The Jail Blazer Curse

6 12 2009

The good people of Portland don’t deserve to have their lone professional team continually hampered by poor decisions and bad luck. Come to think of it, the entire Pacific Northwest has had a rough go of it in respect to NBA basketball. Teams from Vancouver and Seattle have moved to the thriving metropolises of Memphis and Oklahoma City, respectively. And the one team left in the region, the Portland Trail Blazers, arguably are the most cursed team in the NBA, if not in all of professional sports. Here’s my argument:

1977-78

From March 15, 1977 to Feb. 28, 1978, the Blazers won 60 of 75 regular season games and claimed the 1976-77 NBA title. They had Young Bill Walton in that title season, who averaged 18.6 points, 14.4 ‘boards, 3.2 blocks in the regular season and who looked on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s best-ever big men. Yet it was after their 50th win in that ’77-’78 season — pushing their record to 50-10 — that Walton discovered he had yet another problem with his left foot. He sat out the rest of the regular season and returned for the playoffs, only to find out that the navicular bone in his left ankle was broken. He’d never be the same and the Trail Blazers would miss the chance at building a dynasty in the late ’70s. Given how there was no dominant team those last couple years of that decade, they probably could’ve won at least three titles had Walton been healthy.

1984

The Blazers had a choice between these two players in the 1984 draft.

Everyone knows this one. The Blazers, picking second in the 1984 draft, chose Kentucky center Sam Bowie over North Carolina guard Michael Jordan. Bill Simmons does a commendable job in The Book of Basketball of explaining what a dumb pick this was even at the time. Bowie had dealt with leg issues in college. Jordan was already gaining a reputation as a fearless and dominant competitor. You’d think the Blazers would’ve gone with Jordan considering they were already burned once by drafting Walton, who had been ravaged by injuries throughout his high school, college and NBA career.

Yet they drafted Bowie anyway under the premise that they didn’t need another shooting guard since they had drafted Clyde Drexler the previous year. This was the ultimate example of why a team with a premium draft choice should almost always choose the best player instead of picking for a need.

So they drafted Bowie, who played precisely four seasons for Portland. Amazingly (or perhaps not so given his extensive injury list in college), he played in 38, 5 and 20 games in his final three years in Portland. He averaged 10.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in his Blazer career. You know the story with Jordan. 30.1 career scoring average, 6 NBA titles, 5 regular season MVPs and so much more. He even stuck it to the Blazers — and Drexler — in the ’92 Finals.

1989-92

Even after losing Walton and ruining the chance to draft the greatest basketball player of all-time, the Blazers still made the playoffs 12 times in 13 years entering the 1989-90 season. (They missed the playoffs in 1981-82 despite going 42-40.) Portland would make the Finals twice over the next three years (’89-’90 vs. Detroit, ’91-’92 vs. Chicago) as they took over the role from the Lakers as THE team to beat in the Western Conference. Unfortunately for Portland, this happened right as the Bad Boy Pistons were peaking and just before Jordan’s Bulls began reeling off title after title. The timing for Portland’s ascension back to the NBA’s elite couldn’t have been worse. They had an exciting team with Clyde the Glide, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and crew (Drazen Petrovic was actually on the team from ’89-’91) along with an intimidating home court advantage. No NBA fan wanted to see his team play at the old Rose Garden, where fans were on top of the action. There was an English soccer-like  intensity at every big game in Portland. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Detroit/Chicago teams which dominated the NBA during that era.

2000

By the 1999-00 playoffs, the Blazers had made the playoffs 23 times in 24 seasons, including 18 in a row. They were STACKED that year. Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, Detlef Schremf and Arvydas Sabonis were at the tail end of their careers but still very effective. Brian Grant was actually a menace on the ‘boards and on defense, Damon Stoudemire and Bonzi Wells were tough scorers, ex-UNLV teammates Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon were there for everybody’s entertainment (and in Augmon’s case, for some really tough D) and Young Rasheed Wallace was perhaps their best player. Even Young Jermaine O’Neal was on the bench, though he rarely played. You can say this team had some depth.

You can also say they had one of the biggest choke jobs in NBA history, as they blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Finals to their chief rivals — the Lakers. Portland had that 15-point lead with little over 10 minutes left, yet the Kobe/Shaq Lakers pulled off a comeback from which Portland still hasn’t recovered.

They lost in the first round of the playoffs the ensuing three seasons, including Robert Horry nailing a last-second game- and series-clinching three in front of Portland’s bench in Game 3 of the ’01 first round. (Nobody ever mentions this among Horry’s great clutch three-pointers.) Wanna guess who presided over that Blazers team as well as the ’99-’00 version which dropped that famous Game 7? None other than Mike Dunleavy, who for the past seven seasons has guided the hapless Clippers, known as the most cursed franchise in sports.

2008

Greg Oden saying good-bye to his NBA career.

Blessed with their first No. 1 overall selection since they took Walton at the top spot in the ’74 draft, the Blazers seemingly got a do-over to the Bowie/Jordan debacle in ’84. Once again, they were presented with an either/or scenario. Either they go for a “need” and draft an injury-plagued big man who is ripe with questions about his potential effectiveness in the NBA (Greg Oden) OR they go for the precocious perimeter player (Kevin Durant) despite already having depth in that area (Brandon Roy and, to a lesser extent, big man LaMarcus Aldridge). Naturally, they picked Oden.

Durant was a no-brainer for me at the time. Brandon Roy was and is very good, but he has question marks of his own with his past knee problems. Aldridge is a smooth power forward, but he’s not a No. 1 guy. He might not even be a No. 2 guy on a championship team. Durant was a sensation in his one college season and at 6’10 with arms that make him seem like Gumbee, he looks like the prototype for the new breed of NBA scorer in the 21st century.

Of course, like Bowie/Jordan, we already know this story. Oden had microfracture surgery on his right knee PRIOR to his rookie season, eventually making his NBA debut in what should have been his second year. He played 61 games last year and looked to be really turning it on this year in his first 20 games (he had a 24/12 Nov. 23 and a 13/20 with four blocks Dec. 1) before fracturing his left kneecap last night. He’s out for the year again, and he will never reach his potential. Even if he recovers physically, he’ll be mentally scarred forever by missing so much NBA time early in his career with dual knee injuries.

Meanwhile, Durant is throwing down 28 points every night — he’s averaged at least 20 in each of his three seasons — and looks on his way to becoming a top 5 NBA player for the next 10-12 years.

Recap

Portland fans, if they haven’t clicked off this post already, will want to avoid the next paragraph. Especially if it’s raining there, which is very likely.

Over the past 30 years or so, Portland missed a chance at one mini-dynasty in the late ’70s when Walton couldn’t stay healthy; missed their chance at drafting the game’s greatest player in ’84; again missed a chance at a mini-dynasty in the early ’90s primarily because the player they failed to draft in ’84 began to take over the league; incomprehensibly blew a huge lead and their shot at a Finals appearance to one of their chief rivals in a Game 7 in ’00, which spurred them into a decade-long spiral; missed their chance at making up for the ’84 draft mistake in the ’08 draft by amazingly doing EXACTLY THE SAME THING they had done 24 years earlier in drafting an injury-plagued big man over a dominant perimeter player.

Now Portlanders, enjoy your beautiful city and kind people and try not to think of what life would’ve been like with two (or more) dynasties, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.

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