Meyers Leonard may be set to return to action for the Portland Trail Blazers following an ankle injury, but his problems won’t be resolved there. Chronic ailments, a crowded roster, and a “two-steps-forward” learning curve have conspired to keep Leonard’s achievements modest compared to expectations when Portland nabbed him alongside Damian Lillard in the 2012 NBA Draft. Blazer’s Edge reader Brian has noticed the undercurrent of resentment directed towards Leonard and wants to know how bad it really is. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
This question was brought on by Raymond Felton getting booed [when the Oklahoma City Thunder visited the Moda Center last Sunday]. Blazer fans are like elephants, we never forget. My friends and me were debating whether anyone on the current team has a chance to make that kind of a [negative] impact. We were thinking maybe Meyers Leonard but nah. I don’t think so. What do you think? Could Meyers or somebody end up getting booed for that long and rise to the level of the most hated Blazers ever or was Felton just that special?
Felton and Portland fans have a special relationship for sure. Before we can answer your question about Leonard—likely the least-favored Portland player currently—joining the ranks of all-time villains, we need to establish what that roster looks like. Here are my submissions, by position.
Note that for purposes of this particular list, we’re not going to delve deeply into the legal issues or personal demons of players. This is not meant to downplay the significance of either. They’re so weighty that properly, we’d need to devote an article solely to them. Mixing them with just sports perspective would trivialize them.
Believe it or not, Felton spent only one season with the Blazers. But what a year! Fans were already grumpy because a lockout shortened the season to 66 games. Plus 2011-12 was the first complete year without beloved Brandon Roy. The Blazers scrambled desperately to fill the void and it just didn’t work. When Felton mis-timed the lockout’s resolution and showed up to camp trying to stuff one-and-a-half times himself into the same old jersey, he became the poster child for everything wrong with the team. Missing 141 three-point shots, many of them wide open off of pass-outs from LaMarcus Aldridge—didn’t help. Felton actually got near his career averages in both field goal and three-point percentage before the campaign was complete, but it hardly mattered. He had already quintupled down on, “It’s not me, it’s all of you” explanations for his performance. Portland fans were way past done with him and the team by that point.
Telfair wasn’t unlikable. He had enough talent to last 10 years in the NBA. But he was so hyped coming out of high school—gracing a Sports Illustrated cover solo and a SLAM magazine cover with LeBron James before he’d played a minute in the league, plus starring in his own biography as a high-schooler—that the 13th selection in the 2004 NBA Draft felt more like the 2nd. All of the glitz amounted to a career averages of 7.4 points and 3.5 assists per game on sub-40% shooting, and only two years with the Trail Blazers. Add in the oft-repeated rumor that Telfair was the reason the Blazers felt comfortable trading down in the 2005 NBA Draft—passing up Chris Paul for Martell Webster and Jarrett Jack—and you have a guy who, if not exactly hated, is at least in the, “Let’s not talk about this anymore...ever” category for Portland fans.
Built like a brick factory with loads of scoring talent to boot, Wells was one of the main reasons the departure of Derek Anderson seemed inconsequential. Nobody could keep Bonzi out of the lane, but Bonzi couldn’t keep Bonzi out of the papers. He spit on spectators. He insulted Portland fans. Rasheed Wallace may have been the central figure on the Jailblazers movie promo poster, but Wells was the big, hooded head shown in profile on the top. By the time the Blazers traded Bonzi to the Memphis Grizzlies in 2003, the only thing red hot was fan tempers and the only thing rollin’ were eyes. Approximately zero people were sorry to see him go.
If Telfair was the cause of Portland not acquiring a legend, J.R. Rider got stuck replacing THE legend in the flesh. After trading Clyde Drexler to the Houston Rockets in February of 1995 (and watching him win a title there), the Blazers limped along for a season without a great solution at shooting guard. 1996 brought the Renaissance, as the 20ppg scoring Rider came over from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Bill Curly and James Robinson. Except J.R. didn’t score 20 with the Blazers. He put up points in fits and spurts, played defense with all the verve of fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt, and ended up campaigning for a spot on the Island of Misfit Toys by becoming a shooting guard who flat-out refused to shoot. Blazers fans grew up with Clyde Drexler. They knew Clyde Drexler. Clyde Drexler was a friend of theirs. Isaiah Rider was no Clyde Drexler.
Fast forward a couple years from Rider and the Blazers were once again scrambling to cover for a significant loss, this time of Brian Grant, Arvydas Sabonis, Jermaine O’Neal, and half the team that had pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. In the summer of 2001 they traded veteran Steve Smith to the San Antonio Spurs for Anderson, then a 27-year-old shooting guard. He was younger. The idea was that he hadn’t gotten a fair shake in San Antonio. He got several shakes in Portland, initially through copious doses of playing time during which he didn’t produce, then famously at a fast-food drive-through on a game night when he had been excused for dental issues. By the time the Blazers waived him in 2005, his stock had plummeted and Portland fans were “Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye-ing” him out the door.
Ruben Patterson billed himself as the “Kobe Stopper”, except he never managed to actually stop Kobe. His vaunted defense came up short in big situations. He could score at the rim but his jump shot looked like William Shatner’s toupee strapped to the back end of a donkey. The whole experiment ended up a disaster. Like so many players on this list, he ended up losing all of his value in Portland and his departure was both welcome and overdue.
Darius Miles came to the Trail Blazers in January of 2004, a high-flying, dynamic, yet erratic small forward capable of rebounding the ball on one end, streaking down the court on the dribble, and sending it home with a thunderous flush at the other. The Blazers were entranced enough with his potential to make a thunderous flush of their own: lots of money down the toilet via an expensive, multi-year contract during which Miles would do little but suck up possessions on the court and vital cap space off it. After spending two years messing up offensive sets, he spent the next two on injured reserve with a knee injury. The Blazers finally got relief from his contract with a medical waiver due to career-ending injury. This was then retracted in 2008 when he tried to make a comeback with the Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies. The revival was ultimately unsuccessful but it cost Portland the chance to sign free agents at the height of the Roy-Aldridge era...long after Miles had played his last game for the team.
Rasheed was a brilliant player, the cornerstone of a highly successful era, and was venerated in Portland...until he wasn’t. 600,000 technical fouls, a rabid indifference to the press or what anybody else thought of him, and choice quotes telegraphing his desire to leave the Blazers at the end of his contract encouraged Portland fans to turn against him in a big way. Though his talent is remembered more fondly now than in his “Cut the Check/Both Teams Played Hard” days, he still remains a polarizing figure.
Z-Bo was another player whose great talent doomed him to a greater fall. Once seen as the savior of the franchise, he stumbled through legal issues, public-relations nightmares, and questionable on-court motivation. He was supposed to turn around the “Jailblazers” moniker. Instead he shoved Portland’s nose in it. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge became the team’s new darlings in the 2006 NBA Draft. When the Blazers shipped Randolph to the New York Knicks for Channing Frye the following year, it was considered addition by subtraction.
Aldridge’s career became an inverted parabola in Portland. Initially his reputation didn’t live up to his status as the 2nd overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft. Brandon Roy received the shots, the spotlight, and the Rookie of the Year Award. Aldridge became the third leg of the semi-mythological “Roy-Oden-Aldridge” triangle. Complaints about “soft” play emerged. His development seemed slow. Once Roy’s knees gave out, Aldridge championed the team, becoming one of the best power forwards in the league and the center of Portland’s offense. He remained well-regarded until he spurned the Blazers in the fateful summer of 2015 to join the Spurs, at which time he became Benedict Aldridge and all mentions of his considerable talent were summarily expunged from Portland’s history.
Few tenures in Portland were more disastrous than Shawn Kemp’s. By the time he joined the Blazers the former Seattle superstar was not just over the hill, he moved at roughly the same speed. The Blazers refused to sign ultra-popular utility big man Grant to a big contract, then gave the then-princely sum of $12 million to Kemp for the privilege of watching him miss shots, fail on defense, and leap with all the grace of a sea lion in plate mail. He arrived at the exact moment the team plunged from Finals contenders to non-entities. His contract was one of the main reasons they were unable to get out of the hole they’d dug. He averaged an amazing 6 points and 4 rebounds per game in Portland. There was nothing redeeming about his tenure.
It’s impossible to talk about the Greg Oden story without invoking personal and legal issues, so we’ll just say this: You can’t be drafted first overall as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, with your team passing up Kevin Durant to get you, then end up playing only 82 total games for that team and still be liked. Oden’s career may not generate the same vitriol as others on this list, but he brings more shudders per square inch than just about anyone.
There’s my list, Brian. As you can see, Leonard is nowhere near cracking Portland’s 12-Man Villain Roster. He has a long way to go before he’d even get an honorable mention among this group.
What say you? Who’d I miss from your All-Villain crew, or who do you love despite their inclusion here? Debate in the comments below and don’t forget to send your Mailbag question to firstname.lastname@example.org.