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Blazers Top 100: The Replacement Center

A look at the 100 players and personnel who have influenced the Trail Blazers’ 50-year history.

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.

No. 45 | Tom Owens

Games Played with Blazers: 319 Regular Season, 13 Postseason

*PTS: 13,9 | REB: 7.2 | OREB: 2.5 | FG%: 52.0

*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland

Joined Club: August 1977, acquired from the Houston Rockets for Robin Jones

Departed Club: June 1981, traded to the Indiana Pacers for a first-round pick (that would later become Sam Bowie)

Place in History: Tom Owens was already a 28-year-old, six-year veteran when he joined the Trail Blazers in the summer of 1977. He had been a stalwart in the American Basketball Association, 50th on the ABA all-time games played list. When that league broke up, he played with the Houston Rockets for a season before Portland traded for him. The job description was simple. The Blazers had just won a World Championship. They needed sensible relief for center Bill Walton when he took to the bench. The 6-foot-10 Owens was supposed to rebound, take a couple shots, and not mess it up.

For most of the 1977-78 season, Owens did just that. The Blazers got off to a 50-10 start, looking all but unstoppable, and Owens averaged a tidy 15 minutes a night.

Then Walton went down. Suddenly the job wasn’t so easy anymore.

Nobody in the universe was going to replace Dollar Bill on that team or any other. For the final 22 games of the year, though, Owens filled 37 minutes per night as the starter, averaging 18.0 points and 11.4 rebounds, 3.5 offensive. By comparison, Jusuf Nurkic averaged 15.6 and 10.4 in his best year as a pro so far. Hey! Owens was good.

The following year, when it became evident that Walton was not returning, Owens took over the starting role for keeps, playing in all 82 games, averaging 18.5 points and 9.0 rebounds on 55% shooting. Hey! Owens was really good!

Owens didn’t miss shots, he ran the floor fine, and he even managed as many assists on a per-minute basis as Walton had. The ball was a little slower to leave his hands than it had been with Bill’s passing, he didn’t block shots, and he didn’t come up quite as big in the playoffs as in the regular season, but come on...what more could you expect from him? Basically he fulfilled his original mission statement—shoot well, rebound, and don’t mess it up—over a whole lot more minutes than originally envisioned.

The Blazers were supposed to fall apart completely after having lost their once-in-a-lifetime pivot. They were nowhere near as good, but they kept it together. Owens quietly became a steadying force in a time of transition, somehow managing to put up better numbers than most Trail Blazers centers, before or since.

The rise of Mychal Thompson and Kermit Washington in 1980 would diminish Owens’ role. The team’s style of play changed, the mission statement of centers along with it. Portland had already gotten way more than they bargained for with Owens. Trading him to Indiana for what would become the second pick in the 1984 NBA Draft was the icing on the cake. The Blazers almost got to claim that they turned Tom Owens into Michael Jordan.

For pulling off one of the most thankless replacement missions in team history—for showing up every night and delivering while doing so—Tom Owens earns the 45th spot on our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers.

Share any thoughts or memories of Owens below, and stay with us as we creep ever closer to #1!