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. 35 | Steve Smith
Games Played with Blazers: 163 Regular Season, 19 Postseason
*PTS: 14.3 | AST: 2.6 | FG%: 46.1% | 3PT%: 36.9
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: August 1999, acquired from the Atlanta Hawks with Ed Gray for Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson
Departed Club: July 2001, traded to the San Antonio Spurs for Derek Anderson and Steve Kerr
Place in History: Portland Trail Blazers acquisitions, via trade or free agency, generally come in two flavors. The Blazers are good at picking up young players, ready to break out (think Wesley Matthews or Jusuf Nurkic) and aging veterans with one last push to give (examples too numerous to mention). In the Summer of 1999, Portland broke that pattern, acquiring star shooting guard Steve Smith from the Atlanta Hawks at the height of his powers.
Smith was no shrinking violet. He was an offensive impresario with confidence to burn. Early in his career, he had famously bragged, “If you step up, I’ll lay it. If you step back, I’ll trey it.” He could, too. He was a 20-point scorer, an NBA All-Star. He stood 6’7 (6’8 if you asked Portland public address announcer Mark Mason) and played the two with deceptive ease. He shot from ALL ranges. His 42.9% accuracy between 16 feet and the three-point arc—traditionally the worst place on the floor to attempt a shot—would be passable as an overall percentage for most NBA guards. As far as threes? His first year with the Blazers he shot 40% from the arc. Oh, and 49% on two-pointers. And 85% from the foul line.
It was just as beautiful as it sounds. From Smith, it came naturally.
But the Blazers didn’t get the young, brash version of Smitty, out to prove himself. He’d already done so multiple times over. Playing with Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, and Damon Stoudamire, there was no room for it anyway. Smith had scored big on decent teams; now it was time to win big too.
The 30 year old’s game had worn smooth. It was purely efficient offense, shooting and passing, knowing where to go, how to get it done, and occasionally letting someone else do it too. With the 1997-98 Hawks, during his All-Star season, Smith attempted 15 or more shots from the field 47 times. During 1999-00, his first year in Portland, he did it only 9 times. Yet he still provided most everything the Blazers needed. If you want to look up “star who’s fitting in so his team can win”, you’ll find his picture right alongside Portland legends Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, and Buck Williams.
Smith’s personality was also smooth. He portrayed the gentleman, less Rambo, more James Bond. He wasn’t going to come in and spray 40 on you like a machine gun. He would surgically slice you with targeted shots you’d never see coming. Then he’d nod in acknowledgement, quietly high-five his teammates, and turn around ready to do it again the next night.
Smith’s veteran status and charitable attitude made him an instant hit in Portland. It even seemed to affect the officials. You’d have to go back to All-NBA-level Clyde Drexler before you’d find a Trail Blazers player drawing so many fouls with so little contact. Even the refs knew: if Smitty made a move, it was, by definition, good. If it didn’t work, it wasn’t his fault.
Smith played in all 82 regular-season games in 1999-00, averaging 33 minutes and 15 points with the above-mentioned excellent shooting numbers. But the best was yet to come. During Portland’s playoffs run that year, Smith shot 49% from the field and 55% from the arc in 16 games versus the Timberwolves, Jazz, and L*kers. He would finish second only to Wallace in scoring that spring, averaging 17.1 points to Rasheed’s 17.9. It was an utterly fantastic postseason performance from a guy who made a career out of them.
Topping it off, during the Summer of 2000, Smith helped the Team USA men’s squad take gold in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Despite the excellence, a few things conspired to keep Smith’s time in Portland brief. He was rounding 30 when he came to town, passing his prime. He was not a great defender; both he and Stoudamire were covered for by Portland’s large and agile frontcourt. He was being pushed from behind by young guard Bonzi Wells, who would take over the starting position in 2000-01. Plus General Manager Bob Whitsitt wasn’t the type to let rosters sit. When he saw an opportunity to get 27-year-old Derek Anderson from San Antonio, he took it. Smith was the price.
The move wasn’t horrible; Smith would play four more seasons, hitting double-figure scoring only once. It was sad, however. Smitty’s production might be replaced, but his suave, veteran bearing wouldn’t. His exit felt like your favorite radio station changing format from classical to whatever the kids are playing nowadays.
After retiring, Smith would go on to a prominent career in broadcasting, first in Atlanta, then with NBATV. He remains today what he was in Portland: a smart, entertaining, mostly-dignified presence with just enough underneath to let you know he’s still got the goods.
For the great season in ‘99-00, for the sterling playoffs run, for the star bearing, and for standing tall as an offensive guard on a franchise that has seen plenty of them, Steve Smith earns the 35th spot on our Trail Blazers Top 100 players and influencers list.
Check out the spin move at 0:43. Filthy.
Share memories of Smitty below, and stick with us as we count down to #1!