Randolph relishes Blazers' lead role
A star could be born in Portland if Zach Randolph successfully steps forward as team leader.
Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Portland Trail Blazers.
Damon Stoudamire sat down and apologized for his "issues" (marijuana possession charges) that led him to a voluntary rehabilitation program over the summer. Then, Rasheed Wallace actually opened camp by speaking to the local media, with many of whom left scratching their heads and wondering just how long this rare Good 'Sheed sighting will last.
On the surface, they're the same old Blazers.
But, aside from the team's 25-point mission statement issued over the summer to help the Blazers regain the confidence of the fans -- one of the points being a player code of conduct -- there are other notable changes.
Here's the biggest problem for the Blazers this season, especially with Pippen and Sabonis gone: Who's going to be the on-the-court leader?
Wallace, the team's best player, has shown he's incapable of playing that role. Stoudamire, who left Portland to stay in Houston over the summer to escape the pressures of his hometown, will be focused on repairing his heavily damaged image. Bonzi Wells is talented but has yet to assume the maturity to fill that role. Veteran center/forward Dale Davis has never been vocal enough.
Considering the landscape, it's no wonder that Zachary Randolph, who averaged an impressive 13.9 points and 8.7 rebounds in the playoffs during his second year last season, has volunteered to step forward.
|“||My first two years in this league have been a learning experience. But I know I can blow up like Jermaine O'Neal, and that given an opportunity I can be a star in this league. ”|
|— Zach Randolph|
"Yeah, I'm young but I'm ready to be the leader here," said Randolph, whose potential at power forward is the reason why the Blazers shopped Wallace all summer. "My first two years in this league have been a learning experience. But I know I can blow up like Jermaine O'Neal, and that given an opportunity I can be a star in this league."
Realistically, Randolph -- who will likely play 25 to 30 minutes a game behind Wallace -- is about a year away from stepping into that role. And there's still concern about the lingering effects stemming from his fight with Ruben Patterson last season.
In all, coach Maurice Cheeks faces the tough task of leading a team that stood pat over the summer while the rest of the conference improved.
One of Cheeks' biggest concerns will be center with Sabonis gone. Davis lacks size and has always hated playing the position. Ruben Boumtje Boumtje and Mamadou N'diaye are too raw to play considerable minutes. If Cheeks chooses to simply put his most talented players on the floor, then Wallace could get a lot of minutes in the middle with Randolph playing power forward.
Cheeks will also have to handle the competition at point guard (between Stoudamire and Jeff McInnis) and shooting guard (between Wells and Derek Anderson), and juggle minutes so that there's no bad blood. Such a rift would spoil what little team chemistry there is.
The Blazers have made the playoffs for 21 straight seasons. While the streak could be in jeopardy in the new and improved West, the players figure that, in this year of transition, they can keep the postseason run intact.
"Rasheed, Bonzi, myself -- we've got some great players here," Randolph said. "Yeah, we've had some frustrating years here. And we'll miss some of the guys that we lost. But we still have a lot of talent, and we will be competitive."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.