The earthquake that rumbled through the Pacific Northwest last week sent a sizable portion of Portland's workforce scrambling for cover at their places of employment, but the Trail Blazers were not among them. "I didn't feel a thing," said guard Steve Smith of the temblor that struck as the team was about to begin a workout at its practice facility. "It didn't seem as if anything around me was moving that wasn't supposed to be moving."
Maybe it was merely that tremors feel normal to Portland, a team that lives on an emotional fault line. Although the Blazers had maintained their equilibrium well enough to put together a 42-18 record through Sunday, best in the Western Conference, there's no telling how long their foundation will hold up. Several players' discontent over their minutes and the burden of coping with star forward Rasheed Wallace's lack of self-control have made Portland the edgiest team in the league. "This team is so good and so deep, but sometimes it doesn't look as if guys enjoy themselves," says veteran forward Detlef Schrempf. "I'd like to see us have more fun."
The locker room certainly wasn't a barrel of laughs after a 94-81 win over the Los Angeles Clippers last week. In one corner an irritated Damon Stoudamire, the Blazers' point guard, was pointedly declaring to reporters that he had no animosity toward Rod Strickland, the point guard who had been waived by the Washington Wizards and who would sign with the Blazers on Monday. "There's no rift between me and Rod, and there isn't going to be one," Stoudamire said. Still, he didn't sound as if he were looking forward to the loss of playing time that Strickland's arrival probably will cause. "I mean, what am I supposed to do, throw a big tantrum or something?" said Stoudamire. "It wouldn't do any good. They're going to bring in who they want to bring in. It doesn't matter what I want."
In another corner of the room, Smith was leaving no doubt that he wasn't exactly thrilled at having lost his starting spot at shooting guard to Bonzi Wells in December. "I'll never get used to it," Smith said. "Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, and if this is the way it's got to be for us to win the title, then great. But if we don't...."
If they don't?
"You finish the sentence," Smith said with a slight smile.
Power forward Dale Davis can sympathize with Smith and Stoudamire. Davis, who skipped a practice in December to protest having seen only five minutes of action in a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, still has issues concerning his reduced playing time. Asked where he was headed as he left the locker room one night last week, Davis replied, "I'm going over to the rec league to get some [playing time]."
One of the big men with whom he is sharing minutes is Shawn Kemp, like Davis a former All-Star. Though Kemp still lugs around at least 25 extra pounds, he has played effectively in short stretches lately, which is encouraging to coach Mike Dunleavy but could have a negative effect on Davis's disposition.
Dunleavy dismisses the occasional expression of dissatisfaction as the trade-off for having such an impressive assemblage of talent, "a traveling All-Star squad," as Schrempf calls it. "It's always tough," Dunleavy says, "particularly when you have guys who have been the star in other places and are accustomed to getting a certain number of minutes and shots. Guys' moods change all the time in a system like this. You talk to them one week and they're more or less O.K., but by the next week their attitude has changed."
The Blazers would surely welcome a change in the 6'11" Wallace's attitude toward referees. The irrational anger he directs at them puts Portland in a precarious position—its only indispensable player is also the one most likely to leave the team in the lurch because of his temper. Wallace set an NBA season record with 38 technical fouls in 1999-00, and had six ejections, but compared with this season, he was practically Miss Manners last year. Apparently he wants to set a record for T's that will be as enduring as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Through Sunday, Wallace had already amassed 32 technicals and been thrown out of four games. In a memorable meltdown against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 1, he earned an ejection, a two-game suspension and a $10,000 fine for tossing a towel in the face of referee Gary Benson. Wallace was so enraged at his dismissal that several players and members of the coaching staff had to restrain him from going after Benson again. "I got my share of technicals as a player, but tonight was one of the worst I've ever seen," Suns coach Scott Skiles said.