The early 2000s Portland Trail Blazers managed to become a competitive team in the era where bigs dominated the paint through their versatile power forward Rasheed Wallace. But collectively, the team also had a pretty solid backcourt with Damon Stoudamire at the point guard position and Steve Smith as the primary shooting guard.
Back then, unstoppable shooting guards Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, and Ray Allen raised the bar for the No. 2 position, drawing the line between notable shooters and all-around scoring machines. Safe to say, the Blazers didn’t have the offensive tenacity of those mentioned perennial All-Star shooting guards, but they still somehow benefited from the soft touch of Smith.
Blazers brought in Derek Anderson
In the summer of 2001, Portland tried to bolster the backcourt by trading Smith for the younger Derek Anderson, who was coming off a terrific debut season with the San Antonio Spurs. With Anderson’s score-first mentality, the Blazers were optimistic about having a reliable scorer besides Wallace. However, things did not play out according to plan.
Anderson, who was averaging 15.5 points per game when he arrived in Portland, only started in 27 games and saw his numbers drop to 10.8 after his maiden season with the Blazers. He was able to bounce back a bit in the next two seasons, improving his totals to 13.9 and 13.6, respectively.
Unfortunately, off-court issues were already dismantling the talented Portland squad at the time. And little did Anderson know, worse things were waiting, and his career was about to spiral downward.
In the ‘04/’05 season, the Blazers were in a slump, and the team was slowly falling apart. Rasheed Wallace had left in the middle of the past season, and the team lacked a consistent, All-Star-level scorer. Numbers don’t lie as they say, and that has been the case for Portland, having finished the season with a terrible record of 27-55.
Portland’s decline was so drastic that fans reckoned it was evidently due to the lack of star power. But according to Anderson, there was more than what meets the eye.
Indeed, 82 games is a long and arduous journey, especially if the team is demotivated. This is what Anderson claimed when he addressed his infamous toothache incident.
As per Anderson, no one wanted to play for Portland anymore at the time, including him, and the Blazers couldn’t do anything to get their competitive juices flowing again. He was demanding to be traded, but team president Steve Patterson told him to “go home, we’ll come up with something.”
Portland then fabricated an array of minor injuries such as “sinus ailment, dental problems and back spasms” just to sit Anderson out in games. Why him? Anderson said the front office had to pick someone who would look bad and take the heat for the team’s poor run. And since he was one of the calmest players in the group, it was easy for them to make him the “scapegoat.”
For context, Anderson sat a regular-season game out due to a “toothache” but was spotted in a McDonald’s drive-thru afterward. Obviously, fans suspected the entire thing, adding insult to the injury.
“When Steve [Patterson] told me [about the toothache incident], I told him I don’t want to be here, all the players were like, ‘Let him go, trade him,’” Anderson told 750-AM The Game via Oregon Live. “Rasheed [Wallace] asked to be traded. Damon [Stoudamire] sat on the end of the bench and asked to be traded. Everyone was trying to get out of there, but because I’m the nice guy and they figure, ‘Hey he won’t go to the paper and say anything, he won’t cuss us out and flip us off in the stands, let’s make him a scapegoat’.”
“That happens to all good guys who are in a bad situation,” he added. “They make him a scapegoat. If i would have choked the coach and did everything else, then what? Now, people try to reward people with attitudes and it’s not right. Not one of my teammates would ever say anything. They forget, I am a man. No one has ever tried me or disrespected me. You know how the newspaper works. They were trying to look for a scapegoat and a story, who else could they go to? Everyone else had been in jail.”
If we are to believe Anderson, the Blazers stuck to their strategy as he went on to play only eight of Portland’s final 42 games that season. More importantly, the Blazers succeeded in tanking their ‘04/’05 campaign, which was prolonged in ‘05/’06 when they logged a worse record of 21-51.
As for the reason why they would sabotage those two consecutive seasons, the narrative of improving draft status made sense. Looking back, Portland was able to pull off a quick trade for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pick Brandon Roy in 2006, and the rest, as they say, is history.