On Tuesday we got a little nostalgic, claiming Bill Schonely as the most influential Portland Trail Blazers figure of all time. Let's continue the theme today by discussing the best Trail Blazers team of all time.
This will be a community discussion, so "best" is going to be subjective. It'll be an amalgam of talent, winning percentage, favored players, and whatever age you consider as the most influential in your Blazers fandom. All of that is fine. I'm going to smash up all 4 of those criteria in picking my best incarnation of the Blazers: the 1990-91 squad.
The Drexler-era Blazers had three great runs at glory before Clyde's body gave out and they slipped back into playoffs mediocrity. 1989-90 was their coming out party; 1991-92 their swan song. They made it to the NBA Finals both seasons, perhaps an argument for crowning either incarnation as the greatest of all time. But the more experienced Detroit Pistons made hash of Portland in the 1990 Playoffs and 1992 always felt like "Drexler Runs Amok to get the team to the Finals" more than a cohesive team effort. As Michael Jordan was, by then, on his way to becoming the greatest individual player in league history, that approach was for naught.
1990-91 was the season when everything came together. Individual brilliance, rotation depth, experience and cohesiveness carried the team to 63 wins, the best regular season total in franchise history. The Blazers had added Buck Williams to their starting lineup the season before, immediately improving their defense and toughness. Drexler was an acclaimed superstar. Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and Kevin Duckworth all had 20-point-per-game potential. Having been to the Finals the year before, the team played with purpose and singular mission. If any of the starters harbored selfish intentions, they hid it well. The bruising athleticism of Kersey and Williams anchored the defensive end. Duckworth added size in the middle and rebounding. The backcourt scored but the ball was liable to move anywhere on a given possession. The open man was the right man to take the shot. And if this lineup ever got on the run, the opponent was doomed.
Additions to the bench made the team truly special, however. During the summer of 1990 the Blazers picked up veteran guard Danny Ainge--recently of Boston Celtics title fame--from the Sacramento Kings for Byron Irvin and a couple future draft picks that would become Pete Chilcutt and Brett Roberts. (Info on obscure players thanks to Basketball-Reference.com, which is the only place anybody remembers that duo anymore.) Ainge became the so-perfect-you-could-cry third guard in Portland's rotation. In Boston he ran the point. In Sacramento he became more of a scorer. In Portland he melded both perfectly, matching the intensity of the starters and bringing championship experience to the fold.
Alongside Ainge came second-round draft pick Clifford Robinson, a 6'10", 3-position player tabbed for future stardom. Robinson's agility and athleticism earned him more minutes on the floor in '90-'91 than any other bench player including the veteran Ainge. Cliff's tendency to shoot first and ask questions later stood out among his more balanced teammates but his scoring pace rivaled anybody on the team outside of Drexler. His rebounding and defense proved solid as well. The cumulative effect caused onlookers to exclaim, "That's not fair!" as a title-contending team got its multi-positional 6th man essentially for free.
With a blistering 7-man rotation and enough talent among the lower half of the roster to stay respectable, Portland blazed their way to the 3rd best scoring offense and an average defense by points allowed, but the 2nd best offensive rating and the 3rd best defensive rating in the league. Winning 77% of their regular season contests seemed normal.
The Blazers tripped up a little versus the Seattle Supersonics in Round 1 of the 1991 playoffs. The Sonics sported Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Nate McMillan, Eddie Johnson, and Ricky Pierce...soon to become the West's next super lineup. Portland handled them 3-2, then hit their stride against John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz, demolishing another soon-to-be Finals team 4-1.
Portland's Waterloo came in the Conference Finals against the aging Los Angeles Lakers, though. This was the swan song for the Magic Johnson-era Lakers. James Worthy, Byron Scott, A.C. Green and company proved they had one more push in them, stealing Game 1 in Portland. After that the home team held serve in every contest, with Portland winning 2 and the Lakers taking 3...then Game 6 turned into a 1-point heart-breaker in which Porter's last-second open jumper bounced off the rim for a 91-90 final. The Lakers would get slaughtered by Jordan's Bulls in the NBA Finals, the victory against Portland proving to be their last gasp.
The horrifically depressing finish to the season couldn't cloud its overall excellence, though. Only once before and never since have the Blazers fielded such a powerful, accomplished, and successful team. Other lineups were deeper, more star-studded, and got farther in the playoffs, but nobody put it all together in such intimidating fashion like this team did.
I expect there'll be arguments about the greatest Blazers squad ever. All we ask is that you get granular enough to select a single year's lineup as opposed to an entire era, and that you explain your choice. Have at it, and enjoy!