Portland Trail Blazers coach P.J. Carlesimo sat in the
mid-afternoon Miami traffic last Friday, getting nowhere except
further behind schedule. What he thought would be a quick
errand--arranging to have extra tickets for that night's game
against the Miami Heat left for some friends--had taken longer
than he had expected, and now here he was on his car phone,
already late for his next appointment and apologizing profusely
to the person on the other end. "I thought I was being smart,"
he said. "But things got a little complicated. You think you
know what you're getting into, and then it turns into something
Carlesimo could just as easily have been talking about his
troubled tenure as the Blazers' coach. When he left Seton Hall
to take the Portland job last season, he thought he knew what he
was getting into, that the adjustment from coaching
inexperienced college kids to handling highly paid veterans
wouldn't be smooth. But lately his stewardship has turned into
something else--something uglier. The Blazers' 115-89 loss to the
Orlando Magic last Saturday dropped them to 2-9 since the
All-Star break and 26-33 overall, and it left them mired in
ninth place in the Western Conference; had the season ended last
weekend, Portland would have been out of the playoffs. But the
Blazers weren't merely losing, they were collapsing. NBC analyst
Steve Jones, a former Portland player who has also been the
Blazers' local television commentator for 13 years, said last
week that the team had "a major storm brewing, like Hurricane
Anger appears to be the prevailing emotion among the Blazers
these days. There have been at least two locker room scuffles in
recent weeks--a bizarre, postpractice flare-up between forward
Clifford Robinson and guard James Robinson, who were both
undressed and preparing to shower at the time, and a brief
dispute between forwards Gary Trent and Dontonio Wingfield. When
boxer Roy Jones Jr. visited the Blazers' locker room after
Portland had halted a three-game slide by beating Miami 102-88,
he might well have been looking for sparring partners.
The hometown fans have also been the target of some of the
Blazers' ire. Forward Clifford Robinson, Portland's leading
scorer (22.0 average at week's end), was outraged when
spectators at the Blazers' new Rose Garden arena booed him
during the second half of a 3-for-13 shooting performance in a
108-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 20. He might be
ready for a trade, Robinson declared, "if I have to put up with
this s---." But the angriest man in Portland has been Rod
Strickland, the talented point guard whose relationship with his
coach seemed to go sour on the day Carlesimo took over the
Blazers. Or maybe before that. But there's no doubt that the
dispute reached its boiling point on Feb. 22, the day of the
league's trading deadline, when Strickland, upset that Portland
hadn't fulfilled his demand to be dealt, went AWOL and the
Blazers responded by suspending him indefinitely without pay.
Strickland, at week's end Portland's second-leading scorer at
19.3 points a game and third in the league in assists (9.5),
lost 1/82 of his $2.28 million salary, or about $27,805, for
each of the six games he missed. Through Sunday the suspension
had cost him $166,830.
On Monday, Strickland, who had declined interview requests from
SI, finally showed up at the Blazers' practice in Portland and
pledged to play out the remainder of the season. But it was
probable that he and Carlesimo did not have a long-term future
together. "I don't think it can ever be completely resolved, not
at this point," says forward Harvey Grant, Strickland's closest
friend on the Blazers. "There's too much bad blood. Rod will be
back to finish the season, but after that, well, something's
probably going to have to happen."
Strickland wanted something to happen before the trading
deadline. His antagonism toward Carlesimo dates at least as far
back as last March, when Carlesimo benched him for missing a
team flight--"I don't like him, and you can write that,"
Strickland said at the time--and it may go back even further, to
a relatively minor incident at the 1988 Olympic trials.
Carlesimo was helping to run the tryouts, and Strickland, who
had just finished an All-America junior season at DePaul, was
auditioning for a spot on the Olympic team, which he ultimately
failed to make. The way Strickland remembers it, he was slighted
in some of the scrimmages and drills that Carlesimo ran.
But Strickland wasn't nearly as enraged then as he was the day
before the trading deadline, when he was hit with a $3,100 fine
for missing several mandatory weightlifting sessions during the
season. "Any trade rumors?" he angrily and profanely asked a
reporter. "Me for [Minnesota Timberwolves guard] J.R. Rider?
Whatever. They'd better get rid of me." The next day he warned
that if a trade wasn't made, his relationship with Carlesimo
could get "very ugly."
Blazers president Bob Whitsitt maintains that only in the hours
before the trade deadline did Strickland ever ask to go
elsewhere. "I asked Rod last summer if he wanted to be traded,
and right to my face he said that he didn't, that he felt he
could work out whatever problems he had with P.J.," says
Whitsitt. "I asked him again about two weeks before the
deadline, and he said he didn't want to go anywhere. Then a day
and a half before the deadline, he came in and demanded a trade."
Strickland's agent, Mark Termini, calls the assertion that there
had been no earlier trade requests "inaccurate," claims that
there were "numerous meetings" with Whitsitt about Strickland's
displeasure and believes that relations between Carlesimo and
Strickland had long before deteriorated to the point where
Strickland shouldn't have needed to openly ask for a trade. "If
it were pouring down rain in Portland and Bob was walking down
the street," Termini says, "would he need me to tap him on the
shoulder and tell him to put up his umbrella?"
Whitsitt says that the Blazers never came to the brink of making
a deal for Strickland, who has two years remaining on his
$12.6 million contract. But according to sources around the
league, a trade with Denver that would have included Nuggets
guard Jalen Rose and forward Reggie Williams fell apart when the
Blazers wanted forward LaPhonso Ellis included in the package.
And after Strickland's furious reaction to the fine for missing
the weightlifting sessions, the Blazers contacted Minnesota
about a trade in which Rider and Strickland would have been the
principals. But no deal was made, which suggests that Carlesimo
wants to make one last attempt to mend his relationship with
Strickland and that Whitsitt is unwilling to trade him for less
than equal value. "If we sit down at the end of the season when
everyone has a cooler head and Rod tells me he wants out, then
we can take our time and determine what would be the best deal,"
Whitsitt says. "But I can't tell you how many guys have screamed
for a trade in the middle of the year and then been grateful
after the season that they didn't get what they asked for. We
still think there's a chance Rod will be one of those guys."
There's probably a better chance of Chuck and Di getting back
together. The Blazers almost certainly will have to choose
between Strickland and Carlesimo before next season. Carlesimo's
friendship with billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen, as well as
the three years remaining on his five-year, $7.5 million
contract, are important factors in his favor, although buying
out his contract would not exactly cause Allen, one of the
cofounders of Microsoft, much financial hardship. "All he has to
do [to pay off Carlesimo] is sell about 100 shares of
Microsoft," Steve Jones says jokingly. "That still leaves him
with millions more."
Strickland has never made much of an attempt to mask his
feelings about Carlesimo, although he has also never been very
specific about the reasons for those feelings. He and other
Blazers have referred vaguely to shouting matches in practices,
but Carlesimo seems genuinely baffled by Strickland's attitude
toward him. "Until these last few weeks I thought we had a more
productive relationship than last year," he says. "Was there a
huge difference? No. But we had talked about the need to work
together as efficiently as we could. This is not to say that he
doesn't have some reasons that are very valid in his mind, but
at this point I can't say that I have a clear sense of what
those reasons are."
What is clear is that Strickland has never been happy for very
long with any of his three NBA teams. After being drafted by the
New York Knicks in 1988, he complained, probably justifiably,
that coach Stu Jackson was not giving him the playing time he
deserved, and the Knicks fulfilled his demand to be traded by
sending him to San Antonio in the middle of his second season.
He became a starter for the Spurs but eventually felt
unappreciated and underpaid. He held out for the first 24 games
of 1991-92 and left San Antonio at the end of that season to
sign with Portland. Given his history and his unwillingness to
be specific about how Carlesimo has wronged him, it's fair to
wonder whether Strickland, not Carlesimo, is the problem.
The Strickland blowup has been the biggest headache in what has
been a difficult two seasons for Carlesimo. In 1994-95, he
became the first college coach with no prior NBA experience to
finish with a winning record (44-38) in his first NBA season
since Cotton Fitzsimmons achieved a 48-34 mark 25 years ago
after going from Kansas State to the Phoenix Suns. Nevertheless,
Carlesimo has had to deal with the conventional wisdom that
college coaches are out of their depth in the NBA, as well as
with his own reputation as a coach who barks at his players in
practice. "That perception of me as a screamer has been
inaccurate from the beginning," Carlesimo says. "I don't think I
have all the answers, but I know how to coach, and I think I
know how to deal with people, on any level. I think you could go
in our locker room right now and not find a player who will tell
you I'm in his face, screaming and yelling every day."
That was true, but the Blazers didn't give Carlesimo many
enthusiastic endorsements, either. "Personally I have no
problems with Coach P.J.," says forward Buck Williams, a veteran
of 15 NBA seasons, the last seven in Portland. "He took over
this team at a difficult point and inherited some players who
might not be here if he had been around when they were drafted
or signed. I support him entirely." Does every player feel that
way? "Well, quite obviously not," Williams says. "But players
don't have to love a coach in order to play hard and win."
"I don't want to judge him too much," says Clifford Robinson.
"Does every guy in this locker room love him? Doesn't really
matter. This isn't really a happy team right now, but it's
mostly because we're losing, not because of who the coach is."
Carlesimo dismisses as unfounded rumors that have him returning
to Seton Hall or taking over the not-yet-vacant coaching slots
at North Carolina State or St. John's. "Anybody who says I'm not
happy in this job hasn't talked to me," he says. "I'm not
unhappy with anything but our record."
Happily for Carlesimo, Strickland's return could right the
Blazers. Rumeal Robinson, promoted from the CBA's Connecticut
Pride on Jan. 10, has filled in admirably at the point, but
Portland has suffered in Strickland's absence, scoring nearly
eight fewer points a game. Clifford Robinson--with Clifford,
James and Rumeal, the Blazers lead the league in Robinsons--has
missed Strickland as much as anyone. Through Sunday, Robinson
was shooting only 42.6% from the field, the lowest since his
rookie year, and he has struggled since the All-Star break,
averaging 15.1 points on 35.7% shooting. "Rod not being around
had something to do with it," he says. "I could count on him
getting me the ball to get me going."
The Blazers' fondest hopes are that Strickland will provide a
spark and that their glaring flaw, poor free throw shooting,
will go away. Portland's 64.4% at the line is by far the worst
mark in the league. The Blazers are in danger of breaking the
NBA record for the worst team free throw percentage, 63.5%, set
by the 1967-68 Philadelphia 76ers. Any team with center Chris
Dudley, who once shot 30.5% with the New Jersey Nets, is bound
to be less than stellar at the line. But through Sunday, Dudley
was at 52.1%, better than his career mark of 45.3%. Guard Aaron
McKie and rookie center Arvydas Sabonis are the only Blazers who
have played significant minutes all season and are over 70%.
The Blazers' real culprits at the line have been Clifford
Robinson (62.3%) and Strickland (63.5%), who between them have
shot almost half of Portland's free throws. Partly because of
their struggles, at week's end the Blazers were 7-19 in games
decided by five points or fewer. "If you look at how many games
we would have won just by hitting free throws down the stretch,
you'd see that our record should be significantly better,"
Carlesimo says. "We've tried overemphasizing it, we've tried
low-keying it, and nothing has worked. We haven't tried a
psychologist yet, but I'm not ruling anything out."
But a better investment for Portland might be a marriage
counselor to patch things up between Carlesimo and his wayward
point guard. Because until Strickland's long-term future is
settled, the Blazers will remain a fractious family.