Since the Portland Trail Blazers were founded in 1970, the franchise has been through plenty of ups and downs. All week we’ve looked back at Blazers history, decade by decade, recounting and ranking each ten-year span. Today we finish with the team’s best decade, the 1990’s, where they won consistently and came reached the NBA Finals. The 1990’s Trail Blazers reached the playoffs every year, winning nearly as many playoffs series in a single decade as the other 37 years of Portland rosters combined. That’s success, and that’s why the ‘90’s ranks as the best Portland Trail Blazers decade ever.
Seasons: 1990-91 through 1999-2000
Key Players: Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Clifford Robinson, Rod Strickland, Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant
Playoff Appearances: 10
Playoff Series Victories: 9
Best Record: 1990-91 (63-19)
Worst Record: 1994-95 and 1995-96 (44-38)
The 1990’s featured everything a Trail Blazers fan could dream of except a championship. All-Stars, 60-win seasons, huge trades, packed rosters...this decade had it all. It proved the only period in team history where a catastrophic, franchise-altering injury didn’t scuttle an otherwise-promising future. Health and talent paid off big.
The Blazers entered the decade with positive momentum, having reached the NBA Finals in the spring of 1990, before losing to Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons. The core of that Finals team returned heading into the 1990-91 season. Portland traded for veteran (and Oregon native) Danny Ainge to improve the backcourt depth and drafted multi-positional Cliff Robinson from Connecticut to bolster the frontcourt. Along with the famed starting lineup of Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth, Ainge and Robinson gave the Blazers a nearly-impregnable 7-man rotation.
The 1990-91 Trail Blazers rolled to a 63-19 record, the best in team history, the best record in the NBA that season. After besting the Seattle SuperSonics and Utah Jazz in the first two rounds of the 1991 NBA Playoffs. Portland was stunned that year by the Lakers in a Western Conference Finals series which featured a furious Game 6 comeback in L.A. before this heart-wrenching, but iconic, moment in NBA Playoffs History:
The 1990-91 season also featured one of the rare personnel missteps of the era, when Portland traded Croatian shooting guard Drazen Petrovic to the New Jersey Nets in a three-team deal that “netted” them former All-Star Walter Davis. The 36-year-old swingman was only a shadow of his former self. Portland waived him the next fall, while Petrovic went on to average 20 points per game for the Nets before his tragic death in 1993. Nonetheless, Ainge and Robinson were more than enough to earn Portland VP of Basketball Operations Bucky Buckwalter the league’s Executive of the Year award for the season.
In 1991-92, the Blazers, made a return trip to the NBA Finals, this time facing Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, defeating the Lakers, Phoenix Suns, and Jazz en route. The Western Conference Semifinal matchup against Phoenix featured one of the most memorable games in Trail Blazer history, a 153-151 double OT win in Game 4, the highest scoring game in NBA playoff history. Unfortunately the 1992 Finals featured yet another iconic moment from a Portland opponent. Jordan hit six threes and scored 35 points in the first half of Game 1. One of these proved the source of his infamous “shrug”:
The teams traded the next four games, allowing Chicago to clinch the championship in Game 6.
The Blazers would remain competitive into the middle of the decade, but were unable to maintain the playoff success of the early 1990’s, suffering six straight first-round playoffs defeats. IN 1994 owner Paul Allen lured General Manager Bob Whitsitt away from the SuperSonics, trying to jump-start the team with the league’s hottest young executive. Before he could build, Whitsitt set about dismantling the former squad. Coach Rick Adelman was fired in 1994. In 1995, the Blazers traded a disgruntled Clyde Drexler to the Houston Rockets (where he subsequently won a championship), and Terry Porter signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. An era was over.
Prior to the 1995-96 season, the team moved to a brand new arena, dubbed the Rose Garden. Cliff Robinson became the new team leader, aided by point guard Rod Strickland, and Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis, who finally joined the team in 1995 after being drafted nearly a decade earlier.
Whitsitt spent the middle years of the decade wheeling, dealing, and retooling. The Blazers welcomed J.R. Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Kenny Anderson, and Brian Grant to the roster between 1995 and 1997. The Wallace trade was the most significant; the Blazers paid the relatively low cost of Strickland and under-performing forward Harvey Grant to acquire their next superstar. But the period is best remembered for a trio of huge moves:
- Drafting high school phenom Jermaine O’Neal (most famous for getting traded at the end of the decade and going on to a huge career with the Indiana Pacers) with the 17th pick of the 1996 NBA Draft.
- Trading away half the team (Kenny Anderson, Gary Trent, Alvin Williams, two first-rounder picks, and a second-rounder) for former Rookie of the Year and Portland product Damon Stoudamire in 1998.
- Doing it again in 1999, this time moving Stacey Augmon, Walt Williams, Brian Shaw, Kelvin Cato, Ed Gray, and Carlos Rogers to the Rockets for 7-time All-NBA award winner Scottie Pippen.
Add in former All-Star Steve Smith and the 1999-2000 Blazers were looking packed: Wallace, Pippen, Sabonis, Stoudamire, Brian Grant, O’Neal, plus newcomers Bonzi Wells and Detlef Schrempf. Since dubbed the “traveling All-Star team”, the squad was ready to set the world on fire. They did...to a point. Unfortunately heartbreak was waiting for Portland at the end of the decade, reprising its role from the beginning with gusto.
The Blazers cruised to a 59-23 record in ‘99-’00, fighting their way to a Conference Finals matchup with the hated Lakers. After coming back from a 1-3 deficit in the series, Portland held a 15-point fourth quarter lead in Game 7, primed for another trip to the Finals. Then Kobe and Shaq led an epic comeback to stun the Blazers and send them into the spiral of shame that would come in the next decade.
Despite the gut-wrenching playoff dismissals, the 1990’s gave the Blazers and their fans the best extended run in franchise history. Measuring by years, 1977 may stand more prominent, but by decades the ‘90’s takes the crown...for now.
To make you happier, enjoy this Clyde Drexler highlight reel before the timeline:
Timeline of Key Events
June 1990: Blazers lose to the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 NBA Finals.
January 1991: Drazen Petrovic traded to New Jersey Nets in three team trade that brings Walter Davis to Portland.
Spring 1991: Blazers defeat Sonics and Jazz in first two rounds of playoffs before losing to Lakers in Conference Finals. Bucky Buckwalter named NBA’s Executive of the Year.
Spring 1992: Blazers defeat Lakers, Suns, and Jazz in playoffs, lose to Chicago Bulls in 1992 NBA Finals.
July 1993: Construction begins on Rose Garden.
May 1994: Rick Adelman fired as Head Coach, replaced the following season by PJ Carlesimo.
Spring 1994: Bob Whitsitt hired as GM.
February 1995: Clyde Drexler traded to Rockets.
May 1995: Blazers play final non-preseason game in Memorial Coliseum.
September 1995: Arvydas Sabonis, originally drafted in 1986, officially signs with Blazers. Joins team for 1995-96 season.
October 1995: Rose Garden officially opens. Terry Porter signs with Minnesota.
July 1996: Rasheed Wallace acquired from Washington Bullets for Harvey Grant and Rod Strickland.
May 1997: Mike Dunleavy hired as Head Coach.
February 1999: Damon Stoudamire acquired from Toronto Raptors.
Spring 1999: Blazers defeat Suns and Jazz in playoffs before being swept by San Antonio Spurs in Conference finals. Mike Dunleavy named NBA’s Coach of the Year.
August 1999: Blazers acquire Steve Smith from Atlanta Hawks for Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson.
October 1999: Blazers acquire Scottie Pippen from Houston Rockets.
Spring 2000: Blazers defeat Timberwolves and Jazz in playoffs before losing to Lakers in Game 7 of Conference Finals.
What are your favorite memories and moments from the 1990’s? Did we miss anything important? Now that we’re at the end of the series, which of the decades do you remember most fondly as “your era”? Let us know in the comments below.