Line up for roll call, you Portland Trail Blazers. O.K., guys, is ev-ree-body un-happy?
Kiki Vandeweghe, small forward. Unhappy. No. 1 on the Trail Blazers' Miffed Parade. Vandeweghe is unhappy with what he perceives to be management's insensitivity to his aching back, which sidelined him for 45 games at different times last season and for the first 27 games in '88-89. Now that he's playing again, he's unhappy with his role, or lack thereof, in coach Mike Schuler's rotation. Vandeweghe wants to be traded.
Clyde Drexler, all-star shooting guard. Unhappy. He has never seen eye to eye with Schuler and is also unhappy that Vandeweghe, his best buddy, is unhappy. Last week Drexler didn't rule out the possibility that he'll ask to be traded if circumstances don't change.
Steve Johnson, center—power forward. Unhappy. He's concerned that his minutes have shrunk to 22.3 per game now that rookie Mark Bryant from Seton Hall is starting. What's more, Johnson faces the prospect of even less playing time once center Sam Bowie—remember him?—returns to action, which could happen as early as next week. Johnson hasn't uttered the T-word to the press, but he has expressed his disenchantment in strong terms to teammates and friends.
January 16, 1989
Jerome Kersey, small forward. Unhappy. Kersey, who starts ahead of the high-scoring Vandeweghe, is unhappy because the Vandeweghe flap is affecting team chemistry. Kersey said last week that management should trade one of them. You can bet Portland won't get rid of Kersey. Kersey also must be unhappy—though he has yet to say so publicly—that Drexler would prefer Vandeweghe to start.
Bucky Buckwalter, vice-president, basketball operations. Unhappy. Even though Buckwalter appears to be his normal smiling self, the daily exercise of trying to deal Vandeweghe while also professing that Vandeweghe isn't trade bait has become a strain. Last week The Oregonian, the Portland daily paper, revealed that Buckwalter sent a videotape of Vandeweghe practicing to the San Antonio Spurs, who had requested it to see if Vandeweghe's back was in good shape. Dwight Jaynes, a reporter for The Oregonian, dubbed the tape "the Blazers' own version of the Home Shopping Network."
Schuler, the third-year coach. Unhappy. He's unhappy that this talented team is wading in a pool bubbling with dissension and backbiting. A tightly wound man who resembles a televangelist with his stylish threads, his earnest and intense face, and his well-trained hair, Schuler hardly relaxes in the calmest of times, so the ongoing turmoil must be broasting his insides.
So the turmoil goes, which only serves to make other Blazers unhappy too. Another fine season by point guard Terry Porter is being overshadowed by the disturbances. And does Bowie, the star-crossed seven-footer who hasn't played a regular-season game since November 1986 because of a broken right tibia, really want to come back to this?
Some observers picked Portland to win the Western Conference championship, and in anyone's talent roundup the Trail Blazers would have to rank among the NBA's top half-dozen teams. At week's end, Portland was 18-13—three games behind the Los Angeles Lakers and two behind the Phoenix Suns in the Pacific Division—but it was an anemic 18-13. Consider last week's 2-2 showing: The Blazers won two home games they were expected to win—119-95 over the Miami Heat, and 147-142 in double overtime over the Sacramento Kings thanks to a career-high 50 points from Drexler—and dropped two road games they needed to win to make a real statement. They lost 133-120 to the Lakers and 129-123 to the Seattle SuperSonics. Some statement.
Those four games fit the pattern of last season's Trail Blazers, who went 34-4 against teams with losing records and 19-25 against those with winning records. (Of Portland's 18 victories this season, only five have come against teams with winning records.) The Lakers have recently been making like a big, soft mattress—through Sunday they had lost seven straight on the road—and Portland should have jumped on them. Instead, the Blazers engaged each other in pillow fights. On two occasions in recent weeks—at Sacramento on Dec. 27 and at Los Angeles on Jan. 4—Portland could have tied for first in the division with a victory but lost. "Maybe we just don't have the maturity, have what it takes to handle that situation," said Schuler after the rout at the hands of the Lakers. "It hurts like hell to say that, but maybe it's true."
Vandeweghe's situation is the most pressing. As he shot around in Portland's Memorial Coliseum last Friday afternoon, hours before the game against the Kings in which he would play 26 minutes to Kersey's 40, it was obvious what the Blazers miss when he's not in the lineup. During one stretch, Vandeweghe made 48 of 52 jump shots, all from more than 15 feet. "He's our best offensive player," says Drexler about Vandeweghe, who was an attendant in Drexler's wedding, on Dec. 30. "I still learn moves from him. We need him to start."
Vandeweghe wants to start, as he did before his back sidelined him. "It's not that I object to being a sixth man per se," he says. "There are some good sixth-man situations, like, say, Michael Cooper's with the Lakers. But I don't want that role in this situation. Look, Mike doesn't want me here, for whatever reason. It's a detriment for a team to have an ongoing controversy like this. That being the case, it's better that I leave."
Says Schuler, "I want Kiki on this team." Maybe. But Schuler despairs of Vandeweghe's defensive and rebounding weaknesses, and he clearly prefers the slashing, physical dimension that Kersey provides to the steady offensive contributions of Vandeweghe, who has a 23.6-point career average. And Drexler's scoring average—28.1 points a game through Sunday—doesn't give him the right to make up the lineup card.
The Drexler-Schuler relationship is more complex and, ultimately, of more importance to Portland's fortunes than the Vandeweghe-Schuler relationship. No matter how well things are going on the court for Drexler—and it would behoove him to remember that his game has blossomed under Schuler's system—he finds it hard to get along with his coach. "It's not just that Mike and I are different," says Drexler. "It's that we're total opposites. It was hard for us right from the beginning, and I'd say it's getting worse, not better. The Kiki thing is part of it, but there are lots of other things, too."
Is he thinking trade?
"If the situation doesn't improve, yes, I'd say so," says Drexler. Hmm, Drexler on the Blazer Home Shopping Network? Now that would get salivary glands working overtime around the league.
For his part, Schuler studiously avoids criticizing Drexler. He's not like former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden, who fought his battles with Adrian Dantley and Kelly Tripucka in public. "I guess it's no secret that Clyde and I don't always see eye to eye about basketball matters" is all Schuler would say last week.
According to sources on the Trail Blazers, those matters include Drexler's lackadaisical practice habits, his sometimes questionable shot selection, his lack of discipline in Portland's half-court offense and his failure to assert himself as a team leader. Last week's loss to the Lakers afforded a telling snapshot. During a second-quarter timeout, 11 Blazers grouped around Schuler, while Drexler, who was out of the game at the time, remained on the bench. That's not the posture an all-star should be taking. Then again, all Drexler did while he was on the court was hang up a 33-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple double.
So who's to blame? Jim Paxson, a former Portland player who was traded to the Boston Celtics midway through last season, points a big finger at Drexler and a small one at Schuler. "Clyde is the type of player who, if he's upset, can just say, 'I'm not playing,' " says Paxson. "By the same token, Clyde can win games by himself with his talent. His attitude upset Jack [Ramsay, who was fired as Portland's coach after the 1985-86 season], and it upsets Mike now. Clyde pretty much decides when he wants to practice, too. That makes it tough on a coach, who's supposed to treat everyone the same."
Says Drexler, "I'm a guy who goes all out on the court, every minute, during games. When would you rather have it, during practices or during games?" Just a wild guess, Clyde, but most coaches would answer, "Both."
Of Schuler, Paxson says, "A lot of mistakes Mike makes are because of overkill—too many team meetings, scouting reports, practices [for example, the Blazers worked out on Thanksgiving Day], that kind of thing. That can work against a player like Clyde, who's very instinctive in what he does on the court."
However the blame eventually is apportioned between Drexler and Schuler, their disagreements are distractions Portland can ill afford, because, its talent notwithstanding, it has some obvious weaknesses, notably foul-prone big men who aren't shot blockers and inconsistent outside shooting, especially when Vandeweghe is on the bench—or the injured list. Moreover, although the Blazers can run—"I think they're the best transition team in the league, including the Lakers," says Sacramento coach Jerry Reynolds—their execution of a half-court offense ranges from adequate to atrocious. "The right hand doesn't know what the left is doing half the time," says one Portland player who requested anonymity.
Against Sacramento on Friday, Drexler and center Kevin Duckworth repeatedly posted up on the same side of the floor. Or Drexler and Vandeweghe played their Such Good Friends offense, passing mainly to each other. Against the SuperSonics the next night, the 24-second clock expired while Porter dribbled around, having forgotten that the clock is not reset after a blocked shot.
The team's inability to run an effective half-court attack has been particularly costly in the playoffs. In May, when the action invariably gets slower and more cautious, call Portland the Fail Blazers. Portland has lost in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs for three straight years and hasn't won a postseason series of any significance since 1976-77, when the Blazers won their only NBA championship, with Bill Walton at center. "They need some kind of breakthrough to really get over the hump," says Laker coach Pat Riley. "Until they get it, there's really a squeeze on them."
Well, it's only January, but the squeeze is on Portland right now, and it's coming from within. The Trail Blazers need to do something about it quick.