Every year as we draw close to the start of another "potentially" successful season; my friends and I love to engage in the "what if's" conversation of years past. This year I decided to include you and extend the conversation your direction. (All in fun of course.) We like to imagine having dynasties and how it would be to see the Blazers talked about on ESPN everyday whether it was in season or not. What would of happened if we had held on to Jermaine O'niel or could the early 00's team had kept going if B. Wells wasn't moved to the starting line-up or had we not signed S. Kemp. Anyway, this years two discussion topics are:
1. What would of happened if the Roy-Oden-Aldridge combo had panned out for a ten year run of good health?
2. What if the '91 team had not been eliminated by the lakers and what would of a conference title that year meant for the following year? (experience gained, team moves, etc.)
Thanks for joining our conversation.
For "what-ifs", my friends, you are shooting way too low!
Let's take the second one first. "Conference" title in '91? The Blazers were the best...team...in...the...league that year. Drexler, Kersey, Porter were in their early primes and relatively injury-free. Williams was still strong. Duck was having an All-Star season. Danny Ainge and Cliff Robinson formed a killer, multi-position bench duo. Everything was covered. They let themselves slip in Game 1 vs. the Lakers--a good team still but old and inferior compared to the Blazers--and never recovered. L.A. got its last hurrah with Magic. This was where some of the "great athletes, but not really smart basketball players" meme came from about the Blazers. Magic and company looked more poised, more crafty than the Blazers in that WCF series. Then, of course, L.A. got killed by the Bulls in the Finals.
Keep in mind, though, that '91 was Michael's first championship. Before that year the narrative read, "Good team, All-World player, can't get over the hump." The Bulls look bulletproof in retrospect, but I believe the armor still had holes in '91. In the years immediately prior they lost in the conference semis, lost in the conference finals. There was room for a Finals loss in there as well before the Jordan era took off. The relatively easy win against the Lakers validated the Bulls and set them off on their multi-title dynasty. We didn't get to see the titanic Blazers-Bulls matchup that everybody was expecting...the one matchup that could have delayed or shaken Chicago's program.
People will say, "But we got that in '92 and Portland lost!" '92 was a different year. Kevin Duckworth and Buck Williams declined, Duck due to weight and Buck to age. Kersey fell off a little, as did Ainge. The overall record was still good but those wins hid an over-reliance on Drexler. 1990-91 was about the team clicking on all cylinders. 1991-92 was about, "Dang...we didn't make it last year, things are slipping, and Clyde is our savior." Everybody thought it was a great year...obviously, given the Finals appearance. But even during the season people were mentioning how Clyde-dependent the Blazers had become. Folks wondered whether those few extra minutes and a ton of extra shots were going to take their toll, either in fatigue or in the Blazers being easily stopped by a single good defender on Clyde. Though Drexler hype was at its all-time high, everybody knew who the #1 individual player in the league was. He didn't wear Portland's uniform. Similar styles met in the Finals and #1 beat #2. The Clyde-centric approach was enough to get Portland past every team except the one that did it better.
I swore at my television repeatedly during that '91 series against the Lakers. Afterwards I walked out of the house in a daze, as if somebody had died. In retrospect, that's what happened to Portland's dreams of a title. The memorial would take 2 years to complete, but spring of '91 brought the terminal event.
To answer your question, I don't think winning against the Lakers in '91 would have changed '92 that much...certainly not '93 and beyond. The Jordan era was going to happen. He was too good. The key cost of 1991 for the Blazers was a chance to put their names on that trophy and to put the Bulls dynasty on hold for one more year. The "what-if" isn't about a Portland dynasty, but that single title in 1991 and the validation it would have brought.
The Roy-Oden-Aldridge era was far more speculative, of course. The key attraction to that unit was their youth. These guys were already producing at a young age. What would have happened in their primes? We'll never know.
For me the defining, poignant moment of this era came in 2011, in that playoff series where the Blazers lost to the eventual World Champion Dallas Mavericks in 6 games. That came at the end of Roy's and Aldridge's 4th seasons, what would have been Oden's 3rd. It should have been their coming out party, the year when they dipped their toes into the second round and announced that they were ready to grow beyond. Instead we got one, glorious farewell salute from Roy and it was over.
Nobody will forget Brandon's Game 4 masterpiece. What people do forget is that even though that performance was transcendent, it was not a surprise. He had that in him. He had shown it before and there's no reason to think that he would have stopped showing it had health permitted. He was one of the best clutch players this franchise has ever seen in addition to providing 20+ on a nightly basis. The man was amazing.
As we've chronicled many times before, Greg Oden was also amazing considering how raw he was. He only had 2-3 tricks up his sleeve, but they were unstoppable. He made players dribble away and pull up when he patrolled the lane. He rebounded like a monster. His offensive put-back dunks were a serious weapon even when he had no other offensive game. He would have never been Shaq or Hakeem, but the sheer physical and intimidation ability--plus cleaning up those offensive boards--would have allowed his teammates to make mistakes on either end without suffering.
We've seen the player LaMarcus Aldridge has become. He's not the same kind of torch-bright star as Roy. He's not the rambling bulldozer Oden was. But imagine him doing his steady, unstoppable mid-range offensive routine while alternated drives and jumpers and Oden cleaned up the misses. Opponents would have had to double team all three of those guys. That's six defender needed without even considering the other two Blazers on the floor.
Imagine a team where Nicolas Batum's vacillations didn't matter because three-point shooting and defensive opportunism was enough. Batum could comfortably settle in as the fourth-best player in the order instead of the second or third. Imagine Wesley Matthews coming off the bench with his energy, shooting, and "D". Imagine this team going on for ten years.
I'm not sure if this incarnation of the Blazers would have won as many titles as the Spurs have, nor proven as ageless. At minimum, though, they'd have been the Atlanta Braves of the 90's...diving deeply into the post-season every year even if they only won a title or two in the end. That's a pretty good bottom line. If you want to dream upwards from there...wow.
Thanks for inviting me into your conversation! I started my online writing career by conversing with a group of friends as well. Keep up your "what ifs". You never know what will come out of them.