Underachieving Blazers need fresh start

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

One quarter of the way into the 2001-02 NBA season, and the Portland Trailblazers are already fighting for their playoff lives.

At 12-12, the Blazers sit in the eighth and final Western Conference playoff slot, and have shown no signs of making a surge back toward the top — a place they have called home the past four seasons.

But instead of battling it out with the Lakers and Spurs for the West’s top seed, this underachieving bunch is trying to fend off the Warriors and Clippers just to save face.

In a conference where mediocrity translates into lottery, the talented yet undersized Blazers are in serious danger of cashing in the jackpot.

They have consistently proven their inconsistency by beating top Eastern Conference teams such as Milwaukee and Detroit, then rolling over against Western Conference bottom-feeders like Houston and Golden State.

Had they lost to the Rockets Tuesday — a team that has now lost 15 straight games — there may have been a major fan uprising.

But at least they’d be getting some attention.

The Blazers’ lackadaisical play this season has led to virtual indifference among the fan base. Instead of being the best show in town, they’re playing second fiddle to the Winterhawks and Seahawks — a team that plays 150 miles away.

Similar to the Seahawks, the Blazers are on the cusp of the playoff picture. But unlike the Seahawks, this Portland team has provided very little — if any — excitement this year.

Only two seasons removed from the conference finals — one fourth-quarter collapse away from the NBA Finals — and fans can’t even mention the Blazers in the same breath as Sacramento, San Antonio or L.A.

All three teams have made Portland look silly this season, exposing a glaring lack of size on the front line — a problem that was compounded by the retirement of seven-footer Arvydas Sabonis.

His departure has hurt far more than expected, with Portland’s two best inside players, Dale Davis and Rasheed Wallace, unable to defend the Shaquille O’Neals and Tim Duncans of the world.

Davis has been solid, but at 6’10”, he simply can’t hang on the post against the league’s dominating centers.

Wallace has also had his moments, and currently leads the team in scoring (19.9 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 rpg). His volatile temper has even improved this year, but he has yet to demonstrate a leadership ability that a team’s superstar must exhibit.

Derek Anderson, Ruben Patterson and Steve Kerr have been quality additions to the team, but none has the ability to carry the team on his back. Similarly, Damon Stoudamire has continued to prove that he is not a “difference maker” for this team.

Mighty Mouse has been a lot more like Minnie Mouse thus far.

One player who has realized his potential for the Blazers is Bonzi Wells. He has stepped up his game this season, flourishing in a starting role with 18.8 ppg and 5.4 rpg. But his combative personality continues to hinder the Blazers’ overall development.

Wells recently fueled rumors about a possible trade out of town when he said the fans “don’t matter to us.”

And with this team’s lackluster 12-12 record, that seems all too apparent to the fans.

If the Blazers continue to spiral downward, we could be talking about the most talented team in league history to finish the season out of the playoffs.

But despite their early-season struggles, it’s still a bit early to jump ship. Afterall, a new year is upon us. Maybe the Blazers will resolve to develop consistency in 2002.

They may surprise the Portland fans and the entire league in the season’s second half.

Just don’t bet on it.

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