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Ranking the Blazer Decades: The 1980’s

Billy Ray Bates lights it up, Jack Ramsay says goodbye, Paul Allen says hello, and a trip to the NBA Finals fill an action-packed decade.

Kiki Vandeweghe shoots a layup

Since the Portland Trail Blazers were founded in 1970, the franchise has been through plenty of ups and downs. This week we’re looking back at Blazers history, decade by decade, recounting and ranking each ten-year span. Today we hearken to the 1980’s, the decade that laid the groundwork for the team’s subsequent NBA Finals appearances.

Seasons: 1980-81 through 1989-90

Key Players: Mychal Thompson, Jim Paxson, Calvin Natt, Darnell Valentine, Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Kiki Vandeweghe, Kevin Duckworth

Playoff Appearances: 9

Playoff Series Victories: 5

Best Record: 1989-90 (53-23)

Worst Record: 1985-86 (40-42)

We reach the midway point of the Trail Blazers decades rankings, with an appropriate, middle of the road era. The 1980’s Portland Trail Blazers missed the playoffs just once in ten years (1981-82). In the process they built up an arsenal of talent that would lead them into excellence through the early 1990’s. The decade was highlighted by an NBA finals appearance in the spring of 1990. Ultimately the Blazers fell short against the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. That success was balanced infamous Sam Bowie pick, costing Portland a chance to suit up Michael Jordan, on the short list for Greatest Player of All Time.

The early 1980’s featured a host of good-but-not-great teams in Portland. With the championship team of 1977 dismantled, Mychal Thompson and Jim Paxson led the charge. Billy Ray Bates provided brief excitement when he burst onto the scene in February of 1980, including this memorable moment.

Bates did this to the Seattle Supersonics in the 1980 NBA Playoffs:

and went on to average over 28 points a game in Portland’s first round series loss to the Kansas City Kings in 1981, a franchise record.

The Blazers won their first round playoff matchups in 1983 and 1985 (losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round each time), but they could not advance farther until the 1990 Finals.

In the summer of 1984 the Blazers consummated their first true blockbuster deal, sending three players (including future All-Star Fat Lever and 20-ppg-scorer Calvin Natt) to the Denver Nuggets for All-Star shooter Kiki Vandeweghe. As the ‘80’s also brought the three-point line—a feature of the now-defunct American Basketball Association—to the NBA, cheers of, “Threeeeeee!” and “Kiiiiiiiiki” filled Portland’s Memorial Coliseum when Vandeweghe lined up behind the arc.

Sam Bowie notwithstanding, it’s hard to overstate how well the team fared in the draft in the middle part of the decade, a credit to General Manager Stu Inman and the rest of the Trail Blazers front office, including Harry Glickman and Bucky Buckwalter. Despite missing out on Jordan, the Blazers brain trust drafted Clyde Drexler in 1983, Jerome Kersey in 1984 (in the second round), Terry Porter in 1985, Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic in 1986, and Mark Bryant in 1988. Kersey and Porter each came from small, non-traditional basketball schools, making their selections all the more impressive. Critical trades to acquire Kevin Duckworth and later Buck Williams were also instrumental to the team’s future success.

Head Coach Mike Schuler won Coach of the Year in 1986-87, leading his team to an impressive 49 wins, but the team would not gel completely until the 1989-90 season under second year head coach Rick Adelman. The NBA Finals appearance culminated a decade’s worth of playoff struggles, and put the team in great position heading into the 1990’s.

Between Schuler’s tenure and the Finals run, the team changed hands as billionaire Microsoft executive Paul Allen purchased the team from original owner Larry Weinberg for a reported $70 million. Weinberg had paid $3.7 million to start the franchise in 1970. It’s valued over a billion dollars today.

The 1980’s are the most overlooked decade in Trail Blazer history, but for anyone looking for a lesson in development without sacrificing quality, Portland’s run during that ten-year span stands tall. The ‘80’s confirmed the Blazers as a model sports franchise and continued their near-unbelievable run of playoffs appearances. Bowie aside, their trade and draft picks proved impeccable. From the big-picture view the span may seem mediocre, but digging into the details, this decade had plenty to recommend it.

Timeline of Key Events

February 1980: Billy Ray Bates is signed to a 10-day contract. Bates would average 25 points per game in the 1980 Playoffs, over 28 the following year’s postseason.

1981: Stu Inman promoted to GM, replacing Harry Glickman, who remains Executive Vice President.

April 1982: Blazers miss the playoffs for the final time until 2003-04.

April 1983: Blazers sweep Seattle SuperSonics in first round of playoffs, losing to Lakers in second round.

June 1983: Clyde Drexler drafted 14th overall in 1983 NBA Draft.

June 1984: Blazers trade Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick to the Denver Nuggets for forward Kiki Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe would average 23.5 ppg on 53% shooting from the field for the Blazers over five seasons.

June 1984: Blazers draft Sam Bowie 2nd overall, passing on Michael Jordan in 1984 NBA Draft.

April 1985: Blazers defeat Dallas Mavericks in first round of playoffs, losing once more to Lakers in second round.

June 1985: Terry Porter drafted 24th overall in 1985 NBA Draft.

January 1986: Bowie breaks his leg in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Spring 1986: Jack Ramsay fired as coach, replaced by Mike Schuler. Jon Spoelstra takes over as GM.

June 1986: Arvydas Sabonis drafted 24th overall in the 1986 NBA Draft.

November 1986: Bowie beaks his other leg in a game against the Dallas Mavericks.

December 1986: Kevin Duckworth acquired from San Antonio Spurs for Walter Berry.

Spring 1987: Schuler named NBA’s Coach of the Year in his first season.

June 1988: Paul Allen purchases team from Larry Weinberg.

February 1989: Schuler fired, replaced by Rick Adelman.

June 1989: Buck Williams acquired in trade with New Jersey Nets for Sam Bowie and a first-round draft pick.

Spring 1990: Blazers defeat Mavericks, Spurs, and Suns in 1990 NBA Playoffs en route to Finals match-up with Pistons.

What are your memories of the 1980’s? Is this the right ranking for the decade? Share below and be sure to check in throughout the week as we continue to count down the best decades in Portland Trail Blazers history.