The History of the Portland Trail Blazers: The Post-Finals Decline

USA TODAY Sports

Blazer's Edge reminisces about the history of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up: 1993, with the decline of a legendary team, and the loss of an old friend.

When we last left our tour of Portland Trail Blazers memories the guys in black and red had just completed the best three-year stretch in their history.  Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth had bulldozed their way to two NBA Finals in three years, winning 63 regular-season games in the season they didn't make the finals series.  Unfortunately the team had come up short in each Finals visit, losing to the Detroit Pistons in 1990 and the Chicago Bulls in 1992.  Even the most diehard Blazers fans were wondering if the stars would ever align for this team.

The summer of 1992 saw a couple of significant changes.  Danny Ainge, brought on board for experience and versatile guard play, departed for the Phoenix Suns.  Portland replaced him with Golden State veteran Mario Elie.  More importantly they reached out into the market to snag coveted point guard Rod Strickland, lately of the San Antonio Spurs.  Like the first leaf falling in autumn, Strickland's signing into a now-crowded backcourt foreshadowed a change in Portland's weather.  They were slipping from their perch as a dominant franchise.  The solution: try to hold it by acquiring extra talent.

The problems with this oft-attempted process are manifold:

  • Great teams excel in the first place because of A-List talent.   Those kind of players are almost never available on the open market via signing or trade.  Despite a stronger-looking lineup overall the peak production of your new squad doesn't equal the peak production of the squad you used to have.
  • Chemistry is usually a key component in title runs.  It can come from a seamless rotation or from having a coupe dominant players with everybody else knowing their role.  One of the classic reasons talented players become available is their lack of chemistry.  Having just signed a shiny, expensive contract, incoming players tend to believe they're prominent, if not central, in the process no matter how that process was working before their arrival..
  • Exacerbating the chemistry issue, you have to choose among the limited pool of players the market provides.  Talent often wins over fit.  You end up with too much of something, unable to wring maximum production out of players, in effect wasting a portion of the theoretical talent increase.
  • The second classic reason talented players go on the market is lack of versatility.  Great offensive or defensive players who can't play on the opposite end of the floor create stress on their own lineup as well as the opponents'.  The pre-existing rotation usually didn't have to deal with, and isn't prepared for, that stress.

All of these factors came into play with the Strickland signing.  Folks around the NBA marveled that Portland was able to acquire yet more talent for nothing but extra cash.  By contrast the first thoughts of many Blazers fans were:  "Wasn't this the guy who cost his team a Game 7 by chucking a stupid pass over his head a couple years ago?" and "Where in the world is he going to play?"  This was a departure from the tried-and-true formula of molding home-grown talent.  After the initial head-scratching and hand-wringing ceased, though, the Blazer faithful got caught up in the excitement.  Maybe one infusion of talent really was enough to make a title possible.

That excitement boiled a little stronger as the Blazers rattled off eight straight wins to start the season.  They hit some bumps afterwards but still managed a 28-11 record by late January.  Portland was propelled by the emergence of forward-center Cliff Robinson.  Known in his two earlier seasons for wild shots and pass drops, Robinson pulled it together in '92-'93, scoring 19 per game with 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks.  He eased the strain on Buck Williams who, while still formidable, was slowing down every so slightly.  Robinson also provide another nice running target for Strickland.  The latter split the point guard duties with Porter who now slid to off-guard upon occasion.

The big story of the season, though, became the health of Clyde Drexler.  Chronically bothered by knees, Drexler had to take off long stretches of games during this season, first in January then in March.  Clyde's knees made the Strickland signing make sense.  But even with the high talent level a Strickland-Porter backcourt didn't bring near the intimidation factor of a Porter-Drexler pairing.  The Blazers survived, prospered even against lesser teams, but they couldn't dominate without their Hall of Famer.

Strickland's skills and shortcomings on the court became crystal clear during his inaugural season with the Blazers.  He was a prescient passer, quick with the dribble, devastating on the run, and could score in the lane.  On the other hand he couldn't hit jumpers consistently and he defended at about the same level as the mid-court logo.  The latter issue became huge when paired with Porter who himself was playing out of position defensively at shooting guard.  No matter which player defended the opponent's point, the other was stuck in a mismatch.  Teams with good backcourts quickly took advantage.

Despite the injury and chemistry issues the Blazers ended the '92-'93 season with a respectable 51-31 record, good for third in the Pacific Division behind the Seattle Supersonics and the 62-win Phoenix Suns.  With the fourth seed in the conference the Blazers had a tough road ahead, first facing fifth-seed San Antonio before a presumed matchup with new conference-mate Charles Barkley and the Suns.  That showdown never took place.  Even with Drexler on the court the Spurs rudely ushered Portland from the post-season, winning the first-round series 3-1.  After three heady years of success, the Blazers were back to their first-round losing ways.

It was time for more moves.

The Blazers acquired scoring potential aplenty in the summer of 1993.  They took a shot on James "Hollywood" Robinson in the draft.  He had a point guard's size but a scoring guard's mentality with an array of moves to back it up.  A bit later they traded former first-round pick Alaa Abdelnaby to the Milwaukee Bucks for the rights to UCLA sharpshooter Tracy Murray, a guy who could routinely hit from halfcourt in practice.

More shockingly, perhaps, the Blazers broke up their former Finals core, sending center Kevin Duckworth to the Washington Bullets for forward Harvey Grant.  Like Strickland, Grant was a talent.  He had averaged over 18 per game as the main man on the Bullets roster for three years straight.  Also like Strickland, Grant had limitations which the Blazers were about to discover.

The Duckworth trade was made possible by the Blazers also acquiring center Chris Dudley, a rebounding, shot-blocking defensive specialist with a Yale degree and the potential to earn a lot more on the open market than the $800,000 the Blazers were paying him.  The mystery to that would be revealed next summer.

On paper the Blazers looked stacked.  They still had Porter, Drexler, and Strickland in the backcourt.  They had Kersey and Grant to score and rebound at small forward, Robinson to fill it up and Williams to rebound at power forward, and Dudley to watch the hoop at center while all of the other players scored away.

Even with all that, the summer of '93 saw tragedy hit the Blazers family.  On June 7th, 1993, sadness swept over Portland with the news that former guard Drazen Petrovic, now a member of the New Jersey Nets, had been killed as a passenger in a car accident on the German Autobahn.  I remember listening to Steve "Dream" Weaver on the newly-minted sports radio station "The Fan" that morning.  I was driving my busted up Toyota to get gas and came in during the middle of the story.  It was evident by the tone that something awful had happened but the radio crew went a long time without mentioning an actual name.  I had to piece together information from the conversation:  former Blazer, young, beloved when he was here.  When they started talking about the lack of speed limits and being able to drive however fast you wanted I immediately thought of the Autobahn and then I said, "Oh no.  Not Drazen."  They still hadn't completed the story when I reached the gas station.  My alternator wouldn't take the radio playing without the engine so instead of pulling up to the pump I parked at the side of the lot and kept the car running to listen.  Seconds later they recapped the whole story.  Drazen Petrovic, dead at 28.  I immediately flashed back to the joyous abandon with which Petro played even when he was chronically out of position and in trouble with his coach.  I had the good fortune to sit exactly behind him, in a direct line with him and the bucket, as he was warming up shooting threes before a game. Never have I seen such a display of shooting before or since.  The ball literally never left the line.  No left...no right...not a millimeter.  It went true every time.  I used to think, as all of us do in our youth, that maybe I could have played ball at a higher level if I were just a little taller, a little quicker.  I had some skills and I had a shot.  Watching Drazen--a guy about my size--shoot in warmups that night cured me of that illusion forever.  On my best day I never shot like that.  If I shot 10 for 10 from the arc they wouldn't have looked like that though every one went in.  Drazen had put me in my place and I loved him for it.  I held a pit in my stomach for days after hearing about his death.  He was traded from the Blazers too soon and left this life too soon.  That will forever be his legacy in Portland.

Even so, there were games to be played the next fall.  Some things went really right.  Cliff Robinson topped 20 per game, becoming the central scorer on the team.  Strickland had a fantastic year at 17 with 9 assists.  Drexler managed 68 games, his only serious time off coming in January.  Several things went really wrong too.  Chief among them, Chris Dudley played but 28 games forcing Robinson to man the center position.  Though he scored well and played with mobility, though he was bolstered by the last great effort of Buck Williams as a Blazer (10.4 rpg this season), Cliff couldn't stem the team's defensive shortcomings.  The master plan revolved around Dudley as the Big Stopper in the middle and everyone else scoring freely.  Instead Robinson scored freely, everyone else's scoring suffered, and nobody stopped the ball on the other end.  Strickland and Porter still hadn't settled who would start at point.  Porter's production plummeted, a victim of poor shooting, an aging body, and discontent.  By the end of the season he had become a three-point specialist, not much more.   Kersey became a complete non-factor, playing fewer than 17 minutes per game.  Grant was a bust in his place, barely scoring over 10.  Drexler, accustomed to shooting above 48%, shot less than 43% for the season.  Nobody but Porter and rookie Murray could hit a three-point shot.

Portland finished the '93-'94 season at 47-35, losing their first-round series in all-too-familiar 3-1 fashion to the Houston Rockets.  The Blazers had talent but yesterday's foreshadowing had become today's reality.  Too many of the new players were overrated, unable to function without being the focal point of the team, unable to defend, or unable to fit together as a cohesive unit.  Too many of the old guard were hurt or grumpy about getting pushed out of playing time by the new guys.  The Blazers were a red hot mess.

The first casualty of the disappointing season was coach Rick Adelman.  He walked away with 291 wins in five seasons and change, leaving behind a team in serious transition.  With him went General Manager Geoff Petrie, credited for many of the great decisions of the Drexler ascension and many of the less-great ones during the decline.

Bidding adieu to even more of the keys to their early-90's Finals runs was only the initial move of the Blazers '94-'95 season though.  Sweeping changes were on the horizon.  A new sheriff was coming to town and respecting tradition wasn't one of his strong points.

Next Up: The Whitsitt Era begins.

As always, share your memories of these years, teams, and players below.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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