Getting the Roles Sorted Out
Cheeks Has Portland Blazing
After an ugly 12-month hiatus, the Trail Blazers have suddenly reemerged as championship contenders. Portland has long been one of the NBA's most talented teams, but now that talent is finally producing rebounds and defensive stops, not just points. The credit for the Blazers' resurgence goes to rookie coach Maurice Cheeks.
Cheeks took over a disgruntled team with an $84 million payroll (second only to the Knicks) that had been swept in the first round by the Lakers last season. Scottie Pippen was questioning the team's chemistry as recently as two months ago, when Cheeks was still experimenting with a variety of rotations. After staggering to a 13-18 start, the Blazers hit their stride and went on a 12-game winning streak, which ended last Saturday with a 109-106 overtime loss at Denver. That run carried Portland to a 38-25 record at week's end and sixth place in the West, 3� games behind the fourth-place Spurs.
Cheeks's approach is exemplified by his hard-earned relationship with point guard Damon Stoudamire. After Stoudamire missed seven games because of tendinitis in his right knee early in the season, he was forced to win his starting position back from Pippen. "It worked out for the best because he made me understand you're going to do it his way or you're not going to play," Stoudamire says of Cheeks. "What he did with me set the tone for the whole team."
At times Pippen handles the point and Stoudamire becomes a 5'10" shooting guard. While Bucks coach George Karl says that move by Cheeks is an indictment of Stoudamire's play-making skills, Cheeks maintains that he's been trying to find new ways to develop Stoudamire as a scorer. With his confidence renewed, Stoudamire hit a pair of last-second shots during the winning streak. "He's never once talked about anyone's weaknesses on this team," Stoudamire says. "What we focus on is handling our business, executing our offense and playing solid defense."
Cheeks understands how to lay a solid foundation and build on it. He was a second-round draft pick out of West Texas State who played point guard for 15 years, steering the 76ers to the 1983 title. He made his coaching debut as a CBA assistant before spending the last seven years on the Philadelphia bench, where he helped Larry Brown reach the 2001 Finals.
Watching Brown work through his relationship with Allen Iverson instructed Cheeks in the art of managing players. He had to persuade swingman Derek Anderson to accept playing 20 minutes off the bench. "It's been hard, but he's made it easier for me to accept," says Anderson. "He had to find out if guys were going to sacrifice for the team. When he stuck to his guns, everybody realized we've got to do what he says."
Circumstances have contributed to the new-found happiness in Portland. The retirement of Arvydas Sabon-is opened up a starting position for 6'11" Dale Davis, who, while not a true center, had helped the Blazers become, at week's end, the NBA's third best team in rebounding margin. The bench, which used to be filled with unused and unhappy veterans-including Davis—is now the domain of rookies Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje and Zach Randolph. Cheeks also feels none of the pressure to play Shawn Kemp that team president Bob Whitsitt applied to coach Mike Dunleavy last season. Whitsitt says he worked with Cheeks to "define the roles for Maurice the way he wanted them defined."
With Rasheed Wallace responding to Cheeks's demand that he carry the scoring load (through Sunday, Portland was 20-2 when he scored 23 points or more) and the Blazers playing as a unit, Portland is poised to seize a postseason opportunity if the Lakers stumble. The Blazers' recent ascent and the hard knocks they've taken along the way have proved to them they don't need home court advantage. "It wasn't easy?' Cheeks says. "I had never been a head coach before. I told the guys I may make some mistakes; so you live with my mistakes, and I'll live with yours."
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