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Back in the saddle again
by Stephen Siegel / March 25, 2002

General Manager Bob Whitsitt might tell you he knew all along this was coming, but the truth is no one could have predicted a turnaround that has seen the club move steadily up in the standings while posting a league-best 18-3 record since the All-Star break. While Trader Bob has assembled a group of stars the past few years, team chemistry was taking a back seat to those stars’ egos. Former coach Mike Dunleavy couldn’t keep everyone happy, and the result was an embarrassing showing on the court.

But in the past few months, those days have become a distant memory. First-year coach Maurice Cheeks is letting the club play, and as the current cast of characters has become more and more comfortable with each other, the team has grown into a winning one. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for this is Cheeks’ ability to listen to his players’ suggestions without imposing his authority. Rasheed Wallace basically has the green light to do what he wants on the court, from jacking up three-pointers to barking at the refs to calling the plays.

Let’s be honest, though. Rasheed may have a bit of a temper problem, but when you have a player of his caliber on your team, you’re best off if he can take the reigns in a tight game. Great teams may be comprised of several good parts, but only if there is clear leadership for the tense moments. When Wallace is calling his own number, at least everyone else on the court knows that and is comfortable with it.

“It’s about believing in the coach, first and foremost, and what he’s preaching,” says NBA veteran John Starks. “They had to get used to Maurice, and he had to get used to them and know what their likes and dislikes are as a team. I think getting it to their superstar, Rasheed, and getting him to become more of a leader, which he has done, has helped them tremendously.”

Recently, there haven’t been many tense moments. Wallace is in charge. Scottie Pippen is playing with effort because the games matter, and he finally understands his role: He is no longer a superstar, he is just a solid all-around player. Pippen won’t fill the box score with gaudy numbers, but if you read his stat sheet on any given night, there will probably be numbers under assists, points, rebounds and steals. Let’s not forget Scottie has hit a few big shots in his time, too.

Ruben Patterson is playing the way he always does, with passion. Damon Stoudamire, after starting the season on a sour note by losing his starting job within the first few weeks, has adjusted to Cheeks’ system and is playing as comfortably and as well as he has since his days as a Raptor.

If it’s all about leadership, then the team these assorted parts have become has plenty to go around. Jeff Short of KOVO Radio in Utah says he believed Cheeks was doomed at the beginning of the year because the players just weren’t getting the job done. But now, “Maurice Cheeks could be coach of the year. Or Scottie Pippen could be.”

In any given NBA game, the point differential doesn’t matter; the losing team always seems to have a big run left in it. For these Trail Blazers, the same could be said of their season. Perhaps the biggest indication of that is the change in Pippen, who has gone from uninterested bystander in regular seasons past to team leader this year. How has it happened?

“We learned from the past,” Pippen says. “We’re not going to get back in games by yelling at the officials. We got back into it by believing in one another.”

Stephen Siegel is a freelance sports writer for local Portland publications and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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