The Trail Blazers’ Eight-Year (Or So) Theory

16 12 2011

Hey, oh yeah, I have a blog! I don’t actually forget that I have one, although I struggle to make the time to write consistently on here. I have several thoughts to post today, though.

I recently finished a book called The Breaks Of The Game, written by the late David Halberstam. It’s a wonderful read about the time Halberstam spent with the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers. He used his experience with the team that season to detail a franchise reeling in the aftermath of a shortened, but legendary, period atop the NBA.

The Blazers won the 1977 NBA title led by Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas. They followed up that championship campaign with a 50-10 record to begin the 1977-78 season when all hell broke loose. Walton’s feet broke down. (They had caused him injury issues in his first two years of the NBA from 1974-76.) That began a devastating cycle for Walton in which he sat out the 1978-79 season, played 14 games in the next one after being traded from the Blazers to the San Diego Clippers and subsequently missed the next two campaigns.

The book enlightened me into details of the late ’70s Trail Blazers, which made me think about all the unfortunate situations in that franchise’s history. That developed into an eight-year theory that I thought might make it all the way up to the present incarnation of the team. I was one year off. I’ll explain:

1976: This is typically thought of as a successful year in Blazers history. Jack Ramsey was hired as head coach before the ’76-77 season, and he would coach them to the franchise’s first title in what was just their seventh season in the NBA. Yet a poor decision regarding a famous big man would foreshadow the future problems the franchise would have with talented 7-footers. With Bill Walton already on the roster, the team decided to trade Moses Malone, a 20-year-old who had been selected by the Blazers in the ABA Dispersal Draft, following the NBA/ABA merger. The Blazers were aware of Malone’s talent; they were possibly even more aware of his $300,000 salary, which they did not want to pay a backup.

In retrospect, the decision to trade Malone was even more perplexing considering that Walton had played 35 and 51 games from 1974-76. His susceptibility to injury was already apparent. But the Blazers dealt Malone anyway, sending him to the Buffalo Braves for a  ’78 first-round pick. That pick, Rick Robey, was eventually packaged with Johnny Davis in ’78 to acquire Mychal Thompson, who was the first overall pick of the ’78 draft.

Thompson, who stood at 6-10, ended up missing the ’79-80 season because of a broken leg. Very Blazers-like. He did go on to a successful career with the Blazers but it was nothing like what Malone accomplished.

Moses became a three-time League MVP, one-time Finals MVP, 12-time NBA All-Star and averaged 20.6 points and 12.2 ‘boards in 19 NBA seasons. The Blazers could have had that.

1984: The Blazers won 48 games in 1983-84 yet managed to get the second overall pick of the ’84 Draft via a previous trade with the Indiana Pacers. Akeem Olajuwon was off the board since he was taken first by the Houston Rockets. That seemingly left the Blazers with a choice between Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan. It’s an easy choice now. At the time, Bowie was thought to be the next great NBA player from the University of Kentucky. (Of course, the same was said of MJ and North Carolina.) But Bowie is 7-1, and the Blazers already had Clyde Drexler and high-scoring Jim Paxson at the wing.

That Bowie had dealt with knee issues in college didn’t discourage the Blazers. Given their luck with Walton, and even Thompson, perhaps they felt bad fortune couldn’t strike a third time with a highly-selected big man. They were wrong. Bowie put up 10 points and 8.6 rebounds per game in a 76-game rookie year – more games than he would play in his next seasons combined. Injuries killed any chance Bowie had at stardom. He moved to the New Jersey Nets for his fifth season and became a role player for them and the Lakers through ’95.

We all know what MJ did – six titles, six Finals MVPs, five regular season MVPs, 30 points per game for his career, yada yada.

1992: Another example of their past kicking them in the present. Eight years after passing on MJ for Bowie, the Blazers lost their second Finals appearance in three seasons, this time to the MJ-led Bulls.

2000: No ‘past meets present’ here, unless you consider that MJ’s cohort for so many years, Scottie Pippen, was now on the team. An absolutely loaded squad (Pippen, Steve Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Detlef Schremf, Damon Stoudemire, Bonzi Wells) blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and ultimately lost the contest to the Lakers. In the broadcast booth for NBC that day: Bill Walton.

2008: This is where my theory loses steam. It technically was an unlucky year in that Brandon Roy had his first surgery on his left knee since he had been in the NBA. Continuing problems with his left knee, as well as the other one, led him to retire from the League last week. It’s such a sad story for a player who put up 19 points per game in five injury-riddled seasons. Roy, like Walton, never had a prolonged opportunity to show his greatness.

Of course, ’08 wasn’t the year in which the Trail Blazers’ bad fortune continued so much as ’07 was. That was the year they once again spent a first overall draft pick on a talented big man with an injury history. Once again, the Blazers opted for a big man instead of a proven wing scorer. Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. People like to say now that Durant wasn’t in play for the Blazers at the time, but that’s wrong. Sportswriters stepped up to advocate Durant for the Blazers’ pick; Bill Simmons was the most adamant of them all. I also thought, at the time, that the Blazers should have taken Durant.

But the Blazers had Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, and they apparently felt that Oden’s defensive prowess in the paint made him the better fit. Just like Bowie had theoretically been the better fit in ’84.

So, the Blazers chose a big man with the first overall pick for the third time in franchise history. (Technically the fourth if Mychel Thompson is thrown in there, albeit via a trade.) They chose Bill Walton, who brought Portland a title before succumbing to his feet, leaving the Blazers down-and-out. They chose Thompson, who missed his entire second season because of a broken leg, thus stifling their recovery effort in the post-Walton Era. They chose Sam Bowie, whose glaringly small contributions in Portland were accentuated by the fact that the man selected after him became arguably the greatest basketball player ever. And they chose Greg Oden, who has missed two of his four seasons, and played just 21 games in another, because of knees that will likely never allow the Blazers to justify taking him ahead of Kevin Durant, who is the next great NBA scorer.

It’s sad that these circumstances have hit a franchise located in a city so passionate about them. Who knows where the Blazers go from here?

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