• Players? Coaching? Whatever, Portland can't get it together
If you like mediocrity, embrace the Trail Blazers. Portland, 14-15 going into Wednesday's game with the Los Angeles Clippers, has not won more than two in a row and not lost more than three in a row this season.
After Sunday's 117-98 loss to Phoenix, the Blazers and Clippers were tied for ninth place in the Western Conference. But only four games separated the No. 6 team (Minnesota, 16-12) and the 12th team (Denver, 14-16) in the West, with 31Ú2 months of the season yet to be played.
Portland's schedule this month is difficult. Friday's home date with Miami is followed by a six-game trip Ñ New York, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, Minnesota and Sacramento. Home games against Minnesota, San Antonio, Dallas and the Clippers follow. February and March are more forgiving.
If all was lost, coach Maurice Cheeks probably would be under orders to start rookie point guard Sebastian Telfair, find more minutes for second-year small forward Travis Outlaw and prepare for next year.
Cheeks' future in Portland may not extend beyond this year Ñ he is in the final year of a four-year contract, with a team option for 2005-06 Ñ so he is interested only in winning now.
That should be the mission of management as well. After missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 1982, the Blazers should be desperate to get into the postseason. The West's seventh and eighth spots are there for the taking.
But this group is not jelling as a team. Sometimes it looks as if the players ought to pretend that they care about making an effort and playing hard.
The problems on offense Ñ .432 shooting, .342 from 3-point range, 91.2 points a game Ñ are well-chronicled. Lately, defense has been the problem. Three of the last four opponents Ñ Philadelphia, San Antonio, Phoenix Ñ have scored more than 110 points.
You wonder what Cheeks' plan is sometimes, but the players aren't blaming the coach.
'We have just been in a funk,' Damon Stoudamire says. 'What's wrong? You can't put your finger on it exactly. To me, nobody is playing the way they are capable. I mean, we all need to pick up our play. I have never seen a scenario like this, where at one point or another, every single guy has struggled.'
Telfair's development into an NBA-caliber player has come quickly. After his stimulating performance against Golden State last weekend, fans are calling for his presence in the starting lineup. It is tempting to want to turn the team over to the 19-year-old wunderkind, who exploded past Speedy Claxton so many times en route to a basket or drawing a foul, the veteran Warrior guard didn't want to give the youngster much credit afterward.
'He is pretty good,' Claxton grumped. 'They wouldn't have taken him in the first round if he wasn't.'
Stoudamire offers an analysis of Telfair, who he respects as a person and as a player: 'I like the way they are using Sebastian, picking their spots. When he comes in, there is the element of surprise, and he is able to give us a spark. When you haven't seen it before, it takes time to gauge that kind of quickness. Teams don't really know how to play him yet. If you play him too many minutes, you overexpose him.'
If the Blazers can't get more out of Stoudamire or Nick Van Exel, the Telfair era might just as well begin now.
A player-by-player look at Portland as the season heads into a new year:
Zach Randolph: Continues to put up numbers, leading the team in scoring (20.5), rebounding (10.5) and turnovers (2.9). Plays hard, and criticism of selfishness by teammates is mostly unwarranted. Needs perimeter players to hit more shots to open things up in middle for him. Could work harder on defense.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim: Blazers have been showcasing him, but Abdur-Rahim proved he deserves his minutes. Has played hard and out of position at small forward, serving as No. 2 scorer and top shooter. Still might be dealt before Feb. 24 deadline, but Blazer brass is considering keeping him and offering him a free-agent deal in the summer.
Darius Miles: Blazers seemed to have overpaid him with six-year, $48-million contract before season, but Miles is earning his Georges while accepting his bench role professionally. His perimeter shooting has improved, his transition game is outstanding, and his perimeter defense ranks with Ruben Patterson's.
Derek Anderson: So-so, just like last season. Shooting only .403 from the floor and averaging 11.6 points, among the NBA's worst for starting shooting guards. Not much of a defender. But, he's been durable, playing in every game.
Theo Ratliff: Bothered by nagging injuries, he has been much less effective than last season. Still ranks among NBA's best in blocked shots, but his intimidation factor seems down. A nonfactor on offense (4.8 points) and one of the league's poorest rebounding centers (5.6).
Nick Van Exel: Nick the Quick, 33, is on his last legs, and he admits it. With aching knees that will send him into retirement at season's end, he doesn't have much to give except an occasional, 3-point hot streak. He is a pro who is giving all he can give, but it is not enough for a starting point.
Damon Stoudamire: More relaxed and productive since becoming a reserve in mid-December, averaging 11.8 points and shooting .505 from the floor and .591 from 3-point range in the past eight games. Wants to start and get big minutes, but Cheeks likely will keep him in the reserve role.
Ruben Patterson: Effective reserve, energy player, leading the team in steals, providing pressure defense and slashing offensive help. Admits point of diminishing returns hits about 25-minute mark; while fans wonder why he doesn't play more, his 20 minutes a game is sensible.
Sebastian Telfair: No defender has been able to get in front of his first step. Intuitive passer, fearless demeanor, undaunted by transition from preps to pros. Must develop midrange jump shot first, then 3-point range. After that, the possibilities are scary.
Joel Przybilla: A poor man's Theo Ratliff Ñ excellent shot-blocker Ñ but a better rebounder per minute than Ratliff. As an offensive player, Przybilla is no Vladimir Stepania. Clammy hands mean teammates eschew giving him the ball on offense.
Travis Outlaw: Glimpses of grandeur make you understand (a little) why Blazers gambled on him with first pick in the 2003 draft. A handful of NBA players have his hops, and he's learning to use his giftÑ five blocks against Warriors. A big-league dunker. But jump shot ineffective and, at 20, way behind 19-year-old Telfair in basketball IQ. With the logjam at small forward (Abdur-Rahim, Miles, Patterson), his time will be minimal.
Richie Frahm: Blazers got him to make shots, and in his limited time, he hasn't done it. Cheeks is more comfortable with two-point-guard lineup (Van Exel and Stoudamire, Telfair and Stoudamire), which affects Frahm's opportunities.
Cheeks, who is given to conversing with fans during action at games, had an interesting dialogue during last Thursday's blowout loss to San Antonio. Fan: 'Mo, get Theo (Ratliff) in there.' Cheeks: 'Theo's in the locker room.' Fan: 'Get (Arvydas) Sabonis in there, then.' Cheeks: 'Sabonis? I'd like to have him.' É Stoudamire was leading the league in free-throw percentage until he missed a pair against Golden State. He now is shooting .922 from the line. Abdur-Rahim was in the top 10 at .906 before going 2 for 5 against Phoenix. É When Abdur-Rahim missed six games last month with a hyperextended elbow, it was the first time in his nine-year career he had missed more than one game in a row because of injury. É Randolph has led Portland in scoring 16 times. Next is Miles with five.