|Friday, April 4
Randolph's punch may KO Blazers' season
By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com
The first-year public relations director of the Portland Trail Blazers, Mike Hanson, had a similar position with the NFL New England Patriots in 1992. That year, the Patriots lost 14 of 16 games. Their head coach, Dick MacPherson, missed most of the season with acute diverticulitis. Fans stayed away in droves and there was talk that the man who owned the team was going to move it to St. Louis.
When Hanson got the Blazers' job, I sent him an e-mail advising him that (a) whatever happened in New England was going to look like a comparative stroll in the park and (b) that he should get to know someone in the Portland police department because it might come in handy.
This week's latest Blazers contretemps -- the "fight" between Zach Randolph and Ruben Patterson, coming shortly after the drug arrest of rookie Qyntel Woods -- makes one ask the obvious: How did Bob Whitsitt, the general manager, ever miss out on Ron Artest?
It's hard not to feel for coach Maurice Cheeks, who appeared to have finally gotten things more or less under control as the team headed to yet another playoff date, its 21st in a row. Cheeks had made the big move of putting Scottie Pippen into the point-guard role and the Blazers had taken off from there. At one point, they were breathing down the necks of the Kings for the best record in the conference.
Now, they're trying to fend off the Timberwolves, Jazz and Lakers for the fourth playoff spot in the cutthroat Western Conference. Pippen is out with a left knee injury. A day after the Randolph-Patterson dustup, the Blazers announced that Randolph would be suspended and fined for being the instigator. Patterson tried to play with a shiner the size of Mt. Hood under his left eye. He was useless. The Blazers lost at home to the anti-Blazers, the Jazz, and, to top it off, Bonzi Wells picked up two technicals and was ejected.
Just another tricky day.
Meanwhile, Magic Johnson tore into Whitsitt on national television for assembling a team with no role players. As a result, too many guys think they should be playing -- and aren't. That's not exactly a news bulletin, but it again points to one of the problems with the Blazers -- they could have too much of a good thing. When you have trouble finding time for Arvydas Sabonis, you get an idea of how hard it is for Cheeks to make it all come together.
It's a good thing the Blazers aren't on the stock market, because they define the word volatility. They have been puzzling at times this year (two losses to Denver and a 25-point blowout loss in Chicago) and incredibly inconsistent at home (13 losses, the most of any conference playoff team) with defeats to the likes of Denver, Washington and Milwaukee. Only Phoenix has a worse record against the West among the likely conference playoff teams. To its credit, Portland has fattened up on Eastern Conference cooking, but the Blazers will see none of that in the postseason.
The loss to Utah on Thursday night made the Blazers 5-6 since the invaluable Pippen went down. He hasn't played since March 11 and he went under the knife (an arthroscope) and was placed on the injured list on March 21. It is not known how long he will be out, but only last week he ripped the team for not being in playoff-mode and said the way it was going would lead to a certain, first-round exit, whether he returned or not. With Pippen in charge of the offense, the Blazers went 38-16 over a 54-game stretch.
But the latest scrap between Randolph and Patterson may have been the proverbial dromedary-back breaker. Even Cheeks admitted that it would be hard to keep the team together and that the incident was "serious, very serious." No kidding. Had Randolph pulled that stunt on Broadway, he'd be yet another Blazer posing for police cameras. As it is, he's out more than $100,000 and was suspended for two games. That action came from the team.
You wonder how long it can continue. The Blazers have shown enough this season to make people believe the best and the worst. When they put it all together on the court, they can be downright menacing. They did so last week at home against Dallas, rolling to a convincing win the day after Pippen aired his complaints. When they come out listless, aimless and careless, as was the case on Thursday, they can lose to anyone. And the Jazz aren't anyone. It's hard to imagine a team like this losing twice to Denver, which may have two or three NBA players on its NBDL roster.
Still, despite all this, the Blazers merely have to go .500 over the final eight games to win 50 games, which would represent one more victory than they had last year in another season of tumult. That might not be enough to get them homecourt advantage in the first round, but it should be enough to get them away from the Lakers, who've bounced them in each of the last three seasons.
But it's not about who they play. It's about who comes to play and in what particular frame of mind because when the stars and planets are in alignment, the Blazers can -- and do -- beat anybody. But the Blazers also have been the consummate tease the last three years, stockpiling talent without regard to cost or chemistry. They've occasionally benefited from such largesse. They've also self-destructed from it.
Given the latest incident, and the immediate result from it, is there any reason to think that this year is not going to be another Rose City meltdown? The Blazers have the talent to prove otherwise. They also know, or should know by now, that that is not nearly enough.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.