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After the whirlwind summer of 1984 and the placid summer of 1985 the Portland Trail Blazers switched into shuffle mode again in the off-season of 1986. The most noticeable change came in the coaching department. Long-time championship coach Jack Ramsay was shown the door after multiple first-round exits. In his place the Blazers hired a technically-savvy assistant taking his first NBA head coaching position, Mike Schuler. Slapped into sensibility by Sam Bowie's leg injury the season prior, Portland also made a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for a big man, sending veteran forward and former #1 overall pick Mychal Thompson to Texas for Oregon State alum Steve Johnson, a low-post power forward-cum-center skilled at scoring and offensive rebounding.
Schuler's first move was an obvious one: take any and all remaining shackles off of scorers Kiki Vandeweghe and Clyde Drexler. Vandeweghe would come to dominate the '86-'87 season, scoring 27 per game as Memorial Coliseum crowds yelled his name in appreciation every time he rose for a long jumper. Drexler took the second most shots on the team, scoring 22 per game himself. Schuler effectively ended any thought of competition between Drexler and former All-Star Jim Paxson, sending Paxson to the bench and the 8th spot in the rotation. Schuler's other brilliant move was to trust Portland's recent first-round draft picks Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey. Porter became the backcourt starter beside Drexler and Kersey saw his minutes increase substantially despite backing up Vandeweghe. This lineup had youth, power, and plenty of punch.
What the lineup lacked, however, was Portland's shining hope of a center, Sam Bowie. After an off-season rehabbing Bowie returned for exactly 5 games before losing the rest of his season to yet another leg injury. That left Portland relying on Johnson as a full-time center with Kenny Carr manning the power forward spot. Both positions were bolstered by the positively ancient Caldwell Jones, a defensive specialist that Schuler loved for his unselfishness and veteran play.
A brutal road trip at the start of the season left the Blazers 1-4 but they began clawing their way back to respectability, rattling off 10 wins in their next 15 games. It quickly became apparent that this team could score on anyone. Under Schuler their pace became blistering. Drexler soared nightly. Porter and Kersey busted chops. Vandeweghe and Johnson bailed the team out in the halfcourt offense. Excitement returned to the Rose City like a tidal wave.
Realizing that Bowie's absence left the team without enough legitimate beef up front to see them through a long season, the Blazers made a minor-seeming move in mid-December, once again tapping the Spurs for a trade. Portland sent troubled first-round pick Walter Berry to San Antonio for a rookie project 7-footer named Kevin Duckworth. Duck had legit size at 7'0" and 275 lbs but faced weight and intensity questions. He wasn't much for banging in the post but he was deceptively mobile for his size. At that point the Blazers just wanted someone tall and big and even a raw Duckworth fit the bill.
For all the running, dunking, and swishing, the 1986-87 Blazers faced the same basic problem their predecessors had: they couldn't defend. Their horrible points per game allowed rate from the prior season actually got worse, approaching 115 per game. The saving grace was that the Blazers were scoring almost 118 themselves, leading the league. In the end it was good enough for 49 victories, more than most folks thought possible without Bowie in the lineup. The league agreed, voting Schuler Coach of the Year. Despite the glitz and offensive blitz the post-season story remained unchanged. Portland found a new opponent to lose 3-1 to, the Houston Rockets. Still, Blazer fans and players alike were having fun and hopes were high for 1987-88.
The Blazers knew that they'd be without Sam Bowie's services for the '87-'88 campaign. Between Johnson, Duckworth, and Jones they figured they had their bases almost covered, though. Sadly Johnson's knees began to give way on him, limiting his minutes. It seemed Portland could not keep a center healthy. Duckworth and Jones were serviceable but the front office knew they'd need someone to eat minutes at power forward, giving Jones a break and letting him spell Duck from time to time. They turned to a name from their past, picking up free agent power forward Maurice Lucas on November 11th. Lucas had drifted through the latter part of his NBA career but seemed rejuvenated returning to Portland. The Blazers also made do with minutes from Richard Anderson, a somewhat doughy 6'10" forward with a mid-range shooting game. Fingers were crossed that this assortment of bigs could carry Portland through the season.
The Blazers needn't have worried too much, however, because '87-'88 was the year that Clyde Drexler announced to the league who he really was. Drexler's ascension was occasioned in part by injuries to his good friend Vandeweghe who, though he scored 20 per game, was limited to about half a season of duty. With Kiki ailing, Drexler championed the Blazers, tearing a hole through the rest of the league to the tune of 51% shooting and 27 points per game. The young man was truly unstoppable. He'd have Portland fans rising out of their seats at the first hint of an open lane towards the bucket and opposing fans thumbing through their thesauruses for various versions of "Oh my stars!" Blazer fans learned to delight in the awe-filled groans that would arise in enemy arenas when Clyde cut loose.
Tight in Drexler's wake was small forward Kersey, also a beneficiary of Vandeweghe's woes. If Drexler was a toned gazelle driving the lane, Kersey was a sculpted rhinoceros. Jerome notched 19 ppg in his breakout season, almost making fans forget Vandeweghe's sweet shooting. Platooning with Johnson, Duckworth tallied the same 16 ppg as his creaky teammate and provided more rebounding. Feasting on major minutes and high-octane teammates, Terry Porter chipped in 15 points and 10 assists himself. All of a sudden a fan base that had expected to sit down to a full-course dinner featuring refined All-Star names like Vandeweghe, Johnson, and Paxson found themselves holding a bunch of lit firecrackers at the dining room table. The Blazers were louder, more explosive, and much more fun.
In the midst of the furious season the Blazers bid farewell to another of their former stalwarts, trading Paxson to the Boston Celtics for guard Jerry Sichting. Fans hardly had time for emotional goodbyes though, as the Blazers were on their way to 53 wins, by far their best performance since the Bill Walton days. The offense was superb. The defense was a little better. The win total was skyrocketing. Could this be the year the Blazers finally made some noise in the playoffs again?
The answer to the question was yes...providing that noise was flatulence. After winning their first game at home the Blazers barely made a peep, falling to the Utah Jazz (you guessed it) 3-1 in the first round. At this point you had to travel most of the Western Conference to find a team the Blazers hadn't been dominated by in the post-season.
Nevertheless hope sprang once more in the fall of 1988. The team hadn't made too many changes, celebrating the retirement of Lucas and replacing him with a first-round power forward from Seton Hall named Mark Bryant. That was about it. But who needed big changes? Drexler, Kersey, Porter, and Duckworth were strong. The season couldn't possibly go worse injury-wise for veterans Vandeweghe and Johnson. Bryant was expected to contribute right away. Even Sam Bowie was scheduled to return at some point during the year. With emerging stars joined by healthy veterans, how could the team not get stronger?
The first sign of the season's oddness came in Game 1 of the season when Coach Schuler started rookie Bryant at power forward. Bryant hadn't outplayed his veteran counterparts in training camp but he had worked hard. Schuler was sending a message that anyone on the team could find favor with diligent effort. The theory was nice but in practice Bryant looked over his head. His teammates didn't appreciate the implications of the object lesson either.
Despite Drexler's burgeoning 27 ppg season average and solid contributions from his cohorts Porter, Kersey, and Duckworth the team couldn't seem to string together solid winning streaks. December of '88 typified their performance. They started the month with a win, then a loss. Then they won four straight. They spent the next eight games alternating between losses and wins then lost five in a row, finishing the month with a single win that would eventually become a streak of a whopping three games. However shiny the individual numbers looked, as a team the Blazers couldn't get off the launching pad.
Injuries accounted for part of the mediocrity. Despite pre-season hopes the health situation never got better for Portland's vets. Vandeweghe played so slowly that the Blazers shipped him to New York for a first round pick 18 games into the season and got the better end of the deal. Johnson played over 70 games but also looked like a glacier wrapped in molasses. Even moving half speed he could only manage 20 minutes per game. Bowie returned but only for the last 20 games of the season. His contributions were intermittent at that. In the final analysis opponents only had to get past the Blazers' dazzling top four players in order to feast on guys like Jones, Sichting, Anderson, Adrian Branch, and Danny Young...fine complementary players no doubt, but barely capable of sustaining a game, let alone winning one.
A widening rift between the team's glitterati and Coach Schuler also became distressingly public early in the season. A fantastic X's and O's guy, Schuler apparently lacked the interpersonal skills to make him effective over the long term. He lost his top players and it showed on and off the court. Just a season and a half removed from his Coach of the Year award, Schuler was put out to pasture after 47 games. The team was apparently adrift again.
The Blazers looked in-house for Schuler's replacement, tapping a young assistant coach popular with the players, Rick Adelman. Adelman was familiar to long-time fans as an original Trail Blazer with roots deep in the community. Fuzzy nostalgia couldn't turn around the team's performance, though. The train wreck of a season ended with a 14-21 slide and a 39-43 record, good for only 5th in the division. As in years past the Blazers squeaked into the playoffs despite the sub-.500 performance but nobody had any illusions what was going to happen when they faced the Lakers in the first round. True to script the Blazers got swept, limping home after a fractured, stressful year nursing the wounds of another post-season failure.
As you might expect feelings were mixed around the Portland area following this difficult campaign. Everybody was juiced about Clyde Drexler but the roster looked thin and frail beyond the top four guys. Some speculated that Drexler and Kersey, Portland's two best players, couldn't gel long-term because they were too similar. Others wondered if all of these young guys would ever learn to get along and win. The team needed depth, experience, and health. The road to any one of those looked long. Achieving all three seemed far-fetched.
Once again the basketball gods had a surprise in store for Portland fans. One trade and one draft pick in the coming summer would set up a team that would still have tongues wagging decades later. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Portland Trail Blazers were about to return to the NBA Finals.
Tomorrow: The Drexler Era Part 2
As always, share your thoughts and memories of these years below!