The Blazers have been reenergized with Scottie Pippen running the
The tempestuous Trail Blazers have had so many problems in recent
years that a two-game losing streak last week was enough to set
off alarms. "Are your backs against the wall?" a writer asked
coach Maurice Cheeks last Friday, the morning after his Blazers
had scored only 60 points in a season-worst 28-point loss to the
visiting 76ers. "What are you talking about?" replied Cheeks.
"We're 39-22! We're fourth in the West!"
The Blazers are in such a surprisingly strong position because
Cheeks has rejuvenated 37-year-old Scottie Pippen by converting
him into a high-energy point guard. Last Saturday, Pippen rescued
the Blazers from their mini-crisis by playing help defense,
pushing the tempo and feeding Rasheed Wallace inside in the first
five minutes to set the tone for Portland's 94-80 win over
Indiana. "He has six rings," center Dale Davis says of Pippen.
"Who better to lead us?"
Cheeks was hoping to go easy this season on Pippen, who started
slowly after undergoing minor knee surgery last summer. But when
the Blazers staggered to a 3-6 start, Cheeks made Michael
Jordan's former lieutenant the point man. The Blazers have been
on a 37-16 roll since.
Pippen paid similar dividends when Cheeks turned him into a point
guard during the second half of last season. While the position
is still relatively new to Pippen--he was a small forward during
his first 14 NBA seasons, including 11 in the Bulls' triangle
offense--the responsibilities aren't. "He handled the ball the
majority of the time in Chicago and pushed the tempo," says
Pacers coach Isiah Thomas. "The difference is that he's calling a
lot of the plays."
Pippen is an old-fashioned pass-first floor leader, while the
Blazers' other point guards, Damon Stoudamire and Jeff McInnis,
are scorers as well as passers. Their style works for teams that
struggle to put five scorers on the floor, but that isn't a
problem for the Blazers, who are deep but don't have a single
go-to guy. "It would be easier if I had a 25-point scorer so I
could know who should be shooting the ball," says Pippen, who is
averaging 11.0 points and 4.5 assists. "I have to know when I
have to give this [or that] dog a bone and keep everybody happy."
Pippen may be the Blazers' savior, but he is also their worst
critic. In December he told SI that winning the championship this
season would be "impossible because of the makeup of our team,"
and he isn't backing away from his contention that team president
Bob Whitsitt and owner Paul Allen have spent unwisely in building
a $100 million roster. At the same time, Pippen insists he would
like to re-sign with Portland when his contract, worth $19.2
million this season, expires this summer. "I say what I feel, but
I can back it up," says Pippen.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (PIPPEN) While his old Bulls mate Jordan is winding down, Pippen is cranking it up in Portland.
COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Payton
On the trade-deadline deal in which the Sonics sent Gary Payton
and Desmond Mason to the Bucks for Ray Allen:
"Seattle has been playing better than Milwaukee, but that's
because Allen is an easygoing guy and Payton isn't. I've heard
that Gary was grating on his young teammates in Seattle. So now
the Sonics are benefiting from a honeymoon period with Ray, who
is a breath of fresh air compared with Gary. But next year the
Sonics are going to miss the hard-driving leadership that Gary
gave them over a long season. The Bucks are going to be a much
stronger team heading into the playoffs with Gary and Desmond
than they would have been with Ray. They're going through a
training camp on the fly, but I know a lot of teams in the East
didn't like the idea of Gary joining Milwaukee."