These are unsettling times to be a Trail Blazer. General Manager John Nash has made no secret that every player on the roster Ñ Zach Randolph might be the exception Ñ is tradable. Every transgression on or off the court Ñ and they've been all too frequent Ñ has been magnified.
There have been satisfying wins over great teams at home (Sacramento, the Lakers), a mystifying 0-8 record on the road and shaky defeats even in the confines of the Rose Garden (Washington, Milwaukee).
One player, Randolph, has performed with the steadiness of an All-Star in his first season as a starter. The rest of the regulars have mixed too many downs with the ups. Collectively, they have been a sieve on defense, allowing opponents to shoot an NBA-high .470 from the field Ña problem that needed to be solved Thursday night against Phoenix and will be a concern Saturday at home against San Antonio and Sunday at Sacramento.
'Defense is a pride thing,' says Milwaukee journeyman Joe Smith, who lit up the Blazers for 19 points and nine rebounds in a 106-99 win Tuesday. 'It starts with individuals. You have to take it as a personal challenge. It's all about buckling down and stopping your man and then communicating and getting help from your teammates.
'I don't know how it is in practice (for the Blazers), but I can't say they got the job done against us. We got some pretty good looks.'
Damon Stoudamire will never name names, but the veteran point guard questions his teammates' mental readiness.
'It has to do with coming in prepared and understanding what you have to do and not thinking any game will be easy,' he says. 'Nobody will roll over and die in this league. We don't even contest shots (against the Bucks). Their guys were shooting wide-open shots. We are a bad defensive team right now. We lost to a team we have no business losing to.'
Stoudamire includes himself in an indictment of those wearing the Blazer red, white and black.
'We still have a chance to do things with this team, but it's not on Nash, it's not on (coach Maurice) Cheeks, it's not the assistants,' Stoudamire says. 'It's on the players, man. We have to hold ourselves accountable.
'The excuses we have used in the past aren't there anymore. You can't say you're not getting the playing time. (Cheeks) plays eight guys, you know when you're playing, and you know you're going to play a lot. What more can we ask for?'
Lighting it up
Smith may have been the first player in NBA history to wear sunglasses during a game. He was poked in the eye four days before the Portland game and tried on several pairs of shades, finally opting for some Oakleys.
'The arena lights are so bright, they bother my vision,' says Smith, who sank nine of 15 shots from the floor. 'I needed something to shut the light out. Even the referees were teasing me about it before the game.'
Judging from the results, Smith may have started a trend. You'll see players throughout the league testing it. Their future is so bright É
A familiar face was on the Milwaukee bench, and we're not talking about former Blazer Terry Porter, the Bucks' head coach. His chief assistant is Mike Schuler, head coach in Portland for 2 1/2 years and the NBA coach of the year in 1986-87.
Schuler, 63, had been away from coaching since 2000 when Porter called him at his home in Phoenix with a job offer.
'It would have had to have been a very special situation to get me out of retirement,' Schuler says. 'I had turned down a couple of jobs, and I thought I was doing what I was going to do the rest of my life Ñ devote my time to my grandchildren. It speaks volumes when a guy hires his former head coach to be an assistant on his first head-coaching job.'
Schuler says Porter, an early candidate for coach of the year, is a natural.
'It has been very enjoyable watching Terry slide into that (head coach) chair, and he has people around him who understand what he's going through,' Schuler says. 'This is the best coaching staff I have been around. There are no political games, no one-upmanship. Everybody knows his position and responsibilities.
'Terry is doing an outstanding job. He came in with the utmost respect of the players because of what he had accomplished during his playing career. He is very quick to ask and seek opinions and advice, very receptive to all of that. Yet when it comes time to make a decision, we do it the way he wants it done.'
Celtics wanted Wells
One of the teams that talked to Blazer executives Steve Patterson and John Nash about Wells was Boston. General Manager Danny Ainge says he proposed a trade that would have sent Tony Battie, Eric Williams, Walter McCarty, Kedrick Brown and Mike James to Portland for Wells, Jeff McInnis and Ruben Patterson.
'I asked them what it would take to get Bonzi,' Ainge told the Boston media. 'We didn't have what they wanted. It was that simple.'
Boston's offer reminds me of the trade Portland made with Houston to acquire Scottie Pippen. The Rockets took back Stacey Augmon, Kelvin Cato, Ed Gray, Carlos Rogers, Brian Shaw and Walt Williams. In hindsight, the deal amounted to Pippen for Cato, which might wind up being in Houston's favor when it's all said and done.
Portland is not interested in acquiring long-term contracts. Brown, Battie and McCarty are contracted through 2006, which no doubt squelched the deal if the talent disparity didn't already do the trick.
As for Ainge's interest in Wells, he says this:
'I care if a guy's a decent person or not, but I don't necessarily mind a player who doesn't do everything a coach tells him to do. I have never seen a great player who did. I remember Larry (Bird) coming to me after a timeout and telling me he wanted to run a different play than the coach just said. Which play do you think I ran?
'I'm looking at whatever I can do to improve our talent. I don't want to get in a position of judging a player totally on the fact he had a run-in with the coach. I don't want to be looking at isolated incidents. We all do things in the heat of the moment we regret. I know I've embarrassed myself and done some things I'm not proud of. Look at Scottie Pippen. He sat out the last 1.8 seconds of a game because the play wasn't called for him.'
A run-in with a coach? Isolated incidents? Wells' rap sheet runs as wide as Oliver Miller's midsection, which Ainge evidently was willing to overlook for the upgrade in talent.
Wes is more (3-pointers)
Wes Person is doing what the Blazers wanted him to do when they acquired him in the Bonzi Wells trade Ñ sink shots from the perimeter. Going into Thursday's Phoenix game, the veteran shooting guard had knocked down 8 of 17 3-point attempts, including a pair of crucial ones in the fourth quarter against the Lakers.
'You want to play in the fourth quarter of a big game,' Person says. 'That's when you can earn the confidence of the coach. I want to make sure I make shots in the fourth quarter.'
Person, 32, fell victim to a youth movement in Memphis. But the younger brother of former NBA sharpshooter Chuck Person has always been able to fill up the hoop. He's shown that he hasn't lost his touch. And that's a valuable commodity on a Portland team with a dearth of perimeter shooters.
'I always took pride in the fact I can make shots on a consistent basis,' says the 6-6 Person, who came into the season with a career 3-point percentage of .417. 'I want to be known for that.'
Porter is the latest in a line of coaches impressed by the quiet, workmanlike production of the Blazers' Randolph. 'I looked at the stat sheet and it said 30 points and 18 rebounds, and I couldn't believe it,' Porter says. 'It comes so easy for him. For a young big guy, he has great footwork. That's the one thing that stands out. He has a good sense and feel for the game. Nowadays, you don't find that with big guys. They want to step outside and shoot jumpers and crossover and do that kind of stuff, but he has a great sense of what to do in the post.'
Kudos to Blazer management and public address announcer Mark Mason for letting the stirring ovation for Porter go on for a while before Tuesday's game. It was deserved, and it showed class that the Blazers allowed an opposing coach his due from fans who remember his decade of contributions to the franchise as a player.