Distance between Blazers, cap freedom is Miles

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

With a knee and reputation ruined in the Jail Blazer era, Portland dispatched Darius Miles into a reluctant retirement and prayed for its permanence. The league doctors deemed his microfracture injury unfit for a return. It was the perfect, tidy way for the Trail Blazers to turn a problem into possibilities. As long as Miles stayed out of the game, as long as the NBA believed him to be a toxic teammate without the body to make his talent worth the trouble, the franchise was destined for significant salary-cap space in the next two summers.

The rich would get richer. The prospects made rival executives seethe. After all, they were uneasy with Portland’s rapid rise in the Western Conference and flustered with owner Paul Allen’s willingness to spend millions of dollars to buy first-round picks from cash-strapped franchises.

All Miles had to do was pocket the $18 million left on his contract and savvy Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard would be armed with the financial freedom to make life hell in the Western Conference. Nevertheless, Miles was granted a break: While his image had been framed on the way out of Portland, the Boston Celtics changed it all with an invitation to training camp and the rave reviews there.

The blessing of the Celtics made signing Miles much easier for the Memphis Grizzlies last weekend. GM Chris Wallace signed him to a non-guaranteed contract and the countdown to crippling the Blazers’ cap flexibility starts on Jan. 4, when Miles is eligible to make his debut. Miles’ salary doesn’t return to the Portland cap until he plays 10 games in the NBA. First, he has to serve a 10-game suspension for testing positive for a dietary supplement banned by the league.

Inside and outside the organization, Miles is an unpopular player in Portland. Several NBA executives and agents insist that the Blazers didn’t hesitate to disparage Miles to teams who considered signing him. Pritchard declined comment on the matter, insisting, “We can’t talk about another team’s player.”

Yet, the truth is unmistakable. The NBA’s rule has thrust everyone into an impossible situation. If Miles plays, the Blazers pay a steep price. Portland could sign a superstar in 2010 that could make it a championship contender. Yes, the stakes are immense.

“Most of the stuff about me is coming from Portland, not coming from any other place,” Miles said recently after a workout at Tim Grover’s Attack Athletics facility in Chicago. “But I don’t want to point fingers. I wish I really wouldn’t have to hurt them by coming back. I just want to continue my life and my career. I love the guys in the organization. I want them to make the playoffs. I want them to go as far as they can go.

“But I’ve got to do this for me and mine. I wish I could do this without messing up their salary cap. I feel like then they wouldn’t really worry about me. They wouldn’t care that I was gone. But now they seem really worried if I do come back.”

Miles is 27 now, and it was a decade ago when he was the hotshot prep star out of East St. Louis picked third by the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA draft. He found his way to young and immature teams in L.A., Cleveland and ultimately that nightmare in Portland. He’s no innocent. He should’ve been a star, but wasted too much time, too much talent, on sheer nonsense. When a devastating knee injury in April of 2006 cost Miles the next two seasons, Pritchard had a way to get Miles and the balance of his $48 million contract off the books. This way, Pritchard could turn his team over to Brandon Roy and a different generation of Blazers.

On his way out, Miles had become a symbol of the failed Jail Blazer regime. Despite leaving Portland, the stories of his partying and bad acting chased him. They didn’t die. And then, his agent, Jeff Wechsler, pushed Miles toward the Celtics’ offer for a non-guaranteed roster spot. Miles didn’t need to make the team to make his point. Between Boston GM Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers, the Celtics gushed over Miles. They wished they could’ve kept him, they told people, but they had too many guaranteed contracts.

“I still think I’m fighting [the image], but the Celtics made it more of a possibility for teams to sign me,” Miles said. “For a team like the Celtics, who just won a championship to let me come down and spend two months around their guys … that was big for me.

“Most people think that if you bring a bad cancer around something that’s so perfect, it’ll hurt them. I thank them every day. It was the preseason, but it was the best time I’ve ever had in my career. The way that they’re a family there, the way that they all sit and eat dinner together on the road, the way they talk to each other. …I didn’t know the NBA could be like that.”

Now, Miles goes to Memphis, where Wallace could use a small forward to play behind his burgeoning young star, Rudy Gay. Several teams who watched Miles work out at Grover’s gym in Chicago marveled at the progress he made with that staff, and believed he had built more leg strength from his time with the Celtics. “He’s probably at 85 percent, and he’ll be in the 90, maybe 92 percent, once he can start to play games for Memphis,” a source familiar with his rehabilitation said.

After months of GMs suggesting that they were unsure about Miles’ body and mind, Wechsler found Memphis willing to give him a shot. The Grizzlies have little to lose. They signed him to the veteran’s minimum, and would need to decide on guaranteeing the final $500,000 of this season’s salary by Jan. 10. “Memphis has been willing to take a chance and work with a kid when he’s had so many negative things written and said about him,” Wechsler said. “They’ve taken him based on their own opinions and research.”

Now, it’s on Miles to show that he can play in the NBA again. Maybe the Grizzlies don’t want to see the Blazers get that cap space, but intentionally damaging them can’t possibly be much of a motivation for Wallace. He’s trying to keep his job in Memphis. He’s gathered some solid young talent and it’s hard to believe that Miles would play those 10 games without earning it. Wallace used to work for Ainge in Boston, and rest assured, they gave him some peace of mind on Miles. Maybe he can’t play, but the rest of the NBA isn’t giving the benefit of the doubt that he’s grown up, that maybe the Jail Blazers brought out the worst in everyone.

“The Celtics took that dark cloud over my head and put a good light on me,” Miles said. Boston didn’t do the Blazers any favors. And, no, this bothered no one in the NBA. So now, the clock ticks on that salary-cap space. Darius Miles says he never wanted to hurt the Blazers, but here goes nothing.

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