The new team in town

• Observers say Blazers can rise out of recent player shuffles Ñ and win

LOS ANGELES Ñ It may not be that the Trail Blazers have themselves a team that will challenge for the NBA championship anytime soon, or even make the playoffs this year.

But reviews from those participating in or attending the festivities during All-Star Weekend were largely of the same ilk Ñ thumbs up.

'Considering the situation he walked into, John Nash has done a phenomenal job,' Knicks General Manager Isiah Thomas says of his Portland counterpart. 'He has a talented team and good character people, which is exactly what they were hoping for. From where he started, that was not easy to do.'

Nash and team President Steve Patterson started in December by unloading Bonzi Wells to Memphis for Wes Person and a first-round draft choice. They continued with the trade that sent Jeff McInnis to Cleveland for Darius Miles. Then came the blockbuster Ñ Rasheed Wallace and Person to Atlanta for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff and Dan Dickau.

'You knew they were going to make some changes,' former Laker great Magic Johnson says. 'You just didn't know what it was going to be. Well, they did pretty well. They got a good guy in Theo to close down the middle. Shareef has always been a quiet 20-9, 20-10 (points/rebounds) guy, every night, every season, and he is going to draw some fouls. They got some guys who have the character they are looking for, but they got some talent, too.'

Cap space has downside

Many of those who spoke with the Tribune understand that the need to address the Blazers' declining fan base was a priority with the franchise's new management team.

'Portland is a city that lives and breathes the Blazers, and there was tremendous criticism there about them in the community,' TNT analyst Doug Collins says. 'The organization has made a concerted effort to tell the fans, 'We are going to turn this thing down and change our team.' Now they will have to settle in and see how all the pieces fit. They have some big decisions ahead. Are the players they acquired going to stay, or are (the Blazers) going to continue to look to change the team?'

Collins says after speaking with Nash last month, he got the impression the Blazers might wind up letting Wallace go as a free agent this summer, saving salary-cap space and luxury tax expenses.

'They weren't going to make any deals not in the best long-term interests of the team,' Collins says. 'They had intended to try to pare contracts and create cap space, but you have to be careful. Chicago tried to do that and has gone through six years (of rebuilding). Cap space is great, but cap space can't play. You get rid of a player like Rasheed, you can't just get nothing in return. All of a sudden, you will be down at the bottom, and it can be hard to get back.'

Another TNT analyst, Steve Kerr, was a teammate of Wallace's during Kerr's one season with the Blazers.

'The trade had to be done, for the team's image,' Kerr says. 'I am glad they made the move to do so. It was a smart move, and I was surprised they could get so much in return for Rasheed at this point.'

Will 'great move' work?

San Antonio star Tim Duncan called the Wallace trade 'a great move for them. It improves their team. They knew Rasheed wasn't going to re-sign with them, and they got a lot for him. It will help them not just this year but for years to come.'

Seattle guard Ray Allen says the Blazers made a talent upgrade despite losing Wallace.

'In my opinion, they have gotten better,' he says. 'Having Zach (Randolph) already down there, and now Shareef, a guy who is going to work hard to be a good teammate, and Theo, who gives you a bigger presence down low É they look pretty solid right now to me.'

But will Abdur-Rahim and Randolph be able to complement each other? Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal is one who wonders.

'I understand both management and some of the players wanted a change,' the former Blazer says. 'Their attendance was down, and the fans wanted to see a different kind of person in a Blazer uniform.

'Shareef is a big-time scorer. He can really make things happen offensively. Ratliff is a huge defender who can get rebounds and block shots. That is a great addition. If they can find a way to play both of them with Zach up front, they have a formidable front line. But sometimes names don't make a team better. Sometimes they make it worse. You are taking big-time guys and trying to make them role players. That is not always easy. We'll see what happens.'

Focus stays on Randolph

Kerr also sounds uncertain about how things will shake down.

'One of those guys, probably Rahim, has to guard the (small forwards),' he says. 'Both Zach and Shareef like to be near the basket quite a bit. Miles has already been on two teams that were willing to give him away. He has a lot of ability, but nobody seems to know what position he is or what exactly he does. They are three pretty talented players, and one of them is going to have to come off the bench.'

Consensus opinion is the newcomers will have to adapt their games around Randolph's.

'That is Zach's team,' Sacramento's Brad Miller says. 'Shareef is the one who will have to adjust. He might have to change his role a little bit, but his length helps, and he seems like he is good for 20 and 10 every night. I like Theo. He knows his role, is one of those work-hard type of players. And he is a good person, which is what they are trying to get.

'It won't come right together right away. They have made so many changes. When you start trading starter after starter, it takes a while for the dust to settle and give you a chance to figure out what you have, and the personalities and playing styles of everybody.'

The promise is there

Minnesota coach Flip Saunders' lineup went through a mass upheaval during the offseason, but newcomers Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell blended in almost immediately and turned the Timberwolves into a legitimate title threat.

'We went through it, and now Portland is going to go through it,' Saunders says. 'It takes some time for everything to jell. But I like what they have done. Ratliff can anchor a defense. Rahim is a great offensive player. Playing together with Randolph, he causes some matchup problems. You have to put a small defender on one of those two.

'They have done a good job as far as changing the complexion of their team, as far as getting the players they want, getting more athletic and getting more of a defensive presence. I think they are going to be good, and I am not sure it will take very long. I would be surprised if they don't make a run at a playoff spot down the stretch.'

Collins coached Ratliff in Philadelphia. He says his presence in the Blazers' lineup gives them an advantage over most teams in the West.

'It is a power forwards' conference,' Collins says. 'Outside of Yao Ming and Shaquille (O'Neal), there aren't any true centers. The question with Theo is, how important is it for him to win? How excited is he to play in Portland? Because he has talent.

'Zach is still the Blazers' centerpiece. Rahim is a player you can run off screens, a guy you can legitimately play on the perimeter. Shareef has thrown up big numbers but has never been in the playoffs. It will be very interesting to see what happens with the group they have now.'

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