Our countdown of pivotal moments in Portland Trail Blazers history continues with a trade that set the table for the greatest extended run of success inPortland Trail Blazers history.
The 1988-89 season told the story of a Trail Blazers team flush with talent but lacking clarity. The starting lineup was 4/5 complete with regulars Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and Kevin Duckworth. The power forward position was manned by Methuselah impersonator Caldwell Jones and rookie Mark Bryant. Jones was a defensive specialist, never touching or wanting the ball. Bryant was a hard worker but only a mediocre rebounder and defender, slightly less accomplished at scoring. The big-man backups seemed impressive: former All-Star Steve Johnson and former second overall pick Sam Bowie. Johnson's knees were pudding by this time though and Bowie was returning from the latest of his innumerable injuries, playing but 20 games total. Neither one was good for more than 20 minutes per game in any case.
The ingredients for success were evident but they were spread haphazardly across the counter, some of them having fallen on the floor. (Witness the dumping of former super-scorer Kiki Vandeweghe midway through the season for an example.) This lack of cohesiveness had cost coach Mike Schuler his job midway through the season. His replacement, Rick Adelman, hadn't improve the record at all...had compiled a worse one, in fact.
The Blazers needed an anchor, someone to bring grit and a never-say-die attitude. The Blazers needed a low-post presence, Bowie and Duckworth playing more comfortably away from the basket. The Blazers needed defense, having allowed 113 points per game on the year, 22nd out of 25 teams in the league. (Thanks, Basketball Reference!) The Blazers needed more rebounding, allowing their athletic guards to get out on the break instead of securing the ball. In short, the Blazers needed a real power forward. And the Blazers needed durability besides...no more promise cut short by injury.
Three days before the 1989 draft the Blazers made the move that would answer all their needs and more. If you looked up solid player, low-post scorer, rebounder, gritty, intense, defensive-minded, durable power forward in the dictionary you would find a picture of Charles Linwood "Buck" Williams. A long-time Net and former All-Star, the 29-year-old Williams had done it all. He had been the #1 option. He had seen his team through tough times. He had pulled out wins and fought valiantly in defeat. The only thing he hadn't done was experience playoff success. The farthest the Nets had gone was a second-round defeat in 1984 when Buck was still a pup. They had missed the playoffs for three straight years leading up to his trade. His prime years were upon him and starting to slip by. Buck wanted to win. And he'd find his chance with the Trail Blazers.
Portland's price for Williams was steep on the surface but negligible in actual effect. Bowie was the central figure. A legit center who had once been at the top of the draft was a rare commodity, but so were Bowie's appearances for Portland. After repeated injuries and comebacks he was, at best, unreliable. Even when he played he showed flashes of goodness rather than greatness. Portland had enough "good" and way more than enough "unreliable". Those attributes brought down the value of even a touted seven-footer in Portland's eyes. The Blazers would also give up a first-round pick who would become Mookie Blaylock. But the Blazers weren't looking to build for the future. They wanted the last big piece of the puzzle. And boy did they get it.
Buck Williams was everything the Blazers wanted. It was a marriage made in paradise. Portland's points per game allowed went from 113 to 108 as soon as Buck came on board. Their defensive rating rose from 14th in the league to 4th. Offense and pace improved, if not in absolute numbers at least relative to the rest of the league. Buck led the team in rebounding. Buck led the team in field goal percentage. The defensive rating of every single starter surrounding Buck dropped at least two points from the year prior. Williams played 34.5 minutes per game for 82 games for the Blazers, continuing a string of durability that would last through six straight years where he'd play 80 or more games.
Did Williams get his wishes fulfilled. Oh...just a little. The Blazers went from mediocre to tying for the second best record in the league in '89-'90, followed by the best record in '90--'91. They'd make NBA Finals appearances in two of those years. Their name would become synonymous with winning. It was a glorious time.
Bigger names get remembered first when talking about this era, but if you want to talk about the match that igngited the dynamite you have to mention the Bowie-for-Williams trade and credit Buck's irreplaceable contributions to the team's success. That's why this move, perhaps Portland's best trade ever, gets the #8 spot on our most pivotal events in franchise history.