franchise, then Nash needs to try to move Abdur-Rahim for more talent in the backcourt or at small forward.
There were a number of teams interested in Abdur-Rahim before the deadline, including the Sonics and Knicks. If the team feels that Abdur-Rahim is a better fit, Nash shouldn't have a problem packaging Randolph along with either Davis, Stoudamire or Patterson to get another young, talented player in return.
COACHING STAFF: There's another issue here. Maurice Cheeks endeared a lot of Portland fans to him when he stepped in to help a young girl sing the national anthem. But how good of a coach is he? Quietly, some Blazer brass wonder if Cheeks hasn't been part of the problem in Portland. With the Sixers' coaching job vacant and Cheeks still wanting to return home -- will they let him go to Philly and try to bring in a taskmaster like Jim O'Brien to blast away the final residue of the Blazers of old?
Whatever Nash decides to do, you can be sure that the Blazers will be much more agressive this summer than they were last year.
"Whenever you have a team that is a middling team, you have to be open to changes," Nash told Insider. "I still think we have a lot to do and will be aggressive this summer in trying to improve this basketball team both on and off the court."
"Last year Steve [Patterson] and I didn't want to come out guns a blazing," Nash added. "We respected that this had been a 50 win team and wanted to get all the information we could before we started making moves. That didn't give us enough time to do what we wanted before the deadline. Now I think we have a very clear plan about what needs to happen here and we're going to do it."
Around the League
Darko or Carmelo? There's a slew of stories today about the ongoing controversy over the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony. Why? Darko's in Denver, so it's time for Nuggets beat writers to gloat a little bit and for Pistons writers to shake their heads once again and ask, what the hell was Joe Dumars thinking?
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
19 1.3 0.8 0.2 .280 .579
Judging from the flood of e-mails I still get on the subject from readers, I'm assuming you're still not over it. I understand the perception that Darko is a bust when you look at his statistics and DNP's, but really . . . why can't the media wrap their arms around what's going on here?
Dumars said from day one that the kid probably wouldn't play much this year. They drafted for the future and felt like a 7-foot, 18-year-old kid with his skill set comes along once every 10 years. Good small forwards (Carmelo is a very good one) come along almost every year. I was around Detroit quite a bit before the draft last year and I can tell you that there was little or no hesitation on Dumars' or the Pistons' part. Darko was the guy. I think, had the Nuggets gotten the No. 2 pick, they too would've taken him.
There's also little question that had Carmelo went to Detroit he'd be averaging far less than the 20 ppg he does in Denver. I'm sure he would've gotten more time than Darko, but with Chauncey, Rip and company I think 12 to 13 ppg would've been more like it. Had Darko went to Denver? I think a 10-12 ppg and 6-7 rpg average would've been possible there. Had that happened, would this controversy ever have existed?
I've also spent some time around the team this season. I've watched it practice, talked extensively with Larry Brown and with Darko's teammates. I think his teammates genuinely think he's going to be great. I think the pouting from Darko hasn't stopped him from being the first guy in the practice gym every day. His relationship with Ben Wallace is going to pay dividends for him. Playing against and working out with a guy like that every day has to make you better.
Despite the fact that Brown is on Darko's butt on every play . . . there is no question that he looks really good in practice. In games? It's impossible to judge in two-minute spurts. Anyone can look good or bad for a stretch like that.
To me the most interesting question is what happens to Darko if the Pistons find a way to re-sign both Mehmet Okur and Rasheed Wallace this summer? With those two in the fold along with Ben Wallace and Elden Campbell, there just isn't going to be any playing time for Darko next year either. There's no question that for Darko to improve, he has to start getting meaningful time in games next season. If Okur and the two Wallaces each average 32 minutes a game, there are no minutes left for Darko.
I know Dumars loves depth and is committed to being patient with Darko. But if the team decides to go that direction and bring back both Okur and Wallace, I think Dumars will have to at least consider whether to move Darko if it gets an unbelievable offer for him this summer. So many GMs in the league are still high on this guy and are in such need of a young big . . . what if they offered an all-star in return?
Of course, the question is moot if the Pistons can't re-sign both guys. Then there's no way they let Darko go. Okur will be easy to re-sign because the team has enough money under the cap to really make that happen. Wallace will be tougher. He's still seriously considering the Knicks and, depending on what Okur can command on the free-agent market, the Pistons may not have enough cash left to make Wallace an offer he can't refuse. Still, it's interesting to think about.
Blount bolting Boston? Celtics center Mark Blount has had a breakout year in Boston, relatively speaking. His 9.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg averages may look pretty average, but for a young, athletic 7-footer, almost every GM in the league will take it.
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
62 9.3 6.2 1.0 .555 .727
Recently, he's been much better than the numbers suggest. He had a 28-point, 21-rebound performance the other night that was, frankly, stunning. The team didn't run a single play for him and he still managed those numbers. There aren't 10 centers in the league capable of doing that even once a year. His 17.2 ppg and 12.4 rpg average in his last five games is pretty amazing for a guy like this.
Blount should be one of the pieces that Boston builds around, but the Celtics know they are going to have a tough time keeping him. Blount can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He's due to make just a little over a million dollars next year. That's chump change for guy his size in the league.
Will he be getting his money from Boston or somewhere else? Celtics V.P. Danny Ainge wants him back.
"Mark Blount has had a great year," Ainge told the Boston Globe. "I would hope that Mark would want to stay in Boston. It's a great opportunity for him. He has had a great year and enhanced his quality of play. He has improved. He feels comfortable here. I'm sure there are questions that Mark will have for us and questions that we will have for him."
However, for Ainge to lock him up, Blount will have to accept the Celtics' mid-level exception. If the Celtics use it on Blount, that essentially ends their chances of adding another significant piece via free agency this summer.
That also assumes that Blount will accept it. He's been outspoken about the changes in Boston and sounds like a guy who wants out.
"I'll be looking at all the options," Blount told the Globe. "It has been a long year. It's just unfortunate all the trades and everything that happened. People finally got to see what I can do, but look at everything else. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It has been a long year."
With so many teams looking for a young, athletic 7-footer who can play center -- Miami, Orlando, New York, Memphis, Indiana, New Jersey, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, Charlotte and Denver all come to mind -- he's going to be popular. Probably too popular for Ainge and the Celtics to have a real shot at re-signing him.
Waiver wire work: Teams are still jockeying in an attempt to land a few free agents who were waived by their teams last week. The Knicks appear to be the front-runners in the Vin Baker sweepstakes if an arbitrator rules today that Baker is free to sign with a team. The NBA sent a letter to all 29 NBA teams on Tuesday explaining to them that they could not sign Baker. The union is appealing. The Heat are the other darkhorse in the Baker race.
It appears that Brevin Knight is likely heading to Milwaukee. The Raptors are leaning toward asking Rod Strickland to try to help the team sort out their point guard mess. Lonny Baxter appears to be heading to the Wizards. Still no word on where Ron Mercer will land. His downfall is now complete if he can't find a team to pick him up for the minimum.
Utah Jazz: Do you think the Jazz are even curious about the draft lottery? "Absolutely not. Not for a second. Not for half a second," said vice president Kevin O'Connor in the Salt Lake Tribune. "Anyone who thinks Larry [Miller] or Jerry would ever say, 'Well, we're better off in the lottery' doesn't know our franchise and our people and how we do business." Let's remember. The Jazz are here to play basketball, not ping pong. "It would give our young players important experience in a whole new atmosphere. It would mean more games, more learning, more recognition. An opportunity to improve," O'Connor said. "It would mean this has been an extremely successful season, and that's the sort of thing you build on."
Detroit Pistons: Rasheed Wallace is going back to Portland. Did you hear me? Rasheed Wallace is going back to Portland. "It doesn't matter," said Wallace in the Detroit Free Press. "Some of them like me and some of them hate me. It won't matter to me. I'm not the one that's bitter about the situation. . . . " But he is the one who's getting snubbed. "I know he won't receive the kind of reception that he deserves," assistant coach Herb Brown said. "I just hope that they will realize and respect the fact that he gave them 7 ½ good years. He wasn't a perfect man -- none of us are perfect men -- but every time he came on the court, he gave an effort. . . . He was showing up for every game."
New York Knicks: It is safe to say that superagent David Falk won't be sending Isiah Thomas a Christmas card this year. "For me to deal effectively with the Knicks, Isiah has to put his personal feelings aside and only worry about business," Falk said in the N.Y. Daily News. "Because all he's doing now is showing his immaturity as an executive." Falk claims that his bad relationship with Thomas is spilling over onto his client, Dikembe Mutombo. "I question that sometimes because Isiah can be a very vindictive person," Falk said. "And if that is the case he's being dumb because he should not allow his dislike for him directly affect the team." Or next year's team. Or the year after that. "It would have tremendous repercussions," Falk warned. "I've always had a good relationship with the Steve Mills and James Dolan. But with Isiah it's different. Some people you give them enough rope and they hang themselves. I have a saying, 'The decision that you made set the price that must be paid.'"
Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson didn't miss 10 shots in a row. He didn't miss 15 shots in a row. He missed 18 shots in a row Wednesday night against the Knicks. "I can't remember the last time I struggled like that," Iverson said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Not so much just missing shots; I was missing layups. Even guys on the other team were asking me if I was all right, was my shoulder all right. I couldn't understand it. I was kind of getting frustrated. I can deal with missing jumpers, but not as many layups as I missed. It wasn't like me. I felt bad that I couldn't give my team the lift that I wanted to by being out there. I felt I could come out and make things easier for them. I couldn't get it done tonight for whatever reason."
Indiana Pacers: The bad thing about having 15 able-bodied guys on your team is that this is still a five-man game. "Nothing surprises me around here," Al Harrington said in the Indianapolis Star after Ron Aptest returned to the starting lineup. "I just take what comes. Whatever I need to do to help the team, I'll step up and do it." But that still leaves at least one other player. "Jonathan Bender is stepping up," Artest said. "Hopefully he continues to play solid. I probably won't play quite as much. Jonathan Bender will have a chance." Meaning Austin Cohere collected another D.P. "He's finally taking what he does in practice and in the summertime and bringing it to his game," Harrington said of Bender. "The biggest thing is he's not second-guessing himself; he's just playing. If he plays with a free spirit, he does well." And at least one guy is really enjoying all the healthy bodies. "It's great to have all 15 guys available," coach Rick Carlisle said.
You'd think I didn't know that utilization and billable revenue were important to a consulting firm, with all the pressure around here lately...
Why do the things that we treasure most, slip away in time
Till to the music we grow deaf, to God's beauty blind
Why do the things that connect us slowly pull us apart?
Till we fall away in our own darkness, a stranger to our own hearts
And life itself, rushing over me
Life itself, the wind in black elms,
Life itself in your heart and in your eyes, I can't make it without you