The critical thing to remember about Portland's post-championship era is something we mentioned in the '77-'78 recap: to Portland fans the title was as much about identity as achievement. Though the Blazers had officially lost the title in 1978, in their hearts Blazers fans still considered their team the rightful champion. It was only a matter of time before that trophy came back to its proper owners.
Sadly the swirling drama over Bill Walton's foot became a vortex swallowing all hope of an immediate championship return. The damage wasn't getting better. Walton blamed team doctors and made no secret of it, eventually filing a lawsuit against the team's medical staff. He missed the entire 1978-79 season. Walton's disgruntlement towards the team provided Portland fans an interesting choice: side with their beloved organization or side with the player who had brought them the title that made them fall in love in the first place? The cards were stacked against Walton. He had already suffered through injuries in his first two, pre-championship seasons. His lifestyle was odd even by Portland standards. He wasn't an accomplished public speaker nor a charismatic figure off the court. He was complaining about the team, not they about him. The idea of "team basketball" had been so firmly entrenched in the minds of Portland fans that they praised Larry Steele's contributions and stood in awe of Bob Gross. Walton's absence left them with only a dozen or so other heroes to worship. Therefore when news of Walton's grousing began to leak, following as it did on a largely-unexplained long-term absence ("How could a foot cause all of that?"), Blazer fans began to turn on their center. People began to mutter about his salary, his life choices, and most of all about his injury tolerance. When Walton--the best player the team had ever seen to that point and perhaps the best Blazer ever--left the team as a free agent in 1979 it should have marked a major turning point accompanied by mourning and memories. Instead his departure was met with a collective shrug. Most significant players from the championship year remained. Walton barely played anyway. Somebody else would lead the team onward.
Indeed the post-championship era had no shortage of popular Blazers. The first arrival was Minnesota forward-center Mychal Thompson. A colorful personality originally from the Bahamas, Thompson opened up his NBA career averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds playing in a big-man triangle with Maurice Lucas (20 points, 10 rebounds in '78-'79) and Tom Owens (18.5 points, 9 rebounds). Portland seemed to have its frontcourt replacement for Walton, not in terms of singular talent but group production. Injuries to Lionel Hollins weakened the backcourt and the Blazers lost in the first round to Phoenix that year, 2-1.
1979-80 saw the arrival of two guards who would rise to near-legendary status in the Portland pantheon: Billy Ray Bates and Jim Paxson. Bates was an ultra-athletic, 6'4" firecracker who could play in what would later become known as "street ball" fashion. Anyone who saw him dunk never forgot it. Paxson was the polar opposite: a screen-employing, off-ball moving shooter with enough tricks to get him free whenever he wanted. Neither guard made a significant contribution during his rookie season, though, and continued injuries to Hollins robbed Portland of backcourt production. In the frontcourt Thompson and Owens continued their steady production, bolstered in the rebounding department by Kermit Washington who had come about as compensation for San Diego signing Walton to a free agent contract. In February Portland would further shuffle the lineup, sending Maurice Lucas and two first-round draft picks to New Jersey for power forward Calvin Natt. Though Natt played only 25 games for the Blazers that year he averaged over 20 points in those games. Sadness over losing the second half of the championship duo was replaced by excitement over the possibilities inherent in this new, young talent. Still the Blazers fell in the first round, this time to the Seattle Supersonics.
1980-81 marked the true changing of the guard. Small forward Bob Gross was the only holdover from '76-'77. The year belonged to Paxson, who soared to 17 ppg production, and Bates who just soared everywhere. Billy Ray made his stamp on Blazer history on December 30th, 1980 when he received an inbounds pass from Kermit Washington in the final second of a close game versus the 76'ers and jammed it home, providing the Blazers the victory and a highlight that would live forever. Despite that transcendent moment, Portland struggled on the court for most of the season. Natt's production fell. At 17 points a night Thompson produced well but showed no signs of becoming the Next Big Star. Absent Walton, Lucas, and now Lionel Hollins the Blazers lacked stability and winning experience. A late-season rally got them into the playoffs but they lost in the first round once more, this time to the Kansas City Kings.
Click through for a look at the underwhelming 1981-82 season, to see how the seeds for the next great Blazer era were sown through the ashes of this one.
1981-82 marked the last great venture for Mychal Thompson in a Portland Trail Blazers uniform. Starting 78 of his 79 games played Thompson registered career high totals of 21 points and 12 rebounds. Jim Paxson was not far behind at 19 ppg and Calvin Natt experienced a resurgence, upping his totals to 18 and 8. The Blazers addressed a burning hole at the point guard position with two newcomers: sizzling scorer Kelvin Ransey and physical fitness maven Darnell Valentine. Sophomore Ransey burst on the scene to the tune of 16 points and 7 assists. Kermit Washington kept plugging away at power forward. Billy Ray Bates, yoked to personal problems and a uni-directional dribble, faded quickly from the scene. This would also be the farewell tour for Bob Gross, still serviceable but nowhere near as effective without the heady, talented players of yesteryear around him. The new blood in Portland's lineup was little help. Aside from Valentine, four rookies played for the Blazers in this season: centers Peter Gudmundsson and Carl Bailey, shooting guard Jeff Lamp, and forward Pete Verhoeven. Washington in his 8th year and Gross in his 6th were the only regular rotation players with more than 2 years of experience. Despite some individual heroics the Blazers finished with a 42-40 record, barely missing the playoffs for the first time since the championship year. Connection to the goodwill of that season was slipping away from the casual fan. The team was still etched in Portland's consciousness...nothing could undo that. But the common man was more likely to shake his head than jump for joy upon their mention. The Blazers had talent (at least to the eyes of Portland fans, always prone to root for their guys) but couldn't seem to put it together.
Ironically, just a couple years after the tepid reaction upon Bill Walton's exit, the cry around Portland became, "We could compete if we could just get a center!" Paxson was showing signs of greatness in the backcourt. The Blazers had power forwards aplenty. They lacked a big man to anchor the attack. The belief that the Blazers were "one player away" would persist through the next few seasons. Still in the midst of their NBA learning curve, Blazer fans had yet to realize that dominant centers were impossible to come by, that 20-odd teams in the league were that same "one player away". Still fans waited and hoped.
1982-83 saw a couple significant transitions. Kermit Washington, plagued by injury, exited in favor of bulky power forward Kenny Carr. Promising scorer Kelvin Ransey was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for center Wayne Cooper and a first round pick in one of the most lopsided trades in Blazer history. (More on that pick tomorrow.) A promising young point guard named Fat Lever also arrived on the scene. The Blazers' top duo of Paxson and Natt proved formidable, each scoring 20+ per game. The 3rd-7th players--Thompson, Valentine, Carr, Cooper, and Lever--were adequate. The rest of the team was a disaster. Even die-hard faithful fans had trouble generating much excitement over Don Buse and Jeff Judkins. In fact the most energizing news of the season was Paxson being named to the All-Star Game, an honor which seemed commonplace five years ago but singular now. The Blazers finally managed to win a first round series, defeating the Sonics 2-1, but then they hit the buzzsaw of the Los Angeles Lakers, themselves on the fast track to Showtime. Following the 4-1 crushing the cry for a center to counter Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lifted anew. No answer was forthcoming.
The Top 7 rotation remained unchanged in 1983-84. Paxson was again named an All-Star. Natt slipped again in production. Thompson remained stalled. Point guards Fat Lever and Darnell Valentine both played well but were hampered by splitting minutes with each other, neither one looking bad enough to bench, neither one performing well enough to claim the team as his own. The only new buzz came from a draftee from Houston, a 6'7" guard-forward whose shot looked fairly brutal but who could dunk even higher than Billy Ray used to when he got in the open court. His name was Clyde Drexler. Despite his athletic gifts he only played 17 minutes per game, stuck behind Paxson most of the time, also trying to learn Jack Ramsay's style of play. In certain moments, though...wow. The Blazers improved their win total to 48 with this group, the high-water mark of this era, but bowed out in the first round to the Phoenix Suns, 3-2. The story looked familiar: talent, some dedication, but always falling a game short when it mattered. Blazer fans began to wonder in earnest if that narrative would ever change.
Little did they know that massive change was just weeks away, including some of the greatest blunders and triumphs in team history.
Tomorrow: The Early Drexler Era
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