The Tempestuous Trail Blazers have had so many problems in recent years that a two-game losing streak last week was enough to set off alarms. "Are your backs against the wall?" a writer asked coach Maurice Cheeks last Friday, the morning after his Blazers had scored only 60 points in a season-worst 28-point loss to the visiting 76ers. "What are you talking about?" replied Cheeks. "We're 39-22! We're fourth in the West!"
The Blazers are in such a surprisingly strong position because Cheeks has rejuvenated 37-year-old Scottie Pippen by converting him into a high-energy point guard. Last Saturday, Pippen rescued the Blazers from their mini-crisis by playing help defense, pushing the tempo and feeding Rasheed Wallace inside in the first five minutes to set the tone for Portland's 94-80 win over Indiana. "He has six rings," center Dale Davis says of Pippen. "Who better to lead us?"
Cheeks was hoping to go easy this season on Pippen, who started slowly after undergoing minor knee surgery last summer. But when the Blazers staggered to a 3-6 start, Cheeks made Michael Jordan's former lieutenant the point man. The Blazers have been on a 37-16 roll since.
Pippen paid similar dividends when Cheeks turned him into a point guard during the second half of last season. While the position is still relatively new to Pippen—he was a small forward during his first 14 NBA seasons, including 11 in the Bulls' triangle offense—the responsibilities aren't. "He handled the ball the majority of the time in Chicago and pushed the tempo," says Pacers coach Isiah Thomas. "The difference is that he's calling a lot of the plays."
Pippen is an old-fashioned pass-first floor leader, while the Blazers' other point guards, Damon Stoudamire and Jeff McInnis, are scorers as well as passers. Their style works for teams that struggle to put five scorers on the floor, but that isn't a problem for the Blazers, who are deep but don't have a single go-to guy. "It would be easier if I had a 25-point scorer so I could know who should be shooting the ball," says Pippen, who is averaging 11.0 points and 4.5 assists. "I have to know when I have to give this [or that] dog a bone and keep everybody happy."
Pippen may be the Blazers' savior, but he is also their worst critic. In December he told SI that winning the championship this season would be "impossible because of the makeup of our team," and he isn't backing away from his contention that team president Bob Whitsitt and owner Paul Allen have spent unwisely in building a $100 million roster. At the same time, Pippen insists he would like to re-sign with Portland when his contract, worth $19.2 million this season, expires this summer. "I say what I feel, but I can back it up," says Pippen.