Blazers await the punch line

Rasheed Wallace held court in the visiting locker room of the Pepsi Center as if it were an NBA-version of "Def Comedy Jam."

With the spotlight on him for more than one reason, Wallace had his teammates falling to the floor in laughter while clowning on them and their friends for several minutes. Just before Wallace's lengthy and amusing comedy sketch, teammates Dale Davis and Derek Anderson also ribbed one another about who was the tougher man between the two.

If there was any doubt about the Portland Trail Blazers' camaraderie, that thought was laughable prior to last Monday's game against Denver. But if you want to calm the giggles, bring up the subject of the Feb. 19 trade deadline to these guys. Talk about losing a crowd.

"We don't talk about it," Anderson said. "We don't joke about it because it can happen. When you joke, it happens. So, we don't say nothing about it. That's a good thing, though. We let it go. We don't have no control of it."

With a new regime running the Blazers, numerous roster changes have been made since the season began -- changes to get rid of some of the so-called bad apples, reduce salary and finally rid the franchise of its ugly nickname, "Jail Blazers."

In a dumping of salary and questionable attitudes, the Blazers acquired swingman Wesley Person, a first-round draft pick and cash from the Grizzlies for very talented yet oft-troubled guard Bonzi Wells on Dec. 3, and they added swingman Darius Miles from the Cavaliers in a Jan. 21 trade for guard Jeff McInnis and center Ruben Boumtje Boumtje. Also along the way, several players have been waived and signed. Recently, Portland signed two young guards in Omar Cook and Eddie Gill.

Are the Blazers finished? The trade deadline is fast approaching, and another move wouldn't be much of a surprise. Moreover, the hottest name on the Blazers' trade front is Wallace.

Wallace's nine NBA seasons have been riddled with numerous problems. The Philadelphia native has been scolded with numerous technicals during clashes with referees, has given a frequent cold shoulder to the media, has had temper issues and gave a recent profane tirade in which he claimed young African-Americans were exploited by the league.

But according to Portland coach Maurice Cheeks, Wallace is overcoming many of his past issues. Combine that with the fact that he is one of the NBA's most talented players, and there is a lot of interest in him. Golden State is dangling point guard Nick Van Exel and center Erick Dampier. New York and Dallas have interest, too. The big risk, however, is Wallace has said that a team that trades for him isn't guaranteed to re-sign him. The two-time NBA All-Star seems intent on testing free agency and isn't worried about the trade deadline's arrival.

Wallace is still mulling the Blazers' contract extension offer, which is believed to be as much as $40 million over four years.

"At the end of the day, someone is going to cut that check," Wallace told The Denver Post. "It doesn't matter if it's Team A, Team B or Team C. Someone is going to cut it. I'm not worrying about signing somewhere."

First-year Blazers general manager John Nash faces the big challenge in deciding whether to deal Wallace, who is making $17 million in the final year of his contract.

Nash, who drafted Wallace with the Washington Bullets in 1995, actually has respect for his game. By trading Wallace, the Blazers would be getting rid of a rare big man that has the ability to play small forward, power forward and center and is skillful both in the post and the perimeter. By keeping Wallace through the trade deadline and not re-signing him during free agency, the Blazers would trim their hefty payroll by $17 million. By losing Wallace, the Blazers would get rid of a player that has brought himself a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons. By losing Wallace, the Blazers would also lose one of the most beloved players by his teammates and coaches.

Nash is still fighting with what to do. But no matter what, he promises "we are not going to do a fire sale for any player." Nash added that "it's difficult to trade Rasheed" now.

"You weigh the pros and cons of trade with anyone on the roster no more than any other player," Nash said. "There are advantages and disadvantages to every player. You try to balance what you do with what you can get in return. We passed on a lot of opportunities."

The Blazers will trim $7.7 million when Person's contract ends after this season and about $22.5 million after the 2004-05 season when Davis and guard Damon Stoudamire's contracts run out. Anderson's contract runs through the 2006-07 season while guard Ruben Patterson's deal has a team option in 2006. Miles is also a restricted free agent this summer.

"The only one that isn't going nowhere is him," said Anderson, referring to third-year forward Zach Randolph. "He's a young buck. Other than that, all of us are expendable. I've never been on a team like that."

How long everyone else remains with Portland will be interesting to see. No one has ever questioned the Blazers' talent. As for their heart, that's another story as Portland always seems to underachieve or face some drama that takes it off course. With young talent like Randolph, Miles, swingman Qyntel Woods and rookie forward Travis Outlaw likely to stick around, Nash and Cheeks have some pieces to work with. But molding still needs to be done.

"The jury is still out on several of them," Nash said.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the Blazers' next move with the trade deadline approaching.

"There is really nothing you can do at this point," Randolph said. "You got to stay focused. That's how I look at it."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.