We drafted him to be our game-changing big man. The guy to surround our All-Star shooting guard and take us to the next level, supplanting the Lakers as the best Western Conference team. But injury after injury derailed him, even while the Blazers acquired a surprisingly effective center to cover for him. It didn't change much though, as Portland was able to make the playoffs, but a second round visit was unlikely. Alas, the writing was on the wall, and the Blazers gave up on their "Center of the Future".
So they traded him for Buck Williams.
There were lots of murmurs amongst the fans in the summer of 1989. Back then, if a player was in the Eastern Conference, you were lucky to see them a few times per season on CBS, then NBC or WTBS. New Jersey never was a playoff contender, so local Blazer fans said, "Buck Williams? The guy with the Nets? Is he any good?". But big NBA fans were quietly pleased. Buck was known as a workhorse, a defensive guy, and someone who would bring some rigidity to the notoriously soft "finesse" Blazers.
But how much could one player really do? The Blazers had just finished 39-43, clawing their way to the final playoff spot. And as a reward, they were demolished by the Lakers in the first round. The coach was gone, the team was such a legendary mess that Sports Illustrated wrote an article about the collapse, entitled "Is Anybody Happy here?".
Portland did add a few other new faces, and one familiar one. Wayne Cooper returned, on the downside of his career but with some gas in the tank. Unknown European player Drazen Petrovic looked interesting. And speaking of interesting looks, a rookie with a flat-top from Connecticut named Cliff Robinson was drafted in the second round.
Then, to everyone's surprise, they started winning. And winning. A seven-game winning streak in November. 13-of-14 in January. 30 wins before Groundhog Day. Eventually, they finished with an eye-popping 59 wins. They looked legit. They easily cleared the first round, and held off the Spurs in a second round dogfight. They prepared to deal with the inevitable Lakers... but they weren't there. In a stunning turn of events, fellow upstarts the Phoenix Suns took care of them in 5 games.
Suddenly the shocked fans could see an actual path to the O'Brien Trophy. And the Lakers weren't standing in it. A few weeks later, Portland pulled off yet another upset, a Game 6 nail-biter in Phoenix, and they celebrated their Western Conference Championship. Sort of. They seemed to have a little trouble getting the champagne open, since it wasn't something they'd practiced much before. Then, when interviewed in the locker room about "who do you want to play in the Finals?", Rick Adelman, hilariously exclaimed "We don't care!" with his best "You know we're not supposed to be here, right?" facial expression. On the bright side, unlike the 1977 Blazers, fans actually had a chance to see this celebration.
Alas, all good things must indeed come to an end, as the Detroit Pistons took care of the feisty Blazers. But even then, it was hard for many fans to be too upset; one year earlier, the team was in shambles. And they'd just witnessed one of the most magical seasons in Blazer history.
And that's why the 1989-90 Portland Trail Blazers team holds the role of my favorite group of players to ever wear the red and black. I have a fondness for many teams, such as the '91 and '92 teams, the '85 Audie Norris team, the '08 Roy team, and of course the now-magical '14 Blazers.
Your turn! Who do you fondly remember as your favorite Blazers team? And why that team? What made that team unique over all the other teams you've watched? And for you newer fans, don't be shy, recent teams are absolutely fair game.
Have some fun reminiscing in the comments! -- Tim