By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jan 11 2009 9:51AM
It's always been just below the surface, the conflict between the Portland Trail Blazers and their former forward, Darius Miles. For almost two years, there's been bad blood, whispers, rumors, conjecture and questions. Always, the questions.
Did Miles really call his former coach, Mo Cheeks, an Uncle Tom during an argument in 2005?
How did the details of Miles' suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy get leaked this summer?
Did Portland engage in its own whispering campaign this past offseason to discourage teams from signing Miles -- a rumor that has been, um, whispered around the league?
Why did Blazers owner Paul Allen insist on giving Miles a $48 million contract in 2004 in the first place, when there was nothing close to that kind of market available for the oft-problematic Miles after an unimpressive stint with Cleveland during LeBron James' rookie season?
And, now, will Portland really sue the Memphis Grizzlies, who officially signed Miles to a 10-day contract Saturday?
The Blazers threatened legal action against any team that signed Miles in an e-mail distributed to every team Thursday evening, claiming that they believed there were several teams interested in Miles not because of his basketball talent, but because by signing him and playing him in two games, a team would trigger contract language that would revert the remaining two years and $18 million in salary for Miles back to Portland's team salary. And that would not only force Portland to write a luxury tax check to the league of more than $7.9 million, it would limit the Trail Blazers' activity in free agency next summer by reducing the amount of room Portland had under the salary cap.
The league indicated in its own e-mail Friday that it would approve a contract teams signed with Miles, and Memphis wasted little time making its move.
The Grizzlies wanted to take another look at Miles after waiving him Tuesday, the final day before player contracts became guaranteed for the rest of the season. Memphis was looking to sign a backup big man with starting center Darko Milicic out a couple more weeks with a broken finger, but the Grizzlies didn't like their alternatives off the street or in the Developmental League, and figured that they wouldn't have a chance to sign free agent bigs like P.J. Brown or Alonzo Mourning.
Memphis liked the way Miles played last Tuesday against Minnesota, when he took a few turns defending Timberwolves forward Al Jefferson.
"This was a guy who spent three months with the Boston Celtics," a source said, referring to Miles' preseason stint. Miles began working out in Boston in August, two months before training camp, and was one of the Celtics' final roster cuts. The Celtics, a source said, were impressed by Miles, but ultimately kept veteran Brian Scalabrine and preferred to hold onto their young players like rookie forward Bill Walker and guard J.R. Giddens rather than keep Miles.
Miles' agent, Jeff Wechsler, said by telephone Saturday that he doesn't "have anything bad to say about Portland," and that he is letting the players' union handle any potential grievances against the Blazers. However, he also said he would "vigorously defend Darius's right to pursue all avenues to earn a living ... this kid's working hard to show he can still play basketball, and that's what we're focusing on."
Though Wechsler took pains to say that both he and Miles have no animosity toward Portland, Wechsler did say some teams backed off pursuing Miles after learning of Portland's e-mail.
"Some of the teams cooled off and said 'we have to take a look at our legal issues,'" Wechsler said. "No one wants to get sued just out of the blue."
Wechsler said Miles chose Memphis, in part, because he was familiar with the Grizzlies and because Memphis is in close proximity to both Mississippi, where Miles visited his wife after initially being waived Tuesday evening, and East St. Louis, Missouri, Miles' hometown and where his mother still lives.
"They gave him the opportunity first," Wechsler said. "He worked hard there and he played hard there. He had a good game there [last Tuesday against Minnesota] ... you're talking about a guy who's been out of the league for two years. Our focus is to get him back out there and back playing. There's an opportunity [in Memphis] to play some minutes behind Rudy Gay."
Miles is also looking to rehab his reputation as well as his right knee. The Portland-Miles relationship deteriorated almost from the minute he signed a six-year deal there in '04 -- a deal almost negotiated personally by Allen, who loved Miles' athletic abilities. But Miles clashed with Cheeks, and an expletive-filled tirade after a film session [The Oregonian quoted Cheeks as saying Miles cursed at him more than 20 times] led to a two-game suspension for Miles in 2005.
Injuries took care of most of the next two seasons -- including microfracture surgery on the knee in November, 2006. The Blazers soon lost interest in keeping him around long-term, and started the process to declare his injury career-ending. An independent physician agreed in April of 2008, and Portland was allowed to release Miles and get the cap relief.
At issue, though, is how hard the Blazers may have fought behind the scenes to try and keep Miles on the sidelines.
Portland has cited the testimony of two doctors who said that Miles' microfracture injury was, in their words, "the worst" they'd ever seen as part of the reasoning it felt so strongly that Miles would never play again. But just disclosing that information may have violated privacy rules that have been in place since 2003, when a new federal law chilled disclosure of details of injuries to the public.
Also at issue is what Blazers officials may have said to other teams this summer, when several teams were thinking of signing Miles to a free-agent contract. One source has told me that the Blazers raised questions about Miles to his team during the offseason. And no one seems to know how word of Miles' impending 10-game suspension leaked out.
Meanwhile, teams around the league worried about the precedent the Blazers set with their threat of legal action against their partners. Playing hardball is a way of life around NBA front offices; you do what you can under the rules to help yourself, and if it hurts your opposition, well, that's usually considered a plus. But will other teams get ideas now that Portland has set this kind of precedent?
"Today, it's Miles and the salary cap implications," one Eastern Conference team president said. "Tomorrow, it may be [Cavaliers owner] Dan Gilbert telling the Knicks, 'don't sign LeBron because it'll cost me a lot of money.'"
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