Brian Grant, the rich, new forward for the Trail Blazers,
laughed in astonishment after two days of training camp. "You
should see our practices," he said, shaking his head. "They're
incredible to watch. Everyone on this team is big. And everyone
can jump, jump, jump. The athleticism is amazing."
The Blazers are the NBA's All-Vertical Team. They're also one of
the league's tallest teams, except for point guard Kenny
Anderson, who's listed at 6'1", weighs 168 pounds and has a
32-inch waist and hands so small he can't palm a basketball.
It's impressive raw material for new coach Mike Dunleavy to
mold. "We have talent," says Anderson. "I don't think anyone
can come in and mess it up."
Grant will improve the mix. He was signed as a free agent in the
off-season to a seven-year, $63 million deal, which made one
Western Conference general manager wince and say, "He's a nice
player, but $9 million a year?" The Blazers signed him because
he's only 25 and, at 6'9" and 254 pounds, has the physique of a
bodybuilder. He fits in with Portland's physical style. Over
each of the last 10 seasons the Blazers have finished in the top
five in the NBA in rebounding. With Grant they should finish in
the top three.
The Blazers also signed Grant because he's a solid citizen. As
in recent years, there are misgivings about Portland's
chemistry. Shooting guard Isaiah Rider and backup forward Gary
Trent have embarrassed the organization with their off-court
misdeeds. Talented young power forward Rasheed Wallace has been
tagged with the reputation of being difficult. Grant is tough,
bright and committed, and it's unlikely the money will change
him. "If I was going to a team that wasn't winning and I was
going to be the player they built around, there'd be pressure,"
says Grant. "But I'm not. Rasheed got a big contract. Kenny got
a nice contract. It's not just me."
Grant was pursued by several teams, including the Cavaliers, who
reportedly offered him more money. "But it came down to, Do you
really want to win?" Grant says. "Which team has the better
chance of winning? Where are the teams headed?"
The Blazers are going forward under Dunleavy, who has altered
Portland's deliberate, half-court style to an up-tempo approach.
"I love to run," says Grant. His addition will ensure that
Dunleavy won't have to rush 19-year-old forward Jermaine O'Neal,
who didn't play much last year--which was one reason coach P.J.
Carlesimo was fired--but is expected to see action in the first
half of every game this year. At 6'11", O'Neal can play small
forward. "He's an unbelievable talent," says Grant.
Grant will spend time at small forward, too, but will he be able
to hit the 15-footer? As strictly a low-post player for the
Kings in his first three years in the league, he rarely took a
shot beyond 12 feet. That has led to some concern that Grant's
game is too much like that of Wallace, whose most effective
moves are made around the hoop.
The same is true for most of Portland's players. The Blazers'
shooting is their weak point--their best three-point man
probably is Arvydas Sabonis, their hulking 7'3" center (though
last season Rider had a higher shooting percentage on
three-pointers). When opposing teams double-team Grant and
Wallace in the low post, the Blazers will miss 6'10" forward
Cliff Robinson, an explosive scorer who left Portland after
eight seasons and signed with the Suns as a free agent.
The Trail Blazers got tired of Robinson gagging during the
postseason, so they let him go. Being bounced in the first round
of the playoffs again would be a big disappointment for the
Blazers, but given the remarkable strength of the Western
Conference, it could happen. Portland is young, inexperienced
and talented. However, winning in the NBA today is more about
knowledge, experience and positioning, not how high you can
jump. The Blazers will win by 40 one night, then lose by 40 the
next. In either case, they'll be entertaining to watch. --T.K.