Blazers pay, play to win

NBA: It has taken more than the league's highest payroll to elevate the Portland Trail Blazers to title contenders, and they know it will take more than money to get the job done.

February 18, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO -- The word spread Monday afternoon around the athletic complex at San Francisco City College. One knot of students after another ran up the stairs, pressing their faces against the glass doors of the dilapidated gymnasium.

The attraction? The Portland Trail Blazers, whose 38-11 record was the best in the NBA at last week's All-Star break and whose $73.9 million payroll is the highest in the league this season. "The best team money could buy," was the way Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson had sarcastically put it a few days before.

But the students didn't seem impressed.

"Hey, Scottie, I could take you," one of them yelled at Scottie Pippen.

"Nice hair, Brian," another screamed at the dreadlocked Brian Grant.

The Blazers couldn't hear those comments as they ran through a two-hour practice on the other side of the door. But they are well aware the doubts could return unless they reverse last year's defeat to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, a four-game sweep that led to a major overhaul of the roster.

In fact, Pippen might be counted among the current skeptics.

"We just have to continue to get better; we're not good right now," said Pippen, who was traded after one unhappy season with the Houston Rockets for six players, including former Maryland standout Walt Williams. "We have a good record, but we have a tendency to play to the level of the competition. That's not a good sign when you're trying to become a championship team."

Aside from getting Pippen, a three-time All-NBA first-team player during his 11 seasons with the Chicago Bulls, the Blazers also sent perennial headache J. R. Rider and underachieving Jim Jackson to Atlanta for former All-Star guard Steve Smith. They signed another former All-Star, Seattle free-agent forward Detlef Schrempf.

Along with a payroll nearly a staggering $40 million above the league's salary cap -- the New York Knicks are second at $73.5 million overall -- the trade gave the Blazers the deepest rotation in the league and the kind of flexibility to match up with most of the top contenders.

But will all the moves make the Blazers good enough to win their first NBA title in 23 years?

"It's yet to be determined," said coach Mike Dunleavy, in his third year after stops in Los Angeles with the Lakers and Milwaukee. "I feel this team is better. We're very efficient and very versatile, and it has translated into a few extra wins in a 50-game regular season. [Portland was 35-15 in last year's lockout-shortened season] But it's still to be determined."

The acquisition of Pippen helped the Blazers on a number of levels. Aside from his stature as one of the game's 50 greatest players, Pippen has led a defense that ranks first in the league (89.3 points a game allowed) and an offense that relied too much last year on point guard Damon Stoudamire.

"It's been good," Stoudamire said. "Last year, I felt so burdened at times, because I had to run every play. I never could play off the ball. When I was getting my opportunities [to shoot], they weren't the ones I wanted. I'm getting better looks at the basket."

The offense runs through Pippen, but that doesn't mean it ends there.

"Scottie doesn't demand shots," said third-string center Joe Kleine, a former teammate of Pippen's for one season in Chicago. "You know if Scottie wanted to, he could score 30 points a game and take 25 shots a game. That's not his style. Scottie's not comfortable with that. He wants to play a more all-around game."

On a team with all five starters averaging in double figures, Pippen's 12.8 points rank third behind Rasheed Wallace and Smith. Pippen's 268 assists lead the Blazers, one more than Stoudamire, as do his 74 steals. His 349 rebounds are three fewer than Wallace.

"I try to do the things to make a ballclub win," said Pippen, 34, whose key three-pointer with 38 seconds proved the go-ahead basket in Portland's 99-95 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night. "Whatever that takes, I feel that's my role."

Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose team recently beat the Blazers, called the them "a Noah's Ark kind of team they have two of everything."

Van Gundy said that Pippen's presence is felt mostly in Portland's half-court defense, an essential for playoff success. "He can take any number of guys and shut them down," Van Gundy said after coaching the East team in the All-Star Game.

Said Pippen, "I think I bring a lot of focus. We have a lot of guys who want to shoot the ball, but if you're not going to do anything on the defensive end, it's really going to hurt our chances of becoming a championship team. We have a lot of energy and guys with a personality dedicated to winning."

Are the Blazers, who will play host the hapless Washington Wizards tonight at the Rose Garden, lacking anything?

"We don't have any selfishness," Pippen said.

Kleine said that Pippen has helped the Blazers "fight the stigma of selfishness."

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