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After a comparatively disappointing 47-win season followed by a limp first-round playoff loss in 1993-94 the Blazers were ready to make serious changes. Surprisingly the summer of 1994 saw little player movement compared to years past. Drafting guard Aaron McKie in the first round turned out to be the only significant on-court move. With a lineup featuring Rod Strickland, Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler, Harvey Grant, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Cliff Robinson, and Chris Dudley the Blazers looked to be set in any case.
The '94 off-season saw a complete changing of the guard among the guys in suits, however. Finals Era coach Rick Adelman was shown the door. He had not been able to integrate old and new talent or produce enough wins to match inflated expectations. His replacement was a hard-nosed coach from Seton Hall, P.J. Carlesimo. A strident, hard-nosed X's and O's guy, Carlesimo portrayed a diametrically opposed image from the player-friendly, composed and laid back Adelman.
The Blazers also pulled off a major coup, snagging hotshot executive Bob Whitsitt from his perch in Seattle. Whitsitt was widely credited with building the Gary Payton-Shawn Kemp Sonics who would soon march to challenge Michael Jordan's supremacy in the NBA Finals. His reputation was one of genius and master salesman rolled into one. With owner Paul Allen's deep warchest at his disposal, potential seemed unlimited for Portland's new GM.
It's no accident that this is the first time we've invoked Paul Allen's name in these histories. The former Microsoft visionary had purchased the team in 1988 but thus far had kept a low profile. Popular focus from '88 through '92 remained on Clyde Drexler and his cohorts. As trades and gambles became more frequent following the '92 Finals attention shifted occasionally to GM Geoff Petrie. Hiring Whitsitt was the first move attributed directly and noticeably to Allen himself by the general public...the beginning of his fame/notoriety in Portland. Blazer fans assumed that Allen's Seattle connections and the promise of his pocketbook had sealed this deal, bringing what was potentially the best GM in the league to their beloved franchise. Portland cheered.
As mentioned above, Whitsitt's first few months were quiet. Not so Carlesimo's. The fiery redhead's style clashed immediately with Adelman regime veterans, particularly those at the core of the Finals teams. Why in the world should experienced, winning players adopt a strict, collegiate mentality when they were slowly getting pushed out of playing time anyway? Carlesimo's brusque manner, rigid schemes, and coaching habits (among them asking his players to continue fouling for possession even when a game was obviously out of reach) alienated his experienced charges. The team barely rose above .500 through the first three months of the season.
The good news for Portland in '94-'95 was the return of Chris Dudley, now fulfilling his promise as a defensive and rebounding center, starting all 82 games of the season. Dudley's future had actually been in doubt during the summer, not because of last year's injuries but because of contract status. If you remember, Portland signed him for less than market value during the summer of 1993. As it turned out, Dudley was willing to sign the low deal because of an opt-out clause following its first year...an option which the center cheerfully took. Portland immediately offered him a new contract worth over four times as much, making his salary higher than that of Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and just short of Jordan in Chicago. The league office went into collective apoplexy. Though they hemmed and hawed they couldn't close the loophole retroactively so Dudley remained a Blazer. The one-year opt-out clause was immediately outlawed, however. Now one of the best-paid players in the game, Dudley happily contributed his 5.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
Cliff Robinson also remained happy, the product of 36 minutes, 18 shots, and 21 points per game. Rod Strickland found his speed appreciated by his new coach and responded to the tune of 19 and 9. Though his production was declining Buck Williams found a similar vote of confidence, starting 82 games alongside Dudley and playing nearly 30 minutes. James "Hollywood" Robinson found a promotion as well, playing nearly 22 minutes per game in 71 contests.
The grumpy crew consisted of familiar names. Jerome Kersey, paid even more than Dudley, found himself languishing at 18 minutes per game and battling injuries to boot. Also riding the injury train was Terry Porter. He would play but 35 games in this season, a moot point as he was buried behind Strickland anyway. The King of Unhappiness, however, was Drexler himself. Injuries had robbed him of the ability to glide like he once did but he rode decent three-point shooting and free throws to 22 points per game. Nevertheless he chafed under Carlesimo, the losing, the perceived lack of loyalty to himself (lack of contract) and the old guard (firing Adelman), and the sense that his career was heading nowhere in Portland. By mid-season Clyde had gone public with his discontent, giving an interview on a decidedly non-team-sanctioned radio station voicing his opinions about the shortcomings of the new regime and his future with the Blazers.
On February 8th, 1995 Drexler scored 15 points with 7 assists and 5 rebounds in a 116-103 home victory against the Chicago Bulls. It was to be his last game in a Portland uniform. The league's All-Star break followed and as action resumed on the 14th the news blasted across the wires: Clyde Drexler had been traded to the Houston Rockets along with Tracy Murray for power forward Otis Thorpe, foreign prospect Marcelo Nicola, and a 1995 1st round pick (later to become Randolph Childress). After a dozen years, two trips to the NBA Finals, and more spectacular dunks and game-saving scoring nights than can be counted the best player in franchise history was a Blazer no more. Valentine's Day saw the hearts of Portland fans broken.
The enormity of the Drexler trade goes far beyond wins and losses. Prior to him the franchise had known but one heady rush of success in 1977. That fell apart a year later and never returned. For many the Walton title had become like a mirage. A generation of fans had grown up following the team based on that championship without ever seeing first-hand how it could be reached. Drexler changed all that. He became the unifying force for the next generation of Blazer fans and a new rallying cry for the older ones. His style of play was electric, his performances dominant, and Portland's win totals under him stratospheric. As late as 1995 he still symbolized the hope that somehow the glory days of '90-'92 would return. Portland fans wanted so badly to see the Porter-Drexler-Kersey-Williams squad win a title. When he left that dream died forever...the same effect (though obviously less violent and tragic) that John Lennon getting shot had on Beatles fans holding out for a renunion. Any comfort after that was cold.
Still, Portland's management could hardly be vilified for making the deal. Clyde had wanted out. In a certain way they were doing him a favor, allowing him to finally win a title in his hometown of Houston. The subtext, of course, was that the title would not visit Portland. But few had expected it to anyway. The new regime largely got a pass on the devastating deal.
Though Otis Thorpe was a quality player coming off of a title team the obvious question surrounding his arrival was where he'd fit in. The Blazers already had Dudley (with whom Thorpe had gotten into fisticuffs earlier in the season) and Williams at the big slots with Cliff Robinson floating around. What they really needed were scoring guards, one of whom they had just traded away, to offset the defensive leanings of their big men. Between Robinson, Kersey, and Harvey Grant small forward was a mess. Now power forward was a mess as well. Meanwhile Strickland and James Robinson tried to keep up the pace as the only viable guards. Nobody thought this team was going anywhere. And they didn't. Portland finished the season 19-18 and got swept by the dominant Phoenix Suns in the first round.
Having doused the main flame from the former Finals fire Whitsitt and company stamped out the remaining embers during the summer of 1995, allowing Jerome Kersey to get scooped up by the Toronto Raptors in their expansion draft and later releasing Terry Porter outright. Even though the dreams of glory were already dead these were bitter pills to swallow for fans. Two of the most storied players the team would ever know left without compensation. The moves made sense financially and likely chemistry-wise but they still hurt. Names like Randolph Childress, Gary Trent, and Dontonio Wingfield weren't doing anything to ease the pain either. As a result the best words to describe the mood heading into the 1995-96 season were shocked, bewildered, and maybe even a little numb...except for one small matter. One name sent tongues wagging and hopes soaring. Some big help was about to arrive. Or so Blazers fans hoped.
Way back in 1986--well before the Finals runs--at the behest of recently-hired Bucky Buckwalter, the Trail Blazers spent a first-round pick in a nearly-unheard of way. With the 24th selection of the '86 draft the Blazers selected Arvydas Sabonis, a center from Lithuania then starring for the Soviet team. Taking a foreign player at all with a first-rounder was unusual in those days. Today's international scouting system was nowhere to be found. Few NBA execs could claim to have seen foreign players firsthand. Like detectives, GM's had to piece together data from word of mouth and film clips. Since most international players weren't that good, it wasn't worth the effort compared to scouting American collegians.
If drafting a foreign player was unusual, drafting one who might not ever play on U.S. soil was pure folly. Sabonis was locked behind the Iron Curtain in a world dominated by the Cold War. Even if Sabonis desired to play in the NBA with all his heart the Soviets would never let him go. Losing the best player they'd ever seen to their capitalistic adversary would be a blow to their basketball program, their pride, and their international status.
Heads shook around the league deriding Buckwalter and the Blazers. As it turned out, as in so many things back in those years, the Blazers were visionaries, ahead of a league in which international scouting and drafting would someday become de rigueur.
Even the loudest scoffers couldn't deride Sabonis as a player. Grainy films soon began making their way around Portland and the legend began to grow. Here was a seven-footer rebounding, dribbling behind his back, and running the break like a point guard. He had the agility of a snake and the size of a polar bear. Dunking was effortless. His jumper was pure, his passing pristine. When he absolutely destroyed David Robinson in the 1988 Olympics the world started to go crazy and the Sabonis Watch was on.
It would take nine years from the time he was drafted for Sabonis to make his NBA debut with the Blazers...one downed Berlin Wall and a couple of similarly smashed knees later. Late or not, the arrival of Sabas was just the tonic Portland fans needed after the crushing blows of losing Drexler, Porter, and Kersey in short order. The buzz surrounding the first game of the '95-'96 season was palpable. Everybody held their breath as he strode out for warmups. The first impression? This guy was BIG. CBS commentator Brent Musberger had once given Bill Walton the sobriquet "Mountain Man". Forget the man part, this guy was just a Mountain. He was bigger than Hakeem. He was two David Robinsons put together. He was just plain huge.
The second impression? "He's got to be moving that slowly because it's warmups, right?"
By that point the legend had grown so big that some observers expected to see the basketball version of the rapture that very night, with all Sabonis Believers swept up into basketball heaven and everybody else left behind to watch the rest of the league. As it turned out the slow movement was a built-in feature of his game. He was always the last guy up the floor on either end. The team kept his minutes reasonable most night. He just wasn't physically able to take over a game, let alone the entire NBA.
Despite that a thousand details of Sabonis' impeccable game shone clearly to the now-educated Portland fans. He vacuumed rebounds one-handed with his huge mitts, sometimes launching outlet passes without bringing the ball back to two-hand position. His shooting was beautiful, especially for a guy his size. His halfcourt passing was impeccable. His floor vision and height made him all but unstoppable off the toss. He'd routinely whip behind-the-back entry tosses from the post for layups. When he set a pick it wasn't a matter of whether the defender would go over or under it but whether he'd take a train or a taxi to cover all that distance. Dreamers immediately snapped back to the 1990-92 years, fantasizing what a younger, more mobile Sabonis could have given those teams. Even though the Soviets had wrung every bit of basketball juice out of his body before letting him go the macerated rinds were still providing per-minute numbers better than any Bill Walton had achieved in his entire career. His prime must have been more spectacular than advertised.
Sabonis was the only true bright spot of the '95-'96 season, though. This team still belonged to Cliff Robinson and Rod Strickland. Robinson, now in "Uncle Cliffy" mode, provided 21 points per game but had begun drifting to the perimeter, launching six shots per game from beyond the three-point arc. He never employed his considerable defensive skills consistently. Strickland was flirting with 19 and 10 but was not defending any better. Despite the stats they weren't enough. Harvey Grant continued to disappoint, James Robinson slumped, and Buck Williams was finished. Rookie Gary Trent won accolades for his post scoring and physical play at power forward. Sophomore Aaron McKie looked pretty good on defense. That was it.
For a second straight season the Blazers couldn't escape the gravity of .500, salting in losing streaks with winning streaks the entire year, finishing with a 44-38 record. A funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable first-round playoff exit though. Portland faced the Utah Jazz, now with John Stockton and Karl Malone in their primes. On paper this was a squash match. As expected Utah won the first two games but the Blazers took the third in overtime and then managed to win the fourth as well, forcing a Game 5 in Utah. Now Blazers fans were buzzing again. Was this team sandbagging? Were they better than their record had shown? All eyes were glued as the hometown heroes walked onto the Salt Lake City court on May 5th, 1996. Those eyes would witness an unprecedented massacre as the Blazers fell 102-64 that day. Comments changed from "When are they going to make a run?" to just "Run!" as the horror unfolded. With a single, horrific game the Blazers had managed to take the air out of their most hopeful post-season performance since 1992. Like Brave Sir Robin they beat their retreat to the Rose City and vacation, in need of yet another retooling.
Fortunately the Blazers had the ideal retooling guy in the front office. As the off-season of '96 began Bob Whitsitt began whipping players across the league like so many playing cards in what would become the first of his nearly-annual restructurings.
First Whitsitt ttraded Strickland and Grant to the Washington Bullets for troubled-yet-talented second year forward Rasheed Wallace. Wallace had every tool necessary to become an all-around dominant player but also bore a hair-trigger temper. With forwards Juwan Howard and Chris Webber in the fold, the Bullets didn't need the talent or the headache.
Next up were twin backcourt moves on the same day. On July 23rd Whitsitt inked veteran scoring point guard Kenny Anderson to replace Strickland then moved James Robinson and a draft pick to Minnesota for their slam-dunk-champion scoring guard Isaiah "J.R." Rider. Rider's athleticism was off the charts. His biceps were the size of many guys' thighs. He could leap as high as Drexler had. But his demeanor was almost anti-Clyde: unprofessional, unreliable, at times unpresentable. Together Anderson and Rider made a mercurial but intriguing duo.
With the 17th pick of the 1996 draft the Blazers took a flyer on a skinny, high-school forward by the name of Jermaine O'Neal. Springy as a mattress as raw as tartar, O'Neal was a project. But at the time high school players were hot, Kevin Garnett having been selected a year prior and Kobe Bryant going four picks before O'Neal in this very draft.
In a sudden whirlwind of acquisitions last year's thin, overworked lineup featuring Robinson and Strickland had been renovated. The Blazers now sported Anderson, Rider, Wallace, Robinson, Sabonis, Dudley, Trent...a veritable warehouse of big bodies alongside two guards who could score out the wazoo. If some of these guys were of questionable character, well, maybe the Blazers could become the next version of the Oakland Raiders, bad boys to everyone else, making the league pay. Blazer fans, indoctrinated into the "home-grown talent" mantra of the Drexler years, weren't used to this much transition or this many shady dudes. But once they slowed down and caught their breath they were more than willing to give it a try.
Despite this infusion of talent the Blazers started the '96-'97 season in familiar fashion, splicing winning and losing with equal abandon. Their scoring was far more balanced than in recent years with six players averaging double figures. But the team could never pull it together nor unite under a single star and game plan. In January Whitsitt traded McKie and a couple of bench warmers to the Detroit Pistons for Stacey Augmon, immediately buoying the defense. But that wasn't the Magic Move either.
February 26th saw Portland nursing a 29-28 record following a heartbreaking overtime loss to the New York Knicks at home. Then in the midst of darkness a spark caught and the Blazers rattled off 11 wins in a row including victories over Utah, Phoenix, and Seattle. Midway through that streak tongues started wagging again. By its end fans were speculating this team was peaking for a great playoff run. The Blazers finished the year 9-4 following their explosion to complete a 49-33 campaign, the best so far under Carlisemo's tenure. Even better the playoff opponent was the Los Angeles Lakers, now in possession of newly-robbed center-rapper Shaquille O'Neal. What a triumph it would be if the Blazers could put the Lakers in their place! What a kickoff for this newly-minted team!
The Blazers took their host of big men into the series. The Lakers had Shaq with a small assist from Elden Campbell. Blazer fans held their breath. Alas, Shaq scored 46 in the first game and Campbell added 20. The duo never really let up, dominating the pivot as L.A. wiped Portland off the books in a 3-1 victory.
Though disappointing, Portland's loss was met with equanimity around Blazer Nation. Compared to last season, the prospects following this one seemed bright. This team was young, hot, unpredictable. Who knew how far they could go after a couple years of seasoning?
Little did Portland fans know that a couple years wasn't in Bob Whitsitt's time frame. A couple minutes was more his mindset. Even more moves were on the way.
Next Up: The Whitsitt Era continues...
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