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Jury still out on Blazers

• NBA experts not sure the team can overcome its inconsistent play

PHILADELPHIA Ñ Nobody knows what the immediate future holds for the Trail Blazers. Can they be a factor in the second half of the season and in the playoffs?

Opinions varied among the experts on hand for Sunday's NBA All-Star game.

'I know those guys out there,' says Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana's All-Star center and a Trail Blazer his first four years in the league.

'I talk to Rasheed (Wallace) and those guys all the time, and they are not happy with a .500 record. They are going to put it together, and they are going to compete. They have a much better team than what their record states.

'I think (coach) Maurice Cheeks has done a pretty good job. As far as the effort from the players, it wasn't great at first, but now they are starting to get it together.'

Another former Blazer, San Antonio's Steve Smith, has said it before: too many chefs, not enough servers.

'You have old stars, upcoming stars, and everybody wants to play, so a positive turns into a negative,' says Smith, who competed in the All-Star 3-point shootout.

'When you are asking nine guys who have been All-Stars to be role players, and others not to play at all, that's hard. You are supposed to do everything you can to help your team win a championship, but when you have been the man since high school, even though you might want to accept that smaller role, you still feel, 'I can do it.'

'But they are a scary team. They can get on a roll and beat anybody in this league. You don't want to face the Blazers in the playoffs. They have something to prove. I hope they turn it around. Those are my guys Ñ the players, not management.'

Charles Barkley played with Portland coach Maurice Cheeks and played for Blazer assistant coach Jimmy Lynam in Philadelphia.

He's pulling for the Blazers 'because of Maurice and Jimmy, but every time I think they have it together, something happens,' Barkley, the TNT announcer, says. 'It seems like they are going to be inconsistent all year. Every time I think they are over the hump, they go back to their old ways.'

Chris Webber respects the Blazers, but Sacramento's All-Star forward agrees with Smith on one point: 'Sometimes you can have too much talent. With everybody being so good, there is almost no direction (from coaches) in what each player can or cannot do.

'I don't know if they are as good as they were two years ago, but they are still a very talented team. They could scare and upset somebody in the playoffs. It's kind of the world against them, and they are going to be a team to watch.'

Adds Minnesota's Wally Szczerbiak: 'You wonder about some of the personnel decisions, like bringing in Derek Anderson when you have players like Bonzi Wells and Ruben Patterson. There is going to be a natural roadblock there.

'Sometimes that is not healthy for team chemistry and makes it hard on the coach. And they miss (Arvydas) Sabonis. He is a hell of a player, 7-3 and the glue to their team. Losing him was a big blow.'

Gary Payton sees role-playing as a problem and pinpoints Wallace as needing to take on more responsibility.

'Rasheed needs to be the man,' Seattle's perennial All-Star point guard says. 'Comparing to the old Chicago teams, Rasheed needs to be the Michael Jordan, and Bonzi Wells needs to be the Scottie Pippen. Then you get to the Steve Kerrs, which Damon Stoudamire would be. They are getting it on now a little, but it's an up-and-down team where everybody don't know his role.'

Jack Ramsay says it is unfair to expect much leadership from Wallace.

'That's not who he is,' says the Hall of Fame coach, now an ESPN analyst. 'Rasheed is a tremendously talented guy, but I don't think he wants to be the guy to vocally lead the team.

'He is not a take-charge guy, a give-me-the-ball guy. But if you give it to him, he does pretty good things with it. You can't expect him to be something he's not.'

Says Barkley: 'Rasheed is frustrating because he should be one of the five best players in the world. He's not.

'It's a shame when a guy with that much talent doesn't reach his potential. You look at him from a skills standpoint, you can't name five better players in the world. A team with a guy that good, they should be above .500.'

As for how the Blazers will fare the rest of the way, Ramsay says this: 'They are a mystery team. When they are playing well, they are very good. They are defending, they are running, they get good ball and player movement, they rebound well.

'When they are not playing well, they don't do several of those things. I don't know what turns it on or off, but they are very inconsistent. They should make the playoffs. After that, it depends on who the first-round matchup would be.

'I don't see them in the same class with the Lakers, Sacramento or Dallas. Minnesota would be a good battle. San Antonio is struggling, but (the Spurs) could come together. They are another mystery team.'

Former NBA coach Chuck Daly says the downfall of this group of Blazers came with the unforgettable defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals.

'They were the only team that could beat LA, and had them beat except for that infamous fourth quarter,' Daly says. 'That loss changed the psychic makeup of that franchise, which can happen. I went through it in Detroit (in the late '80s, before winning back-to-back titles). Our guys took it on as more of a challenge.

'You don't know what goes on internally. They are still a very talented team, still among the five most talented teams in the league. They have come around some and are playing better.

'Maybe things will happen differently in the playoffs, but frankly, you just never know. Sometimes with chemistry issues, personnel changes have to take place to get it back on track.'

Bill Walton is never at a loss for an opinion, and the Hall of Famer says the Blazers losing three of the last four games before the All-Star break 'really hurt their momentum. The loss at Denver is inexcusable. You lose to burger and fries, and let Ryan Bowen hit the game-winner É that's a tough one to take.'

Walton says the Blazers aren't as strong as they were the last two years 'when they had the greatest roster in NBA history. They have a tighter rotation now, but there is still talent there, and they seem to be turning the corner.

'It is going to be difficult to make the leap to the top five in the West, but if they can make the sixth spot, stay healthy and stay together as a team once the playoffs roll around É '

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..