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Trying to blaze a trail in the brutal Western Conference

Only two seasons ago, the Portland Trailblazers were on top of the NBA mountain.

They had reached the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year, were playing in a new arena, and boasted one of the deepest rosters in league history.

They had an emerging superstar in Rasheed Wallace, a fiery backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Steve Smith, and had just acquired a six-time world champion in Scottie Pippen.

Add the richest owner in sports and a shrewd general manager to the equation and you can start sizing up the rings, right? Not so fast.

"Rip City" basketball was looking way up until the Northwest Hex reared its ugly head.

Up 15 points with less than 10 minutes to go versus the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Blazers suddenly went ice cold from the floor, and allowed the Lakers to slowly creep back into the game and win the series.

Changes were ahead, but there was no need to overhaul the roster. The Blazers were still a top-three Western Conference team. All they had to do was trade for a couple big men to guard Shaq and they would be right there in 2001.

But all the trades for Shawn Kemp and Dale Davis did for the team was send it into further disarray. The Blazers sorely underachieved and compiled a 50-32 record, which landed them a first-round playoff matchup with the Lakers that resulted in a sweep.

Was it the coach? Was it chemistry? Maybe a lack of focus?

Portland GM Bob Whitsitt tried to remedy all three problems at once by firing unpopular coach Mike Dunleavy in favor of players' coach in Maurice Cheeks.

He traded Steve Smith to San Antonio for Derek Anderson and Steve Kerr, then signed the troubled but enormously talented Ruben Patterson.

He bolstered the front line by drafting big men Zach Randolph and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje. He sat down with Wallace to personally discuss his detrimental on-court temperament.

Whitsitt, perhaps fearing his own job, did everything in his power this offseason to make the Blazers a more cohesive unit in 2001. There were even rumors that he made a push to steal the Seattle Sonics' enigmatic point guard, Gary Payton.

Would it be enough for the Blazers to hang with the Lakers, Spurs and Kings? That remains to be seen. But if they play like they did in last week's double-digit wins over Utah and the L.A. Clippers, the future looks bright.

Cheeks is an excellent fit for this group of misfits that is loaded with talent but lacks focus. The electric Anderson should pay huge dividends playing alongside another emerging superstar in Bonzi Wells, and Patterson brings instant energy to a team that was often complacent last season.

Regardless of how the Blazers stack up against the rest of the West this season, if we have learned one thing the past few years, it's that they will be entertaining to watch.

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