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The Best Era of Trail Blazers Basketball

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Through all the joy and heartache, certain memories remain indelible in Portland.

Dallas Mavericks v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers history is full of exultation and heartache. From NBA championships to the worst draft mistakes in league history, Blazers fans have seen it all. Today we recount some of it thanks to questions sent in to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

What’s your favorite Blazers era? How does this one compare?

Jim

That’s a hard one. I don’t think it’s fair to compare any eras from my childhood, as the lenses are quite different. It’s the pizza phenomenon. Nothing will ever compare to memories of your favorite pizza franchise as a child even if the pizza you’re having now is objectively better. The championship era was Portland’s best ever in almost every way, but that’s not within my adult time frame, so I’ll leave those who witnessed it with a broader consciousness to speak of it.

Given those constraints, I’m going to answer the Clyde Drexler/NBA Finals era, simply because it was the longest sustained success the franchise has ever had, plus the individual players were amazing and the team as a whole was fun to watch. At their height, they never lost...the exceptions being a regular season night off here or there, plus the Finals to the Pistons and Bulls. The ache of Clyde and Company never bringing a ring to Portland still lingers, but my God, their dunk-filled swagger was spectacular.

The early years of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge (plus the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery win) come a close second for me.

Unfortunately, the current era doesn’t really compare with either. Even if we point to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as analogs for Roy and Aldridge during the mid-2000’s rebuild, the Blazers lack the promise of a first overall draft pick. They’re also capped to the moon and don’t have clear prospects of improving from here forward. Charitably, this era could be compared to the early 1980’s when offensive stars ruled the roost, just far more expensive and with infinitely less overall talent. (Lillard and McCollum could shine in any era; the rest of the roster doesn’t measure up.) Less charitably, Portland’s situation is pretty close to the depths of the Jailblazers years, with overwhelming charisma of the starting guards replacing the bad publicity singularity that dominated the early 2000’s.

Dear Dave,

I’ve seen people claim that being in the 1st round and losing every year isn’t bad because that’s what we did for most of 21 years and this could be just the beginning of being great like it was then. I think they have a point. How ‘bout you?

Samuel

The correlation is shaky and the argument seems a little silly. If this were true, why isn’t every NBA team that loses 4-5 times in the first round on the brink of greatness?

This argument is like the Dallas Mavericks “winning the championship when nobody expected them to” being used to justify any team having a good chance to do so. The 2010-11 Mavericks fielded an NBA MVP in his late prime, an All-NBA Defensive center dead in his prime, several stars with gas left in their tank, and a Hall-of-Famer running point. They’d been to the Finals five years prior, narrowly losing in a fashion some deemed shady. They’d also averaged 56.7 wins per season in the decade prior to their title, not once falling below 50 and three times topping 60. But yeah, the Mavericks are the definitive example of how every 43-win team has a shot, right? (Even though never in the history of that era did they fall anywhere close to 43 wins.)

But even if we give a smidgen of credibility to the first-round exit assertion, the situations aren’t really comparable.

Portland’s 21-year playoffs streak was not comprised of a single, unbroken era. Of all the players on the squad in 1983 when the streak started, only Wayne Cooper remained in a Portland uniform by 1989 when the Blazers busted through to the Finals. Nor was his line unbroken; he spent five years with the Denver Nuggets before rejoining the Blazers in ‘89, just in time for the big run.

Between the early and late 1980’s Portland went through three separate incarnations. The same would hold true between 1992 and 2000...the last time they had any playoffs success to speak of. Then they’d throw in another one between 2000 and 2003, when the long playoffs streak ended. The idea that the 1983 Blazers rolled right through into 1990 glory is completely false. The 1983 Blazers didn’t exist in 1990. The 1990 Blazers would be dismantled five years later.

The real key to Portland’s progression from first-round dropouts to Finals contenders was keeping the cupboard fully stocked. No matter what else could have been said of the Blazers, they always had talent. Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, and Mychal Thompson gave way to Kiki Vandeweghe, Steve Johnson, Sam Bowie, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth, and so on. And those weren’t even the stars of their eras. During the mid-1980’s the Blazers drafted Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter. Their stash for later players were Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic. Not only did this leave them with an impressive arsenal, it provided trade fodder to make the crucial deals that would transform them from sheep to titans. Trades would also play a huge role in Portland’s second ascension at the end of the millennium. If the two-decade playoff pattern is the metric, the Blazers should look to trade their current roster and pray for success six years from now.

At no point before 2003 were the Blazers relying on speculative players who had probably maxed out their talent. At no point before 2003 did they find themselves staring at a drawer full of high-salary players that nobody else wanted to trade for. The combination of talent and flexibility was the key to their evolution. They’re nowhere close to that now. The only real commonality between the current team and their early-80’s/mid-90’s counterparts is losing in the first round. Plenty of teams do that, though. It takes more than a few early exits and nebulous hope to make a run at a championship.

What’s your favorite era of Blazers basketball and how does the current team compare? Share your own thoughts below and feel free to send your own Mailbag questions to blazersub@gmail.com or @DaveDeckard on Twitter!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com