The joke around Portland these days is that the Trail Blazers would be a championship contender ... if they played in the NCAA. They have four players on their roster who jumped from high school to the NBA, and four who should still be pointing toward March Madness. As it is, Portland is one of the youngest teams in the league and in the midst of a maddening rebuilding process.
The roster is so green that Sebastian Telfair, a 20-year-old point guard entering his second season, has been designated the team leader. "He's definitely the leader," says general manager John Nash. "His teammates all enjoy playing with him because if they get open, they know he'll get them the ball." The Blazers put Telfair to the test last season, starting him in 26 of the final 27 games. He averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 assists during that stretch, but Portland went 5-22 and finished the year with its fewest wins in 27 years.
To help get things turned around, the 6-foot, 160-pound Telfair will have to play an even more mature game this season. He worked hard in the off-season, improving his shaky outside shooting and toning down his spectacular yet erratic passing. "He's a different player," says Nash.
Telfair also will benefit from the controlled, up-tempo offense of new coach Nate McMillan. The only thing Telfair may not like about his new coach is McMillan's ban on headbands. While it will be odd to watch Telfair, Zach Randolph and Darius Miles playing without the headgear, if it helps people forget about last season then McMillan has taken the first step toward rebuilding the team.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Trail Blazers
They look like bottom-dwellers, but there's always a surprise team and it could be Portland. They have a lot of talented players, an excellent center rotation and a new coach instilling some discipline.... Where did Joel Przybilla come from to average 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in only 24.4 minutes a game last year? He's slimmed down, and he's a terrific shot blocker. He also understands team defense and in that locker room stands out as a pro.... They're best served by using Theo Ratliff as a good--though expensive--backup center to Przybilla. Either guy gives them somebody to protect the rim, which is mandatory when Zach Randolph is your starting power forward.... Randolph is a scary scorer, but I think of him as a dog with great skills who hasn't shown he can be a team player. When they pledged all of that money to Randolph and Darius Miles, it made it very hard for them to change the negative attitudes that have plagued this franchise. Miles plays hard only some of the time.... They're counting on Number 6 pick Martell Webster, a high school shooter, to be the next Dale Ellis. All Webster can do now is catch and shoot; he can't put it on the floor, and he'll be a liability defensively. But as a shooter he has great form, an excellent release and deep range.
Joel Przybilla and Theo Ratliff combined to block more shots than each of six teams did last season. The duo's 321 rejections equaled the total of a seventh team, the Sixers.
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004-05 statistics
Record: 27-55 (13th in West)
Points scored: 92.9 (27th in NBA)
Points allowed: 96.9 (15th)
Coach: Nate McMillan
(first season with the Trail Blazers)