"Hopefully, Glenn can keep this focus for the whole year," says Bucks center Ervin Johnson. Karl compares Robinson favorably to his Eastern Conference counterparts, but the coach remains frustrated that Robinson, Cassell and Ray Allen aren't more devoted to playing disciplined D and spreading around the offense. "Glenn is still a young player," Karl says. "Agewise, I don't know if he is, but maturity-wise he has room to grow."
Sometimes Robinson, who turned 28 on Jan. 10, wants to take his coach aside and tell him he's learning as fast as he can. "People wrote me off early in my career, but now I look at Elton Brand in Chicago," Robinson says of another No. 1 pick stuck with a losing organization. "He feels like it's never going to happen, but he's going to experience winning in this league. It's just not going to happen overnight."
Portland's Long-term Plans
Slash in Payroll Is Coming
To those who worry that billionaire Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen intends to subvert the spirit of the NBA's salary cap and buy his team a championship, the Blazers have a simple response: Relax. In a surprising admission, Portland president Bob Whitsitt says he will cut the club's payroll as soon as his current squad, which at week's end had won 11 of 12 games to gain the best record (28-11) in the Western Conference, is no longer a serious championship contender.
"We hope to keep this run going with these players for two or three more years," says Whitsitt, who is paying a league-record $86.5 million in salaries this season. "When it's over, we're going to bring the payroll down. It may take another year to bring it all the way back down, and then we'll give ourselves more cap flexibility, develop younger people and bring it back up to make another run."
Whitsitt doesn't like the widespread perception that he is playing by a different set of rules from the rest of the league. "This idea that Paul's walking around with this wheelbarrow full of money and laughing and seeing if he can give it all away—that's all wrong," says Whitsitt. "Paul doesn't want to lose money, and in the future we are going to do everything to avoid paying [the luxury tax]." That tax, which is part of the 1999 collective bargaining agreement, will make its debut next season at an estimated threshold of $57 million—meaning that a team will owe the league a dollar for every dollar it spends on players' salaries above that figure.
Whitsitt hasn't always been a big spender. After arriving in 1994 from Seattle, where he was the reigning NBA executive of the year, he slashed the league's second-highest payroll by unloading expensive veterans Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Buck Williams. Whitsitt assembled a younger, cheaper team that maintained Portland's streak of playoff appearances (approaching 19 years) while netting profits reportedly in excess of $20 million in both 1995-96 and '96-97.
Those funds were meant to help bankroll the current team, which Whitsitt began assembling when he used his cap room to sign Brian Grant as a free agent in August 1997. That came during Whitsitt's larceny spree, in which he acquired Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire and Steve Smith in trades involving Rod Strickland, Kenny Anderson and Isaiah Rider, respectively.
Amid that wheeling and dealing, though, the NBA negotiated the luxury tax. "The rules changed on us overnight," Whitsitt says. "We had to decide, Do we change our plan and slide down the pole? Or do we suck it up and spend more to see our plan through to the finish?"
Everyone knows their decision. Last summer the Blazers shipped out Grant and Jermaine O'Neal and brought in Shawn Kemp, who will make a staggering $71 million through 2003-04, and Dale Davis, who is on the books for five years at $40 million. Those veteran front-court players were acquired to help Portland match up better against the Lakers and the Spurs.