The balls in their court

Another first-round ouster leaves same old questions about playing time Paul Allen and Bob Whitsitt must decide if they're going to stand pat or shuffle the Trail Blazers' deck

The Trail Blazers saved face by making their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks a memorable one.

Was it enough to keep the core of the team together?

Only Paul Allen and Bob Whitsitt know the answer, and Portland's owner and president-general manager probably will do some heavy thinking in the weeks ahead.

A few things seem certain. Whitsitt's job security is firm. Even though he's had a big payroll, including the NBA's highest ($105 million) this season, the Blazers haven't reached the finals in any of his nine years with Portland.

Whitsitt is a member of Allen's very exclusive inner circle, and history tells us that this group is untouchable. The one possibility would be if Whitsitt were to decide to devote himself full time to the Seattle Seahawks. He considers himself a 'basketball guy,' though, so turning the Blazers over to someone else seems highly unlikely.

Expect Maurice Cheeks to return as coach, and not because he came to the rescue of a 13-year-old singer who forgot the words to the national anthem. The players like Cheeks, who had his moments matching wits with veteran coach Don Nelson in the Dallas series.

Cheeks has one year, plus a team option year, remaining on his contract at a reasonable $1.5 million per season.

Scottie Pippen might not be back. The veteran point guard, who turns 38 in September, is an unrestricted free agent who will attract some interest from other clubs.

'I'm not thinking about that right now,' Pippen said after Portland's 107-95 loss at Dallas in Game 7. 'The season is over for all of us. It could be the last game as a Blazer for any of us. I am going to get away from basketball for a while, and then I'll see.'

Pippen would love to play for his old Chicago coach, Phil Jackson, with the L.A. Lakers. Like most teams, the Lakers will be able to offer only the midlevel exception of about $4.6 million for 2003-04.

Pippen, who made $19.7 million this season and proved a valuable hand for Portland, is eligible to make up to about $21 million from the Blazers. Whitsitt won't offer him anything close to that, but the club can pay him plenty more than anybody else. If the Blazers offer Pippen a two-year deal for a total of $20 million, it might be hard for him to turn it down.

There is a possibility that Arvydas Sabonis won't return. The 7-3 Lithuanian, who turns 39 in December, was huge for the Blazers in the absence of Dale Davis in the last two games, hitting 15 of 21 shots and collecting 16 points and eight boards in each game.

Sabonis has two more years on his contract (with a double option Ñ his and the team's ). The contract is worth roughly $7 million per season. Sabonis' family stayed in Spain this season, and he only saw them sporadically. That bothered him a great deal, he says, and will play a role in his decision on whether to come back.

'It is difficult to move them over here again,' Sabonis says. 'It is not just one kid, it's four. I'm going to have to think about it before I decide' whether to retire.

If Sabonis leaves, Portland will surely hang on to Davis, 34, who has two years left on his contract, at a total of $20 million.

Damon Stoudamire had an excellent playoff series, shooting .484 from 3-point range (15 of 31) while averaging 15.3 points, 5.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds. He played good defense against Steve Nash and committed only 1.7 turnovers per game. That said, the regular season was the most unsettling of Stoudamire's career. He was in and out of the rotation, drawing 22 DNP-CDs (did not play-coach's decision), and regained his starting spot only when Pippen went down with a knee injury in March.

Stoudamire has two years and $30 million left on a contract. That's a tough bite for another team to take, making a trade difficult. But Stoudamire, who turns 30 in September, proved he still has plenty of ability and could be a starter on any of several other teams.

The Portland native would prefer a trade to an Eastern Conference team Ñ Toronto or Atlanta would do fine Ñ but he isn't of a mind to say that publicly.

'In terms of what the future holds, I don't know what's going on,' Stoudamire says. 'I don't choose to elaborate on all that. After today, this is the last time (reporters) are talking to me. I am going to get lost for the summer, and nobody is going to be able to reach me. I am changing my (phone) number. I don't want to talk to no media. I don't want to hear a question all summer.'

Extending the Dallas series to seven games shouldn't mask the Blazers' problem: too many players of roughly equal skill vying for minutes.

The Blazers' depth helped them in the playoffs Ñ Sabonis and Zach Randolph stepped in and played key roles when Davis and Derek Anderson went down with injuries Ñ but when everyone is healthy, the mix isn't right.

Jeff McInnis, a starter his previous three seasons for the L.A. Clippers, averaged only 14 minutes in the playoffs and played just three on Sunday.

'Just to be sitting on the bench and have no effect on the game É I'm not going to lie and say that isn't hard,' says McInnis, 28. 'Of course I would like a bigger role. (Game 7) was the biggest game of my life, and I played three minutes.'

After signing a three-year, free-agent deal last summer, McInnis said he was led to believe that the Blazers would make a trade to relieve their crowded point-guard position, but it never happened.

'This summer, it could be me,' McInnis says of a trade. 'I love being in Portland. It is a perfect place for me. But I just want to play again.'

Antonio Daniels is in much the same boat. The combination guard, good enough to start for some NBA teams, also played 14 minutes a game in the series, including seven in Game 7. Daniels, 28, is a free agent but has said he wants to re-sign with the Blazers.

Portland's enigmatic top two scorers Ñ Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells Ñ aren't untouchable but are not likely to be moved. Wallace, who turns 29 in September, has one year left on his contract, at $18 million. Wells, who turns 27 in September, has two more years at a total of $14.7 million. At that price, Wells would be more attractive than Wallace to other clubs, but don't expect Whitsitt to deal either of them.

Notes: Center Chris Dudley plans to retire and seek a front office job in the NBA, preferably in Portland.

It's very hard to beat a good team four straight times in a playoff series. The Blazers nearly had it happen to them, then nearly pulled off the feat. The homecourt advantage that Dallas worked for through its 60-win regular season might have been the difference in Game 7.

After Game 6, Portland's Ruben Patterson told the media that the Mavericks 'looked a little scared.' Nelson used Patterson's comment for pregame motivation. 'Ruben Patterson is dumber than a rock because we put what he said on the board, which helped us,' the Dallas coach said. 'Saying that he sees fear in our eyes É thank you, Ruben, for being dumber than a rock and for getting us to where we need to be.' Comment: If the Mavericks needed a harmless quote from a Blazer reserve for incentive in a Game 7, they need to rethink their priorities.

The Mavericks had a superb fourth quarter, sinking 13 of 17 shots from the field and six of seven from the foul line. They scored on 16 of 22 possessions in the period, including the last six. 'It came down to us trying to outdo them for the last 12 minutes of the game, and we weren't able to pull it off,' Pippen says. 'We laid it on the line, but I would have to say the better team advanced.'

Wells led Portland in series scoring (19.0) while shooting .395 from the field. The Blazer swing man was terrific in Games 2 and 6, but in the other five games he made only 24 of 86 shots (.278).

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