On first impression, I really like the new Trail Blazer brain trust. Steve Patterson and John Nash are quality people, and you really don't hear a discouraging word about them around the NBA.
I already like them enough to worry about them.
I'm afraid their mission is near impossible. They've been charged with the task of cutting payroll, embarking as much as possible on a youth movement and, at the same time, continuing to be a winning team.
Nash, introduced as the general manager this week, looks a pinkie ring away from the role of a kindly yet deadly uncle on 'The Sopranos.' He says he thinks the Blazers will remain a playoff team. For his sake, I hope so. But I'm not so sure it would be fair to blame him if it's not in the near future.
Before coming to the Blazers, Nash worked for the Philadelphia Phillies on a project that is helping dispose of Veterans Stadium memorabilia before the stadium is imploded. I'm afraid that could be a great warm-up for him Ñ he's probably going to have to blow up the Blazers, too.
Forget all the talk about cleaning up this team: The real mission is cutting salary. You think the Gary Payton trade was rejected because of concerns about Payton's character? Yeah, right Ñ he'd be an angel compared to others with this franchise. Paul Allen just didn't want to take on the contract.
And folks, the only real way to cut payroll in the NBA is to allow your free agents to go elsewhere, without getting anything in return! You can tap dance around that all you want, but it's the truth. You can trade players Ñ Rasheed Wallace, please Ñ but you still have to take back players with equivalent salaries.
Once you get your payroll near the cap, you can let a player walk away, then dip into the free-agent pool to replace him. You'd have cap room to do that. But until you get near the cap, you've got to just bite the bullet and let them go without compensation.
This summer, Portland has three major free agents: Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis and Antonio Daniels. I don't see a way any of them will return next season if the team is truly serious about hacking away at that $105 million payroll of last season.
Just by allowing those three players to leave, the Blazers would lop about $30 million off last year's payroll, which turns into a $60 million savings, given the league's luxury tax.
It's also the reason I believe Wallace may stay in Portland next season. Wallace has just one year left on his contract, and it will pay him $18 million. If you keep him this year and then send him on his way Ñ without any compensation Ñ you'll shave another $36 million worth of red ink, after tax.
But those decisions aren't necessarily good for the team on the court. You'd lose, inside of two seasons, Pippen, Sabonis, Daniels and Wallace Ñ and get nothing in return. Ouch. Theoretically, though, you'd open playing time for younger players and move toward the day when you'd have room under the salary cap to sign free agents. If you can attract them.
But it's a long way to that cap ($43.8 million next season) from where the Blazers are now. And it's likely to be a very painful trip Ñ particularly if Zach Randolph, Bonzi Wells and Qyntel Woods don't prove to be as good as the Blazers think they are.
So, you see, moving toward fiscal responsibility while trying to stay competitive is a unique challenge. I wish nothing but luck to Patterson and Nash as they attempt it. But if they fail, this franchise will look more like the Bulls, Nuggets or Cavaliers than it will the Blazers.
And I'm not sure that would be the fault of Nash or Patterson. You'd have to look north, to the people in Seattle who spent the team into this predicament in the first place.