Even though they missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 seasons, the Blazers did plenty to endear themselves to their fan base in 2003-04. After years of harboring knuckleheads who found new and creative ways to break laws and embarrass the community, Portland brought in a raft of "character guys" (to use NBA parlance), players for whom the faithful could root without reservation. No acquisition was more widely applauded than that of 6'10" veteran center Theo Ratliff.
He earned that high esteem because the odds of Ratliff getting into trouble are about the same as an Oregon winter passing without rain. Also, for the third time in four seasons, the Rattler led the league in blocked shots, more than holding his own against the behemoths in the Western Conference. Consider this: Before Ratliff arrived from Atlanta in a February trade involving Rasheed Wallace, the Blazers gave up 93.9 points a game; with Ratliff they surrendered 89.2. "Defense has always sort of been my thing," he says. "They call it dirty work, but I always think blocking shots and rebounding is fun."
A week before training camp Portland rewarded Ratliff with a three-year contract extension that will pay him $46 million over the next four seasons--a big chunk of change for a 31-year-old who has spent considerable time on the injured list throughout his career. But it was as much a nod to Ratliff's attitude as his aptitude. What's more, the Blazers' brass is expecting Ratliff to be as assertive on offense as he is on defense. "Fine with me," he says. "What player doesn't like to hear that he should be shooting more?"
After scoring so many points in the Portland community, he deserves to get a few more on the floor. --L.J.W.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Trail Blazers
I don't see how they can succeed with Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Zach Randolph playing at the two forward spots. Neither one is a good defender at power forward, and one of them will be especially vulnerable at small forward.... I've always liked Abdur-Rahim as a low-post scorer, but I think he's a tired player, and the immature or outright bad behavior of some of the guys in Portland is going to wear on him. If the team struggles and he's being played out of position, I wonder if he'll dig down and play hard.... Next summer they have to decide whether to give the 23-year-old Randolph a near-max deal or trade him and resign Abdur-Rahim, who's 27. I'd always go with the younger player, especially with Randolph coming off a double-double year in which he averaged 20 and 10. He has very good footwork and a herky-jerky style that keeps his defender off-balance, plus he's lefthanded. He can't jump over a phone book, but with his shoulder strength and his bulk he can get you off your feet. I don't think the money would stunt his growth, because he has a lot of pride and he loves to play.... I'm not a Darius Miles fan. He suffers from a poor grasp of the game combined with a severe overestimation of his ability. Should I be specific? He's not a shooter, he can't dribble, he's a turnover waiting to happen and he doesn't play D.... I was surprised they acquired Nick Van Exel when they're trying to change their image. He's a hell of a scorer, but he'll eventually go his own way and take a lot of bad shots.... With his energy and quickness, Sebastian Telfair has a chance to be like Darrell Armstrong. He's an unbelievable passer, and he can score, though he's a streaky shooter.
Traded last Feb. 9, Theo Ratliff led both Atlanta (166) and Portland (141) in blocks, becoming the first to reject 300 since 1995-96 (Dikembe Mutombo).
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003-04 statistics
41-41 (10th in West)
Points scored: 90.7 (21st in NBA)
Points allowed: 92.0 (12th)
Coach: Maurice Cheeks
(fourth season with the Blazers)
NEW ACQUISITION *PVR Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 86)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH;
GREG NELSON (RANDOLPH)
Due a new contract after the season, Randolph would do well to repeat last year's 20point, 10-rebound season.