Portland moving toward youth movement

Updated: March 3, 2005, 6:04 PM ET
Associated Press

TUALATIN, Ore. -- The changes were already evident as Kevin Pritchard took charge of his first practice as interim coach of the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, one day after Maurice Cheeks was fired.

There was now a formal practice schedule posted on the wall at the team's suburban practice facility and Pritchard was noticeably vocal during drills as the Blazers took the first steps of the post-Cheeks era.

The likable Cheeks was fired a little more than 24 hours earlier as Portland struggled to a 22-33 record, the team's worst mark this many games into the season since 1975-76.

The 37-year-old Pritchard was hired as the team's director of player personnel in August, after 1½ years as a scout with the San Antonio Spurs.

The change in coaches signaled a "youth movement" for the Blazers, with the emphasis shifting from winning games to evaluating young talent.

That's because the Blazers started the day in 12th place in the Western Conference with bleak chances of capturing one of the eight playoff spots.

Pritchard reinforced the movement when he spoke about what the team's style would be in the final 27 games of the season, singling out 19-year-old rookie point guard Sebastian Telfair.

Telfair, the 13th overall pick in the draft out of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., averaged 10.4 minutes a game under Cheeks.

"We've changed some things. We're going to try to really run up and down. Let Sebastian create, see what we can get out of that, put in a little bit of a secondary break and let everything flow from there," Pritchard said.

He said he hadn't made a decision about whether Telfair would start Friday night when the Blazers host the Indiana Pacers.

While the players said they thought practice went well, there was still a profound sense of sadness. Most of the veterans did not linger on the practice courts like some did under Cheeks. Instead, there was a quick retreat to the locker room.

Forward Zach Randolph, named the league's Most Improved Player last year, was caught off-guard because he thought management would wait until after the regular season to make a decision about Cheeks.

"It's emotional, especially for me, because that's the only NBA coach I ever had," said. "It's kind of different."

Damon Stoudamire, who was one of the closest players to Cheeks, said he'll do what the team asks him to do -- but suggested he might not be happy about it. Either Stoudamire or Nick Van Exel will play off the bench if Telfair starts.

A free agent at the end of the season, Stoudamire, a Portland native, was asked if he'd entertain returning to the team. "Next," he replied.

And he reeled off the names of many former Blazers, including Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal, Bonzi Wells and coach Mike Dunleavey -- who Cheeks replaced.

"I look at everybody else and they're in a position to prosper and I'm the last man standing here," Stoudamire said.

Pritchard said he understood the frustration among the veterans.

"If there was pixie dust that we could sprinkle over and make everybody happy, we certainly would. But there isn't," he said. "I told them I expect them to be professional.

"Some of them know that they have to make sacrifices. And that doesn't come easy. I'm sensitive to that, trust me."

This is not Pritchard's first experience in coaching.

He also served as coach, general manager and director of player personnel for the Kansas City Knights of the American Basketball Association.

A guard at Kansas, Pritchard played four seasons in the NBA with Golden State, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and Washington. He also played in Europe and in the CBA.

Pritchard will only serve out the season and then the team will begin the search for a new coach in earnest. He said he doesn't want the job permanently.

"Moving forward we need to really evaluate what we have, and what better way to do that than for the player personnel director to get under the hood and take a look. Our future's bright, we're going to see what we really are, we have some young talented guys who are fun to watch," he said.

"We don't know exactly where they are developmentally, but we hope to figure that out in the next seven to eight weeks, and help us build, that is what this is all about."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press