Nash brings some justice to Blazers team that's a crime

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

December 07, 2003|By MILTON KENT

To many around the NBA, ridding the Portland Trail Blazers of their "Jail" Blazers image will take nothing short of an exorcism. But in new general manager John Nash's mind, his task is hardly that of a crusade, but more about doing what's right.

"We're in business, and one of the first rules of business is to pay attention to what your customers are telling you," Nash said last week. "The customers of Portland have been telling this organization that they want a change. It's not the quality of play that they are upset with. It's the quality of character."

Toward that end, Nash dealt guard Bonzi Wells, one of the poster children for bad Blazers behavior, to the Memphis Grizzlies for guard Wesley Person and a conditional first-round pick in June's draft. The deal came Wednesday, one day after forward Zach Randolph was charged with driving under the influence.

Wells, who was named co-captain before the season, lost that honor last month and was suspended for two games for cursing at beleaguered coach Maurice Cheeks after being removed from a game. In addition, he was fined for making an obscene gesture to a fan at a home game last month. And before Wells was traded, teammate Rasheed Wallace fired a basketball at Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, who was shooting jumpers after a shootaround Wednesday. While Boumtje-Boumtje lay on the floor in pain, Wallace and Wells ran giggling from the scene.

But Wells was hardly the only misanthrope on the Portland roster. Wallace, guard Damon Stoudamire and forward Qyntel Woods each were arrested on marijuana possession charges last year, and Stoudamire faced similar charges in the offseason. Forward Ruben Patterson was signed by the Blazers as a free agent after being charged with assaulting a minor, and was the subject of a domestic abuse complaint by his wife that was later dropped. In addition, Randolph punched Patterson after practice last season.

Nash, the former Washington Bullets and New Jersey Nets general manager, was brought in to clean house, and the Wells deal was the first sweep of the broom, but with a catch.

Blazers owner Paul Allen has given Nash and new team president Steve Patterson the mandate to trim the Portland payroll, which was the league's highest last season. It still is, at $82 million, but that's down from $105 million, Nash notes. Next year, the payroll will be $55 million, and 11 of Portland's 13 players have two years or less to go on their contracts, meaning the team could have more flexibility in clearing salary-cap space.

What Nash cannot do is take on some other team's malcontents or bad contracts just to get the Portland fans and their team back in sync.

"We could have acquired a lot of those players that have been moved, but we didn't want to take on players that were either under long-term commitments beyond those that we would be giving up or players that had baggage and issues," Nash said. "We're not trying to trade our baggage for other baggage. We want to get out of the baggage-handling business."

At the same time, however, Allen has made it clear that he expects the Blazers' 22-year postseason streak, the NBA's longest, to continue. If Nash can do all that, he'll be more than a crusader. He'll be a miracle worker.

Quiz

Name the only two players in NBA history to accumulate 19,000 points, 7,000 assists and 2,000 steals.

Spurring Bryant's move?

The seeds of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant's departure from Los Angeles, perhaps to San Antonio, could have been planted last week by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

It seems Popovich told a local all-sports radio station before the Lakers-Spurs meeting Wednesday that he felt the SBC Center crowd's reaction to Bryant during the game last month in San Antonio was "in bad form ... and ignorant on the part of the fans ... because everybody is innocent until proven guilty," referring to the sexual assault charges facing Bryant in Colorado.

The comments were posted on the station's Web site, then relayed to Bryant at the morning shootaround, and he was receptive to the message.

"I appreciate that from Pop, him sticking up for me like that. ... He didn't have to do that," Bryant told the Los Angeles Daily News. "I really appreciate that. It goes a long way with me."

Here's the kicker: Bryant can opt out of his contract at the end of the season, and has said he plans to explore free agency. The Spurs will have somewhere between $12 million-$13 million in cap room after the season.

Sounds like a possible love connection, huh?

Cuban's payroll theory

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is at it again, with an interesting, albeit slightly skewed point.

Appearing on ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike'" show, Cuban charged that Eastern Conference owners had less interest in winning and more interest in keeping their payrolls down.

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