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A Real Downer
Phil Taylor
March 11, 1996
With wayward star guard Rod Strickland in revolt against coach P.J. Carlesimo and the Trail Blazers suffering from chronic free throw failure, Portland is in danger of dropping out of the race for a playoff berth
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March 11, 1996

A Real Downer

With wayward star guard Rod Strickland in revolt against coach P.J. Carlesimo and the Trail Blazers suffering from chronic free throw failure, Portland is in danger of dropping out of the race for a playoff berth

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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 lace, 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."

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