The team’s payroll may be stellar, but the talent is not

One of the misconceptions about the 2001-02 Trail Blazers, both in Portland and nationwide, has been the scope of their collective basketball abilities. The nucleus is solid and the depth considerable, but the Blazers aren't up there with the big boys.

'We don't have the talent to win a championship,' says veteran guard Steve Kerr, who won four titles with Chicago and San Antonio. 'The talent here is enough to be a good team, but I think our talent is overrated, frankly. This isn't two years ago, when they had Jermaine O'Neal and Brian Grant and Steve Smith and Arvydas Sabonis. We miss (Sabonis) desperately, obviously. We are talented, but not as talented as people are saying.'

What that says is this: Bob Whitsitt has overspent dramatically in compiling an $84 million payroll, second in the NBA behind New York. And it will only get worse, with Scottie Pippen due $19.7 million next season and Shawn Kemp a whopping $46.5 million over the next two seasons.

Still, Mo Cheeks' stable is, as Kerr says, 'much better than what we are showing.'

Injuries have played a part, though front-office spinsters Whitsitt and Mark Warkentien have played up that angle a bit much. Most of the teams above Portland in the Western Conference standings have had key regulars miss games with injuries and handled it.

Bonzi Wells began the season playing like an All-Star but hasn't regained his confidence or form since the knee began acting up in mid-December. Ruben Patterson provides energy at both ends and is the team's best basket attacker, but he is a bull in a china shop at times, off balance and out of control. The other major off-season acquisition, Derek Anderson, has been less than advertised, at least in part due to a lingering ankle problem. Anderson is shooting only .387 from the floor and averaging 13 points, and the latter figure has been dropping.

Damon Stoudamire has gone through a strange season, at first abandoning his aggressive scoring mentality to adapt to Cheeks' desire to make him a distributor first, passing up shots he has taken since his days at Wilson High. Over the last three weeks, though, Stoudamire has reverted to his old game, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 assists the past 11 games.

Assistant coach Jimmy Lynam gives Cheeks high marks for pushing Stoudamire to amend his style to conform more to a team game. Maybe Stoudamire is looking more to pass these days, but the Blazers need his scoring, and he has played some of the best ball of his career of late with a more aggressive approach.

That brings us to Rasheed Wallace, who leads Portland in scoring (20.3), rebounding (8.8), blocked shots (1.2) and minutes played (38.8). He also was the only Blazer to play in all 32 games before Monday's visit to Cleveland.

Since being encouraged by his coach and teammates to shoot more, Wallace has done so, with the exception of a seven-shot game in a Dec. 27 loss to Utah. Going into the Cleveland game, he had taken at least 20 shots in seven of his last 11 games. But in only two of those 11 games did he shoot better than 50 percent from the field, and his .460 percentage is far short of the career-low .487 he shot as a rookie with Washington in 1995-96.

Wallace is Portland's best player, but despite what his coaches and teammates say for the record, he has not matured, and he has no real interest in leadership. A leader sets a good example, helps make his teammates better and plays a major role in chemistry. Wallace simply wants to play and leave it at that, and those around him spend far too much time keeping him away from referees. The Blazers need more, but they won't get it from him.

Portland played with force and shot well in breaking its six-game losing streak with a victory over Philadelphia on Saturday, but that was only a baby step. The 76ers, 14-19, were on the final stop of a seven-game, 12-day road trip and had no juice.

The Blazers have shown nothing against the good teams, as witnessed by their 0-7 record against West contenders ÑÊthe LA Lakers, San Antonio, Sacramento, Dallas and Minnesota. They aren't as good as any of those teams, but they should be better than any of their other West opponents.

The upcoming schedule is favorable. The Blazers should win at least three of four on their current road swing against East cupcakes Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami and Orlando. 'We should sweep our games the whole month,' Pippen says, 'but the way it's been going É'

The view here is that Portland will get it together enough to win about 45 games and pass Phoenix, Utah, the L.A. Clippers and Seattle to finish sixth in the West. Then it will be on to a first-round matchup with San Antonio, Sacramento or Dallas, and a chance to prove all the doubters wrong.

NOTES: Much has been made of Wallace's 'improved' court decorum this season after establishing NBA records of 38, then 41, technicals the last two years. Indeed, with 10 technicals, Wallace is on pace for only 26 this season. It should be noted, however, he still leads the league, with Bonzi Wells close behind in second place with nine.

Truth is, Wallace spends just about as much time going ballistic about calls, jerking his headband around his dome in disgust and forcing Cheeks to step in as a diversion. For some reason, he is drawing fewer 'techs,' as he calls them. Maybe it's because he is one of the team's co-captains and refs are cutting him more slack Ñ though they shake their heads about the way he offers a fist instead of a handshake when they meet at halfcourt before games. Maybe it's because the league wants to make sure Wallace isn't picked on because of his reputation.

'We know we're really under the microscope,' one referee says. 'You don't want to be too quick to hit him, because then it's your fault.'

Referees are well aware of which players throughout the league are apt to give them the most trouble, and Wallace remains at the top of the list.

'He is kind of a known entity,' the referee says. 'You make sure you are fair with him, but you know what you are getting. Sooner or later, something is going to happen. And he doesn't listen. He just goes off. Don't try to talk to him. He doesn't accept that kind of conversation. It's a waste of time.'

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