The PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS are something of an enigma, having improved at guard, where they were already strong, but not in the frontcourt, where they badly needed help. The Blazers were 38-18 over the final four months of the season after installing Mychal Thompson at center and turning their running game over to rookie Guard Kelvin Ransey. Thompson's performance in the playoffs was typical of his work all season: a 40-point, 11-rebound effort in the second game of the mini-series with Kansas City and then a 17-point four-rebound performance in the decisive third game. Kermit Washington, one of the league's best rebounding forwards, is the only other notable up front. The acquisition of Darnell Valentine in the draft will allow Portland Coach Jack Ramsay to start Ransey and Jim Paxson at guard and then, in relief, bring on his backcourt of Valentine, a defensive buzz saw, and Billy Ray Bates, an offensive weapon. "Last year I made Billy Ray a superstar on offense," Ramsay quipped. "This year it's defense."
The SAN DIEGO CLIPPERS went through most of the preseason without two players whose talents they will count upon heavily this season. Guard Phil Smith, the Clippers' best player at their strongest position, hadn't signed a contract as the season opened (though he played in the Clippers' initial victory over Houston) and rookie Tom Chambers, a 6'11" center forward who was supposed to back up Swen Nater, sat out until two weeks into the preseason. Nater was the second-leading rebounder in the league last year, but he is 31 and coming off knee surgery. Moses Malone burned him for 42 points in that San Diego victory. If anything happens to Nater and Chambers doesn't pan out, San Diego will be left with either 6'10" Jerome Whitehead, or Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, a 6'9" sometime forward, sometime guard, to play the middle. Bryant says he doesn't even eat jelly beans anymore; he now prefers foods that are made with whole wheat flour and are high in fiber content. Joe (Bran Muffin) Bryant? That nickname is almost as far out as San Diego is going to finish in the Pacific.