Injuries, internal strife crippling Blazers
TUALATIN, Ore. – Nate McMillan had a walking boot on his right foot and frustration on his face. The Portland Trail Blazers' coach had just engaged in a prolonged shouting match that filled the team's practice facility with his point guard – the same player who had been the franchise's big free-agent addition of the summer. Greg Oden(notes), the Blazers' supposed franchise center, was lumbering around on a pair of giant crutches. Steve Blake(notes), the team's other point guard, was at least on the floor, having recently returned from a bout with pneumonia. The same couldn't be said for Joel Przybilla(notes), who had taken over the starting job from Oden only to suffer his own season-ending knee injury. Or Travis Outlaw(notes). Or Nicolas Batum(notes).
Only six Blazers had been available to practice, and Jim Jensen, the team's longtime trainer, simply shook his head at the sight of it all.
"When the athletic trainer is involved in the news," Jensen said, "you know something is wrong."
Such is life for Portland's NBA franchise these days. They cleaned out the Jail Blazers only to become the Ail Blazers. Expected to contend for a berth in the Western Conference this season, they have weathered a staggering run of injuries that rivals anything the league has seen in years. Even the daily injury updates didn't seem as important compared to another problem that's simmered all season before boiling over Thursday: McMillan and point guard Andre Miller(notes) have struggled to build a productive relationship.
The two clashed at the end of Thursday's practice during a heated argument about Miller's role. Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard said as many as seven people talked in what he described as an open forum. But no one was heard louder than Miller and McMillan, who went back and forth at each other. A source with knowledge of the argument said Miller, who could not be reached for comment, has been frustrated for a while and became upset that McMillan called him out in front of the entire team during the pow-wow after practice.
McMillan apologized on Friday for how he handled the incident, and Miller downplayed it, as well, telling reporters “you’re always going to have disagreements like a relationship.”
Still, it’s clear this hasn’t been the best partnership for either party. The Blazers signed Miller after striking out in attempts to land Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Paul Millsap(notes), envisioning him as a heady, veteran point guard who could steer their young team into contention. Instead, McMillan has often used Miller off the bench. There's also been talk about Miller's production dropping when he's played in the backcourt with All-Star guard Brandon Roy(notes). Roy, however, says the two have recently worked better toward establishing a connection.
Though Miller has been one of the league's more productive point guards over the past decade, McMillan has seemingly favored using Blake since training camp began. Miller has struggled to accept his reserve role and bristled during the preseason when the local media reported he did not pass a conditioning test and wasn't really bonding with his new teammates.
"If I was told right out when I had my meetings that I would be a backup, then I wouldn't have come here," Miller told Yahoo! Sports in October.
Considering that Miller is one of the NBA's most mild-mannered players, it says something that he became frustrated enough to bark at McMillan in front of other players and coaches. Miller departed quickly from the practice facility afterward and skipped a scheduled players union meeting. He attended the team’s shootaround, where he spoke with reporters.
Miller's agent, Andy Miller, has spoken to his client about the incident and does not plan to request a trade.
"I was disappointed to learn of [Thursday's] events," Andy Miller told Yahoo! Sports. "I'm hoping over the next day or so we can find some common ground. I think he is handling it like a professional. Andre's only objective since Day 1 is to help this team win and it is still to help this team win."
The Blazers have done a good job of remaining at least in playoff contention, despite their injuries. But after losing their past two games and the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers visiting over the weekend, tension is running high.
"Everybody is a little frustrated," Roy said. "Sometimes you get frustrated when expectations are a little too high. I mean that because you can't overlook the fact of the guys we have out. We have to stay motivated with the guys we have and keep playing hard. I think everybody's fine, actually.
"Coach gets on players all the time. It wasn't nothing out of the ordinary for me. It was just a practice, and guys spoke."
Pritchard said Miller would not face any fines or punishment for his outburst. In fact, Pritchard thought the jawing between coach and player could help spark the team.
"I like – and I know Nate feels the same way – open and honest dialogue," Pritchard said. "I think you become better. It's like being in a marriage and you never say anything, it can get worse. But if you are open and honest with yourself and [others], it's all good.
"We want players to have a voice. We don't muzzle players. That's not our goal. We want them to have a clear mind. It wasn't just him, it was a lot of people.
"Sometimes we all get bottled up inside. You got to have a voice."
Regardless, the Blazers still have other problems to deal with beyond the battle of wills between Andre Miller and McMillan. Oden and Przybilla are out for the season. Blake, Batum (right shoulder), Outlaw (left foot) and swingman Rudy Fernandez(notes) (right leg) are still sidelined and Miller (back), Roy (hamstring) and forward LaMarcus Aldridge(notes) (ankle) are expected to play, but also have minor injuries. McMillan must coach games from his seat on the sideline after rupturing his Achilles tendon earlier in the season. Assistant coach Maurice Lucas is fighting bladder cancer and owner Paul Allen was recently diagnosed with lymphoma.
Thirty-seven-year-old veteran Juwan Howard(notes) is the Blazers' starting center after initially being signed as an insurance policy. With lots of young talent and two veteran guards to dangle in Miller and Blake, Pritchard has players that other teams could want in a trade in exchange for another big man. Still, the Blazers are hesitant about breaking up their young core.
"You build a deep team and you plan ahead, but you always have to keep your long-term future intact," Pritchard said. "We are not going to jeopardize anything to hurt that. That's the [overriding] thing.
"The challenge is always are you doing something for a quick-term fix, or are you doing something that really helps you long-term? Whether it works or not, you don't know. But we've always said, 'Let's sacrifice today for tomorrow.' We feel comfortable doing that. Our owner? That's what he wants. So that trickles down to everything I'm speaking."
In 21 years with the Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jensen has seen his share of injuries but never anything like this. He's taken to scheduling blocks of time for the injured players to receive treatment. One player comes in at 10 a.m., the next at 11 and on and on.
"There are certain things that you expect to see during a basketball season, the typical ankle sprains, muscle contusions, that kind of thing," Jensen said. "But to have the amount of surgeries that we've had this year has been the longest process ever. I didn't go to L.A. on the last trip because we had more guys that were requiring rehab than were playing."
Roy admitted the team's expectations have gone from making a serious run in the postseason to just fighting to stay healthy and make the playoffs.
"It's been difficult," Roy said. "We had a lot of expectations going into the season. Sometimes the pressure of taming the expectations of losing so many guys is difficult. But my message to the guys is we have to play together, keep giving all we can and not put our heads down. If we can do that, hopefully we can get some guys back.
"The goal went to let's just make sure we do what we have to do to get in the playoffs. … That's just being realistic."
Wizards starting over?
One NBA executive said the Washington Wizards continue to listen to offers for forwards Caron Butler(notes) and Antawn Jamison(notes). The source said that the Cleveland Cavaliers are willing to give up center Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes), but Washington doesn't appear interested in that deal. If the Wizards eventually have the opportunity to void Gilbert Arenas'(notes) $111 million contract and Butler and/or Jamison are moved for expiring deals, the Wizards could start from scratch with plenty of cap room in the heralded 2010 free-agent market.
"They should void [Arenas'] contract. That's the only way he can move forward," the NBA executive said. "They haven't won with him to date."
Another GM believes the Wizards need to make changes but also said: "Don't you think Arenas' stuff is a little over the top? We need to give him a chance before we crucify him and burn his $100 million. Isn't what [Cleveland guard] Delonte West(notes) did way worse with loaded guns?"
Two NBA general managers predict that commissioner David Stern will push for a hard salary cap once the Collective Bargaining Agreement re-opens in the summer of 2011. The league wants to better help teams save money while leveling the playing field league-wide. One of the GMs said such a hard cap would be gradually implemented. "I don't know where it goes, but the players have to realize that teams are losing too much money," one GM said. … Cleveland Cavaliers center Shaquille O'Neal(notes) was averaging just 8.4 shots through his first 31 contests, which is close to the career-low 8.2 shots he averaged with the Phoenix Suns during the 2007-08 season after being traded from the Miami Heat. LeBron James(notes) and Mo Williams(notes) get most of the shots when they're on the floor with O'Neal, but Cleveland coach Mike Brown plans to experiment playing O'Neal at the beginning of the second quarter when James is usually out. "We will start to do it more as the season goes along in the first half," said Brown, who claims he hasn't received any complaints from O'Neal. … An NBA source said the Sacramento Kings will likely take on an expiring contract from a team looking to lower its tax bill in hopes of picking up an extra second round draft pick. … The Houston Rockets have continued to be patient with their attempts to trade Tracy McGrady(notes). "It's probably something that might take to the deadline," Rockets GM Daryl Morey said. "That's just how the league works. Teams don't want to move until they are almost forced to move. But I think there are enough teams that are interested. We're hoping that something happens to help him out and help us out." Morey said he hopes to acquire an "elite level" player for McGrady. … Several NBA executives and scouts said that the talent at the NBA Development League's Showcase was the worst it has been since the event began in 2005.