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. 41 | Steve Johnson
Games Played with Blazers: 194 Regular Season, 7 Postseason
*PTS: 14.0 | REB: 6.0 | OREB: 2.1 | FG%: 54.0
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1986, acquired from the San Antonio Spurs for Mychal Thompson
Departed Club: June 1989. drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in an expansion draft
Place in History: The mid-1980’s were a weird time for the Trail Blazers frontcourt. After being drafted with the second overall pick in 1984, Sam Bowie was supposed to be the missing piece that would transform a dynamic group of smaller players into real contenders. Chronic leg injuries deflated that balloon almost immediately. For the next few years, the Blazers would struggle to find the right player at center to make their dreams come true.
For a brief period in 1986-1987, it appeared Steve Johnson would be that player. They spent their long-time (now aging) star, Mychal Thompson, to acquire him. They envisioned him as a complement to Bowie and power forward Kenny Carr. Instead Johnson became the full-time starting center when Bowie went down five games into the season.
Johnson was a bit undersized for a starting center, standing 6’10, weighing 235. But the man had moves like Jagger and seemingly never missed a shot. He was long and lanky, sort of like a snake with a bull head. You didn’t know which way he was going to go. He was more than willing to take a few seconds to make you guess wrong before he struck, too. He’d worm his way into position, pump fake, then rise up for the slam or a nifty layup. The year before the Blazers got him, Johnson led the league with 63.2% field goal shooting for the San Antonio Spurs. He’d shoot 56%, averaging 17 per game, his first year in Portland.
With Kiki Vandeweghe, Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Jerome Kersey on the roster, the Blazers had plenty of scoring power. Much of it was on the perimeter. Johnson became the answer on the inside. He had the post game and could spin either way. He could run pick and roll. He had a strong hook shot and enough speed to get past defenders when they overplayed. Whenever the ball was inside 15 feet, Johnson was a viable option. If it was inside eight, he was going to score. He got something of a reputation for never giving up the rock once he touched it, but he earned that right—even in the face of superstar teammates—because of his skill and consistency.
Johnson became much, much more than a secondary outlet in the 1987 NBA Playoffs. Spoiler Alert: the Blazers lost to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in the first round that year, 1-3. In those four games, Johnson started, played 34 minutes per game, and averaged 21 points plus 10 rebounds. Olajuwon scored 30 in Game 1, Ralph Sampson 23. Johnson scored 29 right back in their faces.
Johnson’s 1987 performance was good enough to earn him a nod as the third center in the 1988 NBA All-Star Game. Unfortunately he was in the process of succumbing to the ankle injuries that would ultimately terminate his career and did not appear in the actual game. Johnson would get progressively slower and more ground bound over the next couple seasons. The Blazers tried experimenting with a “Twin Towers” approach featuring Johnson and up-and-coming center Kevin Duckworth, but there wasn’t enough floor space (or shots available) to make it work. Portland left the injured Johnson unprotected in the 1989 NBA Expansion Draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves picked him up, but he’d play only 39 games, fewer than 500 minutes, for the rest of his career.
Johnson is the Trail Blazers All-Star you’re most likely to forget, but that doesn’t dim his talent or his contributions during his three-year stint in Portland. For the moves, the points, the incredible percentages, and being a couple good ankles short of maybe becoming The Man, Steve Johnson earns the 41st spot on our list of Top 100 Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Share your memories of the former Oregon State alum below, and stick with us as we progress towards #1!