Portland Trail Blazers All-Time Most Disappointing Acquisitions #2: Shawn Kemp

Before we even start with our #2 entry on the Trail Blazers All-Time Most Disappointing Acquisition list I need to make an apology to site moderator and #1 comment-leaver Timmay.  Almost since this list began he's been arguing that Shawn Kemp doesn't belong on it because expectations for him weren't that high coming in.  That's true on the surface but there's some basic math involved here.  If a guy is projected to be a 9 and he only turns out to be a 2 for your team that's a hefty 7 points worth of disappointment.  If you figure him to be a 2 and he turns out to be a -6 that's 8 points even though the initial expectations weren't even on the same planet.

Say helloooooo to Shawn Kemp.

Nobody was expecting Kemp to reincarnate his Reign Man days when the Blazers traded away Brian and Gary Grant to acquire him in August of 2000.  In fact people were already pre-disposed against him because Brian Grant was incredibly popular.  There wasn't much chance Portland could retain Grant but fans wondered aloud whether Kemp was the best they could get in return.  He was 30.  He was overweight.  He didn't dunk much anymore.  Even so, he was still averaging 18 per game for the Cavaliers off of a career high of 20.5 the season prior.  He was good for 9 rebounds too.  Nobody thought he'd duplicate those numbers on a crowded Portland roster but maybe he could bring something.

Kemp's arrival was akin to a blind date with a girl you've only seen a fuzzy photo of.  She looks like she has a couple of nice features, but what can you really expect?  You know you're taking a chance.  Unfortunately this particular girl showed up in sweats, ordered six lobsters, spat in your drink, played a Miley Cyrus song on her armpit, got smashed, cussed out the wait staff, vomited in your lap, stomped out, and left you with the bill.  Even for a blind date, this was beyond the pale.

Let's start with the weight, since that dominated the initial impression.  Kemp was big.  You could see his pot belly moving underneath his jersey.   He had all the foot speed of Arvydas Sabonis.  His trademark agility was gone.  "Didn't dunk much anymore" rapidly morphed into "couldn't dunk with a stepladder and a map".   A few extra pounds wouldn't have been a terrible detriment since the Blazers needed him to play some center in addition to his traditional power forward.  But if Ding Dongs and prime rib were the path to NBA pivot stardom we'd all be wearing the uniform.   It's not like he lost weight during his Blazer tenure either.  Each time he appeared to slim down the gut would return with a vengeance.  Portland's already-muted expectations dimmed considerably the first time Kemp took the floor.  They never recovered.

Want to talk statistical production?  Make sure your safety goggles are on.  As we said, Kemp averaged around 18 and 9 his final year in Cleveland.  His first year in Portland:  6.5 points, 4 rebounds.  "Yes, but he wasn't playing nearly as many minutes!" you say.  OK.  He lost 6.5 ppg off of his per-36-minute production rate and 2 rebounds as well.  He shot 41% from the field in Portland, good for a point guard but rotten for a 6'10" forward/center.  His True Shooting Percentage dropped from 51% to 47%, his points-per-100-possessions from 96 to 90 (from poor to rotten), his PER from 17 to 11.  These weren't just career lows for him.  It's like he fell into the crack of doom.

The reasons behind Kemp's poor performance and sloppy appearance became clearer when his first season with Portland ended early because he entered drug rehab.  Credit to him for going.  I certainly won't minimize that battle nor the courage of the people who admit their problem and try to fight it.  I will remark that from a basketball perspective, this stunk...not only the early ending but the diminished returns which were caused, at least in part, by drug abuse.  As Kemp was arrested years later for drug possession it's apparently a habit he found hard to break.  Even if the rehab took, his performance didn't improve.

Kemp also became famous as the butt of nighttime talk show monologue jokes.  Women across the land declared him the father of multiple heretofore-unclaimed children.  Letterman and Leno had a field day.  This did nothing to improve his (or the team's) image.

Kemp's second season in Portland started with a recovery story but ultimately did nothing to alleviate the massive wave of buyer's remorse sweeping across Blazer Nation.  He was waived following the 2002-03 campaign with two years remaining on his contract.  He played out the string in Orlando while Portland paid him. When the Magic said goodbye nobody else would pick him up.  Portland also footed the bill for the following year as he sat at home.

And speaking of the bill...

We've barely mentioned salary on this list.  The money a guy makes shouldn't necessarily equate to disappointment, at least not as much as it seems to in popular discussion.  But in this case we have to reference the contract.  Avoiding it would be tantamount to negligence.

For the privilege of watching Shawn Kemp eat his way into oblivion, battle hardcore drug addiction and paternity suits, bottom out statistically, play a year for another team, then sit at home doing nothing the Blazers paid the princely sum of...Fifty Two Million Dollars.  

That's right:  $52,000,000.

The guy made $91.5 million in his career so it's not like the Blazers alone were paying him.  But the other $39 million came for 11 seasons in which Kemp could be depended on for 18 points and 10 rebounds.  The Blazers paid $52 mil for four seasons in which he averaged, in order, 6 points, 6 points, 7 points (for Orlando), and 0 points.  They forked over $15 million for that last, couch-bound year alone.

I would give anything to have witnessed the conversation in which then-GM Bob Whitsitt pitched this to Paul Allen.  (Assuming, that is, that Whitsitt pitched Allen and not the other way around.)  He must have been one heck of a salesman.  

Let's put this in perspective.  Imagine Bob Whitsitt entered Paul Allen's office and said the following:

"Hey Paul, I have an idea.  Let's get ourselves a pair of three-toed sloths.  We're going to hang them from the hoop supports during games to entertain the fans.  Yeah, they'll just sit there upside down napping.  That's the brilliance of it!  The fans will love it!  Oh, the sloths with cost $20 million.  Each."

Paul Allen would have been better off taking that deal than he was getting Shawn Kemp.

Heck, let's take Whitsitt out of it completely.  Let's say you or I had walked up to Paul Allen instead.  Why not?

"Excuse me, Mr. Allen?  I have a proposal for you.  I'm going to drink two gallons of water and then walk up to the Rose Garden rafters.  I'll wait a half hour and then I'm going to personally autograph your Jumbotron without using ink, paint, or any kind of conventional writing equipment.  For this 'customization' of your scoreboard I will charge you only $2.5 million per side, or $10 million total."

Paul Allen should have kissed the ground we walked on and happily cut us a check for $10 million on the spot.  Do you know how much money we'd have saved him over that Kemp deal?

Let's put it this way:  Allen could have had the sloths, the 'customization' job, AND replaced the now-defaced scoreboard for less than he paid out to Kemp.

It's easy to shake your head now but when you start talking about Trail Blazers red ink over the years, when you start figuring attitudes on guaranteed contracts and some of the things players and owners are currently fighting over, you wonder if incidents like this didn't plant some seeds that have taken strong root since.

In any case, it's hard to name a way in which Shawn Kemp's Portland tenure was not a disappointment.  From the moment a popular player was traded for him to the moment the ink dried on that last check--from the weight to the production to the P.R. nightmares and beyond--Shawn Kemp was everything the Blazers didn't need.  For that he earns the #2 slot on the Trail Blazers All-Time Most Disappointing Acquisition list.

Agree or disagree with placement or inclusion below.  Go ahead, let me have it, Timmay.

The List:  #3 Harvey Grant #4 LaRue Martin  #5 Darius Miles #6 Greg Oden  #7 Martell Webster  #8 Sebastian Telfair  #9 Damon Stoudamire   #10 Derek Anderson  #11 Walter Davis   #12 Rudy Fernandez  #13 James Robinson  #14 Scottie Pippen   #15 Walter Berry

Tomorrow:  The #1 entry plus an explanation of how the list was formed and answers to why some guys made the cut while others didn't.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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