Portland Trail Blazers Comparisons Between 1984 and 2013

USA TODAY Sports

Could the 2013 Portland Trail Blazers be in a similar situation to the 1984 club? A Blazer's Edge reader asks and Dave answers!

Dave,

As most long term Blazer fans who have been through various stomach punch disappointments, I too am shy about getting my hopes to high over the current version of the Blazers. However, although improbable, I'm willing say this team could turn into a West conference contender if everything broke just right. This would entail keeping Aldridge, Lillard becoming a top 5 PG, Batum shedding the inconsistency and becoming an all star or borderline all star, Lopez channeling some inner Tyson Chandler and becoming a defensive force, McCollum morphing into a younger Jason Terry/Jamal Crawford type bench scorer and Robinson and Leonard developing into quality (not all star) NBA big men. Wesley would just remain Wesley.

I understand you can't go there, but let me ask you a question: If we could somehow erase you Blazer memory, Men in Black style, and stick you in a time machine that takes you back to watch the 84-85 and 85-86 NBA seasons, would you have predicted on logic (not heart) that the Blazers of those two years would have morphed into a top 3 NBA juggernaut in 5 years?

At that time we all knew Drexler was good, but it would have been hard to imagine him becoming an NBA all timer. Porter and Kersey oozed potential, but what are the general chances that players with similar potential will turn out like they did? And I'm sure if I told a skeptical time transported Dave that our big man troubles were going to be solved down the road by the acquisition of some nobody, overweight, no D, second rounder named Kevin Duckworth, a second rounder that could not stay out of trouble in college, and a veteran PF we would get in trade for the shell of our broken down lottery bust center, he would laugh it off.

Point being, I think the chances of things breaking right with this team like it did with the 85-86 team are very low, but I'm willing to say it's in the realm of possibility. There is talent and youth present on today's team. This is opposed to the several times in the team's past where there was NO chance of this happening because of severe lack of talent or an over abundance of past their prime players (1994-5, 2004-6 and 2010-11 come to mind). Anyway, hope springs eternal.

SJ

This is a meaty question, bringing up an important aspect of good analysis.  Understanding that something happened is not sufficient.  You have to understand why something happened to make use of it and understand its application.

The classic example of this in Blazer-land is the 1976-77 championship run.  Portland won the title in the franchise's 7th year of existence, having not made the playoffs prior.  The storyline was that they "came from nowhere" to win the title...mostly true.  Even today that event is used to justify the impression that anything can happen at any given time, that a non-playoff squad has a chance to win it all.

But that title didn't happen because the Blazers started from nowhere.  They happened to start from nowhere prior to a summer in which an amazing confluence of events took place.  First overall pick and once-in-a-generation center Bill Walton recovered from career-long injuries to put in one good season.  Young All-Star guard Lionel Hollins grew into his own.  The ABA dispersal draft gave the Blazers maybe the best power forward in the league in Maurice Lucas plus a solid starting point guard in Dave Twardzik.  Rookie Johnny Davis played out of his mind.  Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay came on board.  The Blazers procured a nice scorer in Herm Gilliam to go with decent veteran depth and rid themselves of a chemistry issue in the departing Sidney Wicks.  All of that, from the grand changes to small tweaks, happened in a single summer.  That allowed the Blazers to "come out of nowhere" for a title.

Is any of that even remotely analogous to the Blazers, or any other non-playoff team, today?  Where's the Hall-of-Fame center returning from injuries?  (Answer in Portland's case: in Miami.  But let's leave that alone.)  Which team got an ultra-elite power forward and another key starter this summer for free?  How about the transcendent coach to go with them?  Plenty of low-level teams can claim the Hollins-type guy on the cusp of All-Star status, the Herm Gilliam scoring acquisition, the Johnny Davis rookie, or a solid bench but those aren't enough.  You need all of the factors at the same time to make that kind of impossible championship jump.  That's why it only happened once and will likely never happen in the same way again.

Saying, "Nobody would have anticipated that '77 championship either so the analysis today could be missing the point," is inaccurate.  Even if nobody would have dared to call the title shot, plenty of people would have looked at Portland's summer of '76 and said, "Something really special could happen here...watch out for these guys."  That people aren't saying the same about a current incarnation of any team doesn't mean current analysts are short-sighted.  It means that the factors that led to that magical '76-'77 campaign aren't there, or even remotely close.

As you request, SJ, let's fast-forward 10 years to the beginning of the Drexler era and run the exercise again.  Putting my modern, analytic self back in those times is perilous.  Who knows what one really would have said?  But let's take a decent shot, discounting the knowledge of the outcome as much as possible.

1984-85 was Drexler's sophomore season.  Plenty of people thought he was special.  He scored 17 ppg, shot near 50% from the field, and even then he was bringing people out of their mother-lovin' seats soaring like an eagle through the lane for thunderous finishes.  But even so, he was only the fourth leading scorer on the team.  The Blazers fielded All-Star Jim Paxson at Clyde's position, plus Mychal Thompson and their 22 ppg leader, Kiki Vandeweghe.  Amid the cheers and dunks some folks were speculating whether Drexler would even end up fitting with the group.  Among those folks: Coach Jack Ramsay who was let go, in part, because he wasn't sure about Clyde.  That said less about Drexler than it did about the state of the team.  They had him but they also had alternatives. Is there any chance a guy with Clyde's qualities would even be debated about on today's Blazer roster?  He'd be seen as an automatic savior with miles of empty space in front of him to carry the team as far as he could.

You mention Kersey and Porter in your question.  Porter was a revelation few expected, including me at the time.  But the news out of training camp was that Kersey would be at least interesting, if not special.  Apparently it took about ten minutes of practice to see what he brought to the floor.

But again, even if you discount both of them you had supposed franchise center Sam Bowie to hope on.  You had intimidating veteran Kenny Carr at power forward.  You had well-respected Darnell Valentine at point guard.   Go back just one year and you also had eventual All-Star Fat Lever manning the point.

You get the idea.  Even if Porter and Kersey hadn't panned out, this team was still pretty well set up.  They were going to be good.  The only question was "pretty good" or more?

You compressed time in your question a little.  You actually have to go to '86-'87 before the Blazers acquired Kevin Duckworth.  But he wasn't even the major big-man grab that year.  Steve Johnson, also nabbed from the Spurs, would become an All-Star-level center for the Blazers before injuries took him down.

It wasn't until 1989-90 that the Blazers pulled the trigger on the Bowie-for-Buck Williams trade.  Your characterization of Buck as just a "veteran PF" misses way wide.  This guy carried his franchise, was respected as one of the premier defenders in the league, was a multi-time All-Star.  Immediately...immediately when that trade happened people looked at that roster and said, "Wow.  This will be special."  The airwaves were abuzz with the possibilities.  Everybody knew the franchise had just shifted gears.

Sure, plenty of things had to go right for the Blazers to get as far as they did in the Drexler era.  That's true of any Finals team.  (Just ask Oklahoma City!)   Looking back from the future you can point at all of those events and players, saying, "This went right and that did too and all of it together was necessary for a Finals run."  But in the actual moment the Blazers weren't depending on all those things to go right in order to be relevant.  They didn't carry around a laundry list of things that had to happen, as in the first paragraph of your question.  At no point did they say, "Kevin Duckworth has to be an All-Star or we're sunk."  If Duck didn't work out there was Johnson.  If Kersey didn't work out there was Vandeweghe.  If Porter didn't work out there was Valentine, and Paxson for Drexler.  Things might not have worked out as well, but the Blazers weren't in a situation where Plan A was completely speculative, probably out of range of their talent, and the only real option for success.  They did what all good-to-great teams did.  They presented Plan A and it was really, really good.  But if you took away Plan A from them, Plan B was still enough to kick your rear end.  They might have even had Plan C in there somewhere.

That's how you win in this league...not by having your plans and players turn out perfectly (they never do) but by still being able to show strong when everything goes wrong.  The Drexler-era Blazers didn't win because they played their best every night.   They won because even when you took their A-game away from them, their B-game and often their C-game still ended up better than you.

In no way do I want to contravene the final sentence of your letter.  Hope does, and should, spring eternal.  I, too, hope for this team, will root for this team, want this team to do well, and hope it grows over the years.  As a Blazers fan--which means not just a fan of this year's team or this year's possibilities but a supporter of the franchise in its entirety--I can also say with confidence that the current Blazers are nowhere near the situation that the 1984-86 Blazers were in, let alone the Blazers at the height of Clyde's reign.  The 2013 Blazers don't have a solid Plan A without a whole bunch of things going right for them, let alone the near-unstoppable Plan A plus great Plan B plus decent Emergency Plan C that the Drexler Blazers ended up sporting.   The third or fourth options in the early Drexler era--heck, even some of the speculative rookies--would seem like manna from heaven today even without foreknowledge of their impressive career arcs.

Without crushing hopes or spirits, I think it's fair to say that the situations in 1984 and 2013 just aren't comparable.  Whether you're talking cognitive or on the court, the Blazers would need a major influx of talent, young and old, to make that leap possible.

Thanks for the great question!  If anybody else wants to submit one, use the e-mail address below and please put "Mailbag" in the subject line.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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