As the worst season for the Portland Trail Blazers in over 20 years comes to a close, fans are left to wonder where and when it all went wrong. The downfall can be traced to the Blazers’ dramatic collapse in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, when a 15-point lead with eight minutes left wasn’t enough to stave off the birth of the Lakers dynasty.
Since then there has been considerable and shocking turnover for a team that was supposed to contend for the NBA championship a mere five years ago. After the infamous loss, former GM Bob Whitsitt (Trader Bob) blew up the team, acquiring the morbidly obese Shawn Kemp for fan favorite Brian Grant and trading future superstar Jermaine O’Neal for an already aging Dale Davis. Kemp was a bust, and Davis was adequate for a couple of years before being traded for Nick Van Exel (who refuses to play another game this year) before this season began.
Of the roster and personnel that lost that infamous game to Los Angeles five years ago, only Damon Stoudamire remains. Bob Whitsitt was fired before last season. Before him, head coach Mike Dunleavey was let go and replaced by Mo Cheeks. Cheeks was then fired in March.
Players who were before the face of the franchise are long gone. Rasheed Wallace was traded to Atlanta last year and wound up winning a championship in Detroit. Scottie Pippen is retired. Arvydas Sabonis decided that playing in Europe would be more fun than slogging it out in Portland.
Bonzi Wells was traded to Memphis and has found a role there as sixth man. Role players such as Jeff McInnis and Dan Dickau have found starting jobs on other teams. Even pet abuser Qyntel Woods has found another job since being waived by Portland earlier this year, signing on with the Miami Heat as they make a playoff push.
Ever since Kevin Pritchard became interim head coach there has been fierce gossip that he is being groomed for the general manager position at season’s end. Oregonian Blazer beat writer Jason Quick has weighed in on the issue, claiming that "the way [Pritchard] talks, he’s talking like a GM."
If Pritchard does become the Blazers’ next general manager, he will have more than his share of work cut out for him. First on Pritchard’s to-do list will be to assess what this team is left with after five years of constant turmoil, a job he’s already started as head coach.
There have been several very pleasant surprises so far. Viktor Khryrapa, sidelined for over half the season with a broken foot, has shown a pretty stroke and some much-needed defensive tenacity. In four games as a starter, Khryrapa has shot 53 percent on his way to eight points and 1.25 blocks per contest.
The dubiously named Travis Outlaw has also shown at times why the Blazers made him the 23rd overall pick in the 2003 draft. Outlaw, who stands at a very lanky 6-9, can flat-out jump through the roof and those hops allow him to get his jumper off virtually at will.
The 20-year-old forward averaged 8.1 points a game and 49 percent shooting in March. Those stats mixed with his crowd pleasing highlight dunks mean the Blazers must find a way to get him into the lineup more often, even if it means playing him out of position at the two-guard spot.
In a way, the most disappointing youngster is the rookie high school phenom Sebastian Telfair, simply because so much is expected of the Coney Island native. The 19-year-old Telfair is averaging 11 points and six assists as the starting point guard, but he has been woefully inconsistent and has at times struggled with the pace of the NBA game.
Despite these flaws, Telfair is an exciting talent to watch. At a mere 6 feet tall (more like 5 feet10), he has insane handles and quickness and the uncanny ability to find open teammates. In two losses to Seattle and Denver to start April, Telfair has settled down to average 17 points and 9 assists, including a 16 point, 10 assist effort Saturday against the Nuggets.
Even with Telfair’s progress, his 3.2 turnovers a game must come down if he is ever to be an effective answer at the point in the years to come. If he ever develops a consistent jumper and can grow into a leader, he should be serviceable for the foreseeable future.
Analysts claim that what the Blazers need is an outside shooter to spread the floor. What this team really needs at this point is some stability and hope for the future. The nucleus of young talent is a start, but its not enough. The Blazers’ next GM, whoever he is, will be judged on his ability to finish the job and return the team to respectability.