|Wednesday, December 11
It's time for Blazers to start from scratch
By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com
In Memphis, Grizzlies management fired easygoing Sid Lowe and hired taskmaster Hubie Brown to let the youngsters know exactly what is expected of them.
In Chicago, Bill Cartwright is ignoring Jerry Krause's grand rebuilding plans and has benched the kiddies because, well, they don't know how to play.
In Boston, Jim O'Brien has altogether ignored the $86 million contract of Vin Baker and relegated him to 11 minutes a game off the bench -- maybe.
Everywhere, that is, except that Westernly outpost in Oregon known no longer as the Rose City, but as Oz.
But the time has come to change things in Portland, where the basketball team has reached embarrassing lows, what with the arrests of three Blazers players in one week.
Message to Bob Whitsitt, the Blazers general manager who constructed this fine mess: It's time to blow the thing up.
I admire Whitsitt for what he tried to do, a sassy experiment of assembling the largest collection of talent he could find to stock a roster and see where it takes them. But the verdict is in: It doesn't work. Or, at the very least, this version does not seem to be working, and the act is getting archaic.
I'm not sure what the answer is in Oz because so many players have such large contracts over such a long period of time that it is virtually impossible to trade them away and get anything of value in return. Perhaps that is the answer, much like Seattle's solution to the atrocity that was the Kingdome: dynamite the entire thing and start over, even it means a few years of painful rebuilding.
It might not even mean that, because the Blazers have so much talent on this team that it certainly can figure out a way to keep some of it intact while disassembling the incongruent parts. But something has to be done. The mix is bad. This is the antithesis of the colloquialism, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Oh, it's broke, and it needs fixing badly.
Bonzi Wells has worn out his brief welcome, Rasheed Wallace is a bore, Damon Stoudamire is the quintissential example of a player who over-assesses his value both to the team and the community, and Ruben Patterson, well, c'mon, how many chances does a guy get to intimidate and beat people up before he has to be forcibly removed from society? I don't even have to be a syndicated advice columnist to be able to pull out this gem: Ruben, you have an anger manangement problem and you need to see a therapist.
It pains me to do this, but for anybody who hasn't been reading the police blotter, I'll wade through the litany of transgressions these stellar citizens have committed. (Note to residents of Oz: You can skip this part, you are already painfully aware of what is going on in your precinct.)
Before any of the legal stuff even happened, the Blazers' season started with coach Maurice Cheeks and his players saying this was going to be a different season, where everybody was committed to winning and individual agendas were going to be ignored.
Then, Antonio Daniels and Jeff McInnis promptly got into an argument on the bench about playing time. Stoudamire got into an on-court argument with Cheeks, was benched and then asked to be traded. Second-year front-liners Zach Randolph and Ruben Boumtje Boumtje squared off on the court in full view of fans.
And, on yeah, let's not forget about the spitting incident where the classy Wells flung his expectorate all over Danny Ferry while at the same time referring to Ferry, who is white, as a "honky."
"This guys is nuts," Ferry said at the time. "You never know what he is thinking. Every time you play him, it's an adventure. This was just something else. It has no place in the game."
Generally, that is enough drama for one team, but not for the Blazers. While riding home from a game in Seattle, Stoudamire, Wallace and the driver, Edward Smith, were pulled over and cited for smoking marijuana. Did we forget to mention that Stoudamire was arrested over the summer for allegedly possessing an abundance of marijuana in his residence? I don't want to quite say there is a pattern here, but if I were a detective ...
Then, we come to Patterson. Sonics owner Howard Schultz was widely criticized for letting Patterson, his best rebounder and low-post player at the time, get out of town with nothing in return because Patterson had pleaded guilty to third-degree rape of his children's nanny. As it turns out, Schultz was prescient, and he should be commended for his foresight and moral conviction in refusing to permit a convicted rapist on his roster.
I was there the day Patterson pled guilty to the offense, and he truly looked remorseful as he cried his eyes out in front of the judge and told him something like this would never happen again.
I was convinced he had learned his lesson. But now, after being arrested for beating up his wife in front of their children, I wonder if Patterson told the judge in Cleveland the same thing after he kicked a man in the face and broke his jaw because the man scratched his car. And I wonder if he would have told the judge in Oz the same thing had the police department been able to bring charges against him.
That they were not, because his wife would not cooperate, is not as much a vindication of Patterson as it is a condemnation of his wife for caring more about her financial well being than about her own well being. After all, she sustained a cut finger and marks on her body, and the public release of the 911 tape revealed his wife telling the dispatcher Patterson "tried to f------ choke me," and that "my husband just kicked my ass."
In most cities, all this would obviously be a substantial matter, but it could at least be blunted by other sports teams in town. In Oz, the Blazers are the only thing, and so it takes on even greater magnitude.
A billboard has gone up urging people to begin boycotting the Blazers. The civic unrest is so palpable. And Ron Tonkin, a long-time booster and suite-holder at the Rose Garden who owns a string of car dealerships in town, wrote this in a widely discussed letter to the editor in The Oregonian: "I, for one, have had it. The Blazers are a disgrace. We have nearly 800 employees and now have to spend time to find enough people who want to see the game to fill our corporate box. I can't wait until the expiration of our contract, because unless something pretty drastic is done to clean up the team, we certainly will not renew. For what roles is this team supposed to be a model?"
And just to prove that he still doesn't get it, Wells -- who, you'll remember, insulted Blazers fans in a Sports Illustrated article by essentially calling them sycophantic dolts -- had this solliloquy after a game last week:
"It's tough to go out there and play hard when you don't feel anybody is supporting you out there. We need not only us, we need the fans to support us, to clap for us, to get into it, to get involved. Negative things happen when everybody is so negative around you. I know a lot of things are going on around our team, but we are a family still. We need the fans to really support us. It's been tough, and I know it is a reflection on them, but we need them to stick with us through thick and thin, not just when things are (good). We don't need nobody stepping on our neck."
If I'm hearing him correctly, Wells' comments could be construed as: "You used to support us no matter what we did. Why won't you any longer?" For his part, Whitsitt has apologized to fans for what has been a nonstop barrage of tacit complicity with the devil.
"This is embarrassing, it is frustrating, it is disappointing," Whitsitt said. "I'm sure we have angry fans. We have a lot of angry people within the organization, and rightfully so ... I take all responsibility for what has happened with the Trail Blazers, no problem. That's my job."
Which also means, inherently, it is his job to figure out a solution. Clearly, the players are not going to change, so Whitsitt is going to be the one that has to figure out the changes.
Money can be of no consequence here, because the Blazers' payroll, with the luxury tax, is going to be close to $150 million this season, and they are currently a 10-9 team with little chance of seriously contending for a championship. Paul Allen apparently does not care about the financial repercussions of assembling his team, so he should not care about the monetary effects of disassembling it, either.
If it means buying them out, buy 'em out. If it means waiving them, waive 'em. It it means trading them, trade 'em.
Whitsitt got a good start on this over the summer, when he was able to rid himself of Shawn Kemp's hefty contract.
And the only thing Kemp did was eat a lot.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.