Troubles Blazing in Portland

For 22 years, the Portland Trail Blazers were a team that was a model of consistency. A team that was a perennial playoff team for over two decades. In the last two years, however, the Blazers have fallen very fast.

With a 41-41 record in 2004, the Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. This season, things have just gotten worse for the team as they now sit in 12th place in the Western Conference with a record of 22-34.

After a 103-93 loss at home to the defending NBA Champion Detroit Pistons, Blazer management decided that it was time for a change. The Blazers fired head coach Maurice Cheeks that Wednesday morning, after Portland suffered their seventh loss in their last nine outings.

“In this business I think we all understand what we’re here for; we’re here to win basketball games” Cheeks said at a news conference following his resignation. “If you don’t win basketball games, something is going to happen. Unfortunately for me this happened.”

Cheeks compiled a 162-139 record in his three seasons as the patroller of the Blazer sideline. He was in the final season of a four-year contract estimated at $12 million, according to an article from FOXSports.com.

When he was hired as Blazers head coach, replacing Mike Dunleavy, who was fired in the summer of 2001, he inherited a team that was full of talent, but did not make the best decisions both on and off the court. Even during his three-year tenure, Cheeks’ players could not control their ill-mannered antics on and off the court.

Several players, according to an article from FOXSports.com were cited for possession of marijuana, in which one of those players was former Blazer and current, Detroit Piston Rasheed Wallace. He also served a seven game suspension by the league for threatening a NBA referee on the loading dock of the Rose Garden, according to a report from FOXSports.com.

Cheeks had a verbal conflict with forward Darius Miles back in late January that resulted in a two-game suspension for what was termed according to Blazers.com, “conduct detrimental to the team and insubordination.”

Forward Zach Randolph served a suspension by the team last season for punching forward Ruben Patterson during a practice, which resulted in his face being full of blood.

With Cheeks gone General Manager John Nash appointed Kevin Pritchard who was hired in August as the Blazers’ director of player personnel, after serving as a scout for the San Antonio Spurs, was named interim head coach at the news conference last Wednesday.

In his first two games as head coach, the team is 0-3, losing at home to the Indiana Pacers last Friday 106-97. They proceeded to lose at the Phoenix Suns the next night 129-116 and then lost at the Denver Nuggets 111-98 on Monday night.

It is hard to believe that this was an organization that five years ago was one quarter away from defeating the Los Angles Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals on the road. They lead by 15 points going into the fourth quarter, but lost 89-84.

The Blazers did manage to make the playoffs the next three seasons, but lost in the first-round to the Lakers in the 2001 and 2002 postseasons. Despite winning the next three games after overcoming a 3-0 series lead in 2003, the Blazers lost to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 107-95.

Portland, who possesses a payroll $78.8 million, third only to the Dallas Mavericks at $91.3 million and the New York Knicks at $104.4 million are six games behind the Lakers for the eight and final playoff spot in the West.

The next four weeks are going to tell a lot about the Blazers future as they will be playing a lot of their younger players and the fact that their leading scorer and rebounder Zach Randolph has missed the last three games with a sore right knee and is likely to be out for a while now. The team is also without guard Derek Anderson, who is on the injured list because of back spasms.

“We have some exciting pieces, especially when you talk about adding Monia next year, Sebastian (Telfair), (Victor) Khryapa, Ha (Seung-Jin) and Joel (Prizybilla); we’ve got some pieces, we really need to find out how good those pieces are,” said Pritchard during a news conference when he was named interim head coach of Portland on Mar. 2.

If the Blazers are going to get back to that great tradition of making the playoffs every year, the players individually and collectively must grow up become more responsible for their actions both on and off the court.

“I said it two weeks ago, and I’m going to keep saying it: With the schedule we’ve got, if we can’t get people to grow up real fast, it’s going to get real ugly,” said guard Damon Stoudamire.