Portland Trail Blazers All-Time Most Disappointing Acquisitions #1: Sam Bowie

Certain things in life are inevitable.  This was one of them.

I realize all the arguments against making Sam Bowie the #1 Most Disappointing Acquisition of All Time.  He's one heck of a nice guy.  His name has been dragged through the mud enough already.  He gave the team a few decent years.  He was traded for a cornerstone of the early-90's Drexler Era runs.  The injuries weren't his fault.  As we've chronicled elsewhere both the culture and the roster of the team demanded the selection of a center with the ultra-high 1984 draft pick.  When that coin came up heads and (H)Akeem Olajuwon was off the board, Bowie was the only choice. 

But Bowie was the only choice here as well.  Three things conspire against him:

1.  His selection was sandwiched between two of the greatest players of all time, Olajuwon and You-Know-Who.  They set the bar for high picks in the '84 draft.  No matter what you want to say about Bowie's accomplishments, relative to those two he's insignificant.

2.  He's an iconic representative of disappointment, crossing time and space.  Let's say you were to foraging your way through a remote jungle and met a tribe heretofore unknown to civilization.  If you were wearing your Blazers jacket the first words out of the chief's mouth would be, "Oooka looka mana wow," which your helpful guide would then translate as, "Huh. Chief say shoulda taken Jordan."

3.  The scar left in the collective memory of NBA, and particularly Portland, fans is indelible.  This is not the kind of thing you forget.  Trading away Jermaine O'Neal and watching him prosper in Indiana has made Blazers fans gun shy about losing any young player, apt to overvalue them just in case they turn out to be the next Jermaine.  The Bowie thing has left the Blazers gun shy about everything, calling into question whether the franchise is actually cursed.  In 2011, 27 years later, all you have to say is, "Bowie..." to get Portland fans to say, "Shut up!!!"  Either that or they'll launch into a long, tortuous explanation of why it wasn't so bad, rationalizing away the pain.  When explaining the Blazers to a casual audience you're almost obligated to add, "Yeah, we drafted Bowie, but..." somewhere in the speech.

Cultural significance alone mandates that Bowie tops this list.  Fortunately because the story is so well known I don't have to go into the agonizing details.  Nobody needs to hear about the fateful coin flip which causes me to call "heads" on every coin flip to this day.  Nobody needs to hear about broken leg after broken leg.  Everybody remembers the image of a prone and frustrated Bowie slapping the hardwood with the palm of his hand.  Everybody remembers the image of Jordan shrugging his shoulders while tap-dancing his way to a Finals victory over the Blazers in '92...and all those other championships he won.  Let's not belabor the point.

An interesting gem has come out of this, though.  One of the main avenues for disappointment is being drafted high but not panning out, either empirically or in relation to your draft peers.  To that end, look at the selections the Blazers have made with the #1 or #2 overall pick:

Year

Selection

Player

Possible Alternatives

1971

#2

Sidney Wicks

None much better

1972

#1

LaRue Martin

Bob McAdoo

1974

#1

Bill Walton

None much better

1978

#1

Mychal Thompson

Larry Bird?*

1984

#2

Sam Bowie

Michael Jordan

2007

#1

Greg Oden

Kevin Durant

The legacy from those half-dozen picks is clear.  Every one was a disappointment in one way or another.  Some years (Wicks and Thompson, since Bird probably wouldn't have come here) the Blazers didn't have great alternatives and were left with serviceable players who were not really franchise-changing.  A couple times (Martin and Bowie, perhaps Oden depending on perspective) the Blazers simply made the wrong call given the talent available to them.  And when they did make the right call (Walton and perhaps Oden) injuries cut the run short, which of course they did with Bowie as well.  Looking at that list, it may be a miracle the franchise has done as well as it has.

The Bowie situation is hardly singular in Portland's history, just the archetype of a legacy of frustration born out of the intersection between the Blazers and high draft status.  Whatever you think of Bowie personally, whatever justifications clothe his selection, that archetype still stands.  That's why Bowie remains atop our list of All-Time Disappointing Blazers Acquisitions.

This concludes our list.  Following Bowie are:

#2 Shawn Kemp #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

During the process several people have inquired about the criteria from which the list was formed and many others have suggested players who ultimately didn't make it.  For a discussion surrounding those things, click through the jump.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

How the List Was Formed

As you know, the idea of this list stemmed from a reader question about the relative disappointment of Greg Oden should he not play for the Blazers again.  I tweaked the issue slightly by not assuming his Blazer career was over, thus placing him 6th on the list based on what we've seen so far.  The short answer to the question was that he'd be the most disappointing acquisition ever--by a mile--if he never donned a Portland uniform again.  But that wasn't that interesting, thus the list was born.

In order to be consistent with the original query, specific criteria were needed.  The disappointment surrounding Oden does not involve his character or talent but his expected production and effect on the team versus what he's actually given.  He wouldn't even make a list of least favorite or least talented Blazers.  It's all about hype/expectation versus production/results.

This is exactly why the list was titled "Most Disappointing Acquisitions" instead of "Most Disappointing Blazers".  In order to make the list a player had to carry expectations generated either before they became a Blazer or almost immediately upon being acquired.  This could happen in various ways.  High draft picks, big names, players seen as "the answer", media or fan hype, or a sterling first impression on the court all counted.  Excluded were players who entered public consciousness in ordinary ways and developed higher expectations organically before falling short.  A balloon had to burst with some measure of drama in order to make the list.  

Disappointment also took various forms.  Production, character, team results, salary, and public opinion all took a part.

After that the formula was simple.  The higher the initial expectations and the more ways (or more intensely or more famously) a guy fell, the higher he was on the list.  The order was subjective, as was the entire list really, but that's the nature of the beast.  I'm perfectly fine with how it turned out, both in roster and order.  Several guys could have gone up or down the ranking, but I'm easily able to defend them all being there.

Who Didn't Make It

Unpopular players whose disappointment had nothing to do with their acquisitions were easiest to exclude from this list.  Zach Randolph and Bonzi Wells fit perfectly into this category.  Both ended up on the wrong side of public opinion precisely because they had built followings due to their talent.   Randolph was the 19th pick in 2001, dogged by weight issues.  He kept those under control and produced four high-scoring (18-24 ppg) seasons before his character issues and defense caught up with him.  Wells was acquired in 1999 for a couple of draft picks and came in behind more established stars.  Anything he gave at that point was a bonus,  Starting and getting up to 17ppg would have been considered a decent return.  In each case the disappointment was the result of them fulfilling expectations, going beyond them even, clocking in really good runs then having other distractions scuttle the ship.

If you produced in Portland in a manner commensurate with the rest of your career and there weren't any other initial expectations to interfere, you probably didn't make this list no matter how unpopular you ended up.  If an argument can be made that you played great for the Blazers (as opposed to just good when you were expected to be great) you probably didn't make this list either.

There was also a category of "who cares" players.  Jeff Lamp didn't have the talent to justify the 15th pick in 1981 but nobody made a fuss over him, no media hype followed him.  He didn't produce much but minimal expectations followed by minimal production equals not much disappointment.  James "Hollywood" Robinson would have been a "who cares" player if he wasn't the first guy the team really made a fuss over, trying to sway public opinion.  The end result was the crowd actually yelling at him to pass the ball...something you never see happening.  Compare that with, say, the way the crowd still yelled "Sheed!" every time the reviled Rasheed Wallace caught the ball in the post.  The irony of Robinson getting results opposite of what was intended (by being talked up originally) put him on the list.

Here's a list of the most frequently-mentioned players left off the list and why they didn't make it:

Rasheed Wallace-- The guy produced at All-Star levels and led the team in ways that could only be dreamed about when the Blazers traded for him.

Sidney Wicks--  Also produced All-Star numbers and statistically was just fine for a 2nd overall pick.  He just couldn't get along with teammates.

Kiki Vandeweghe--  The biggest complaint about Kiki was trading a bucket of players for him.  While exiting talent seasoned the disappointment stew it wasn't enough on its own to justify inclusion on the list.  There had to be other negative effects, otherwise it's just an example of needing to trade talent in order to get talent.  Kiki's scoring stats weren't the same in Portland as they were in Denver but he was playing alongside Clyde Drexler here.  Plus he became a massive fan favorite, far more popular than any player who made the list, far more popular than any of the players traded away for him.  With the entire arena screaming "Kiiiiiiiiiiiiiki" every time he rose for a shot it's hard to imagine him being a disappointment.

J.R. Rider--  Maybe the most disappointing Blazer ever, but also scored plenty and was questioned big-time coming in.  People knew he was an idiot.  Many folks ended up liking his contributions more than they expected to.

Brandon Roy and Clyde Drexler--  No.  You wanted more payout from trading Randy Foye?  You expect more from a 14th overall pick than one of the 50 greatest players of all time?  Any disappointment has come after amazing production and leading the team farther than thought possible.  Besides both are still massive fan favorites.

Bill Walton--  Disappointing in terms of length of career, but did bring a title.  I thought about him but crossed it out.

Mychal Thompson--  Disappointing because of first overall pick status only and there weren't great alternatives on the board that year.  He put up some nice stats as well.

Dale Davis--  This was the hardest one to leave off.  He was brought in to be the Shaq-stopper and didn't stop Shaq.  But a few things kept him off the list.  His stats lowered when he came to Portland but not that dramatically, especially when compared to his entire career.  The Dale Davis that Portland got for his first two years here was pretty much the Dale Davis Indiana had with the exception of his one, overwhelmingly good '99-'00 season.  Second, he was disappointing in the exact same fashion as, and in the same era as, Scottie Pippen.  Plus plenty of other Blazers from that general era made the list, threatening to crowd out other interesting names and stories in an avalanche of "1999-2003 fell short".  The hype over Pippen's arrival was far bigger than over Davis'.  Pippen was historically a far better player than Davis.  Scottie was expected to take far more of a leadership role.  He also got a considerable amount of blame and backlash following that '00 Lakers series.   When it came down to Scottie or Dale, Scottie was both the more interesting name and fit our criteria better.  You could probably argue Dale over Walter Berry but I preferred the story of the butter knife and a pick who got dumped after a few weeks to talking about Shaq stopping in an era when nobody stopped Shaq.

People are going to mention the Jermaine O'Neal exchange as part of the reasoning for Davis.  It certainly would have been included among the disappointing aspects had he made the list.  But this is mostly hindsight.  At the time of the deal O'Neal was nowhere near his Indiana level of production.  Jerryd Bayless was producing more when he was traded than J.O. was when Portland moved him.  Obviously J.O. had the bigger upside, but it's not like the Blazers traded a full-fledged O'Neal for an aging, full-fledged Davis.  Folks were disappointed, sure, as J.O. was a fan favorite already, but it's nothing like the current level of shock and disappointment knowing the final results.  At the time losing Brian Grant garnered far more of a negative reaction than losing Jermaine. 

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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