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You cant deal away the secret to success

Early this season, the Portland Trail Blazers were pathetic. They were playing with no focus and no purpose. They looked totally mystified about what it was going to take for them to be effective enough to win games.

Then, after 'player-coach' Scottie Pippen got them together at the defensive end, they figured it out. A team without a big-time threat in the low post is always going to struggle in the halfcourt offense. Particularly a team like this one that lacks consistent outside shooting. This just means that defense has increased importance.

And even though they sometimes forget it, the Blazers are a defensive team first. At least if they want to win. Pippen is a big part of that because he's the one who seems to understand how Portland can best disrupt the opposition. He's the one who usually is in the right spot, pointing to others where they're supposed to go.

He is, even at this point of his career, a very solid one-on-one defender. But more than that, he's still a master of team defense.

All was well with the Blazers until the All-Star Game break. They came back flush from midseason success but have struggled. When they don't defend, they don't force turnovers and get easy baskets. And when they don't hold other teams' shooting percentages down, it means they have to shoot better Ñ a challenge they don't always meet.

Mostly, though, they've struggled because Pippen has struggled. He's the best barometer of how the Blazers will play. He's become critical, both for his performance and leadership.

A player's contract season Ñ Pippen is a free agent after the season Ñ very often is a showcase, and the Blazer veteran frequently looks as if he's got two or three more good years left in him.

This creates an interesting dilemma for the front office. Pippen would be sensational trade bait because of salary cap issues.

There are teams out there looking to dump salaries or create cap room, and they are willing to trade talented young players with big salaries in order to do it. A player like Pippen is the perfect payback in such deals because his contract is over at the end of the season and the team that trades for him thus is able to lop that huge amount of money off of its payroll for next year.

If the Blazers had an eye toward the future, they probably could deal Pippen before the trading deadline to a team willing to let go of a lot of high-priced talent. In other words, they probably could obtain a couple of talented young players for one aging veteran Ñ one who may not even re-sign with the team next year, anyway.

Problem is, Pippen is too important to this squad. To trade him right now would almost be tossing in the towel on a season in which five or six teams appear to have a chance of winning the NBA title. Portland simply can't do that.

And how Pippen plays down the stretch will have a lot to do with how the Blazers fare.

Dwight Jaynes' sports talk show airs from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays on KPAM (860 AM).

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