With the plethora of second rounds picks in this year's draft it seems appropriate to take a moment to remember the most successful Blazer second round pick ever. I say "successful", not beloved, for that title belongs to Jerome Kersey. But as wonderful as Jerome was, his career couldn't match that of Clifford Robinson.
Robinson was drafted out of the University of Connecticut with the 9th pick of the second round in the 1989 NBA draft...the 36th player selected overall. He was the Blazers' second selection of the draft behind the redoubtable Byron Irvin. At 6'10" with skill at both ends of the court Cliff was considered a sure-fire first round selection. But questions about his attitude and character precipitated his fall from grace and into the Blazers' hands. The quotes surrounding his selection read along the lines of, "We are ecstatic to get somebody of Clifford's talent this late in the draft. This selection was an absolute no-brainer."
Even with an NBA Finals-level talent roster Cliff wasted no time earning playing time under Rick Adelman. He had great height and astonishingly quick footwork for a big man. He was capable of playing either of the forward positions and even center in a pinch. His 19 minutes a game was remarkable for a rookie. With speed as his ally he benefited often from the devastating fast break offense which was the hallmark of those early-90's Blazers. He also dazzled crowds with an array of spin moves that left him open seemingly every time he moved. His biggest issue his rookie year was that nobody was more impressed with his ability to get free than he was. Anyone who thinks Travis Outlaw may have gotten a little shot happy towards the end of this season never saw Uncle Cliffy as a rookie. It got to the point where entire opposing benches were yelling, "SHOT!" every time he touched the ball. And much to their amusement they were always right. He shot under 40% for the season and with over 9 shots per game in those 19 minutes of playing time earned the ire of his teammates more than once. That same tantalizing footwork that got him open so many times also served him well on defense, however, which kept his minutes steady even when his shot wasn't falling.
By his second season Cliff began to show some discernment in his shot selection. He still wasn't the most fundamentally sound offensive player but his field goal percentage did improve to 46%. His defense also improved and there was open speculation in the Blazer camp that this guy may turn into the next great defensive stopper in the league. His Achilles' Heel remained free throw shooting. This limited his late-game effectiveness and would remain an issue through most of his career. Unfortunately the defining moment of Cliff's season in that magical 1990-91 campaign would be the Jerome Kersey bullet pass that slid through his fingers right under the basket late in Game 6 of the Conference Finals against the Lakers...an elimination game the Blazers would lose by 1. The play wasn't entirely his fault--Kersey probably should have shot and certainly shouldn't have fired the pass so hard--but the image of that ball going through his outstretched arms remains one of the agonizing memories in all of Blazer history.
Cliff's career arc really began to soar in 1992. He assumed much of the scoring load for the team, averaging over 19 points per game in '92-'93 en route to winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and then earning All-Star honors in '93-'94 in the first of three consecutive 20+ ppg seasons. Even as his minutes, shots, and points increased, however, the team began performing more marginally. Part of this was due to aging and injuries to perennial star forwards Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey. Part of it was simply Cliffy's style however. He began to fall more and more in love with the three point shot and became less aggressive on offense. Similarly he began to wander on defense, showing less enthusiasm for staying in front of his man and rebounding. His poor free throw shooting became magnified the more of a focal point he became. Still it was hard to argue with his production and the Blazers clearly viewed him as the centerpiece for the next generation. At one point in the mid-90's the Los Angeles Clippers were shopping star forward Danny Manning, which at that time was a pretty big deal. They reportedly offered him to the Blazers but Portland turned them down because they "didn't want to compromise the team's future". It wasn't hard to figure out who the Clippers had asked for in return.
Nevertheless as the 90's progressed Cliff's game, while sterling, hit a plateau. While always a good defender he never became the stopper the team had envisioned. His offense became even more predictable and it began to look like he felt entitled to shots rather than working for them. Worse, stories began to leak about his off-court issues, including various vehicle violations and darker rumors. This was well before the era of searching-through-underwear-drawers journalism and came as somewhat of a shock to the people of Portland. In many ways Uncle Cliffy gave a small foretaste of the Jailblazer era that was to come.
In the summer of 1997 the Trailblazers made a bold move, opting not to re-sign Cliff Robinson to the rich contract he was seeking. They let him walk away without compensation and he subsequently signed for about 1/3 of his previous salary (going from almost $3 million a year down to $1 million) with the Phoenix Suns. He would not get a substantial pay increase for another two years yet and the highest yearly salary he has ever earned is $8.4 million dollars. Cliff had some good years with the Suns, mostly playing center in their version of small-ball, and again went deep into the playoffs. He made the all-defensive second team twice in the late'90's and early `00's. In 2001 he was traded from the Suns to the Pistons for Jud Buechler and John Wallace. In 2003 the Pistons traded him and Pepe Sanchez to the Warriors for Bob Sura. In 2005 he was shipped to the Nets for two second round picks. Cliff played 50 games for the Nets last year at the age of 40 and has tallied 1380 games total. He never became the franchise player people envisioned but all in all it's not been a bad career for a second round pick. We'd be lucky to get someone 3/4 as successful with any of our four second-round picks this year.