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. 20 | Buck Williams
Games Played with Blazers: 557 Regular Season, 74 Postseason
*PTS: 10.5 | REB: 8.4 | OREB: 3.1 | FG%: 51.1%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1989, acquired from the New Jersey Nets for Sam Bowie and a first-round pick
Departed Club: July 1996, departed in free agency
Place in History: On June 24th, 1989, the Portland Trail Blazers made perhaps the greatest trade in franchise history, a move that ranks alongside selecting Maurice Lucas in the 1976 ABA expansion draft or Damian Lillard with the sixth overall pick in 2012. The funny thing is, they didn’t trade for a superstar that day. Buck Williams had been an All-Star in New Jersey, but he’d become the fourth man, at best, in Portland’s new starting lineup. But oh, what a difference he’d make.
It’s curious that Williams was juxtaposed with Sam Bowie in that deal. Both were fine players, but they had polar opposite styles. Bowie, famously selected second in the 1984 NBA Draft, represented potential unfulfilled, a presumed franchise cornerstone who ended up a fragile spire. He was tall, lithe, a finesse player. The 6’8 Williams took the league by storm, becoming everything he was supposed to be and more. He brought life to the “take no prisoners, give it 110%” clichés, backing them up with muscle and attitude. He was a workman, showing up every day with all the tools needed to get the job done, refusing to quit until it was finished.
Rebounding and defense were Williams’ hallmarks. He averaged 12 boards a game during his first eight seasons in Jersey. His defensive win shares were obnoxious. Buck didn’t block shots or generate turnovers. He’d get up into offensive players with that body, stick like crazy glue, and make them regret they even thought about setting up in his area. And that was all before they caught the ball. If they actually called for it, they better be sure they had some junk in the trunk to unpack, otherwise Buck was going to mail them home to momma.
When you just made six moves only to end up in the same spot you were before with 10 fewer seconds on the clock and no more options...congratulations! You just got defended by Buck.
Few Blazers fans remember that Williams could also score. He never shot below 50% from the field in his 17-year NBA career. He led the league in field goal percentage in 1990-91 and 1991-92, hitting over 60% of his attempts. He routinely averaged 17-18 points per game for the Nets, thrice being named an All-Star.
That wasn’t his game in Portland, though. The minute he hit town, it was all about fitting in. His aggregate stats dropped when he came to the Blazers. This had nothing to do with ability. He was only 29 when he arrived; he’d play until he was 37. But Buck knew what he was there for. He could have ridden out his time comfortably as a big name on the East Coast. Instead, he came West to chew bubblegum and win playoffs games...and he was all out of bubblegum. In fact, he probably stomped on the bubblegum factory during the trip over. Bubblegum hasn’t recovered since.
News of the Williams trade brought sizzle back to the franchise. The Blazers had been running well enough for a few years behind the basic core of Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and Kevin Duckworth. Kiki Vandeweghe and Steve Johnson had both tried to lift that lineup over the top, but injuries interfered.
The year before Williams arrived, Portland’s roster looked great on paper. When Vandeweghe appeared in only 18 games and Bowie 20, that paper got soggy. Infighting with Head Coach Mike Schuler further muddied the waters, and the Blazers plummeted from 53 wins to just 39.
Williams didn’t play on paper. He suited up for 82 games, rain or shine. He could dead lift a moose if that’s what it took. Raising up a roster already primed with great athletes and scorers would be piece of cake.
Throughout the Summer of 1989, Blazers players and broadcasters were forecasting a great season. A few even dared to mutter that the team was championship material. As it turned out, they weren’t far off.
Williams gave the team a sense of cohesion and professional pride. Players who had previously talked about how much they scored began talking about who they stopped that night. They quit gauging success by point total and started measuring the fear in opponents’ eyes. Buck’s Blazers never let go of a rebound, never missed a chance to fast break, and if they ever lost, they didn’t do it twice.
During Williams’ first three seasons, losing streaks were as rare as hen’s teeth. They only lost three or more games in a row four times, never losing more than four.
The conversation might as well have been:
“Well, it’s time for our annual losing streak. How long should we make it this year? Four games?”
“Are you sure that’s fair to the rest of the league? I mean, this only comes once a year.”
“Yeah, but we’re trying to win a title here.”
And try they did.
Those Portland teams seemed to make the most of every opportunity. Single possession or entire season, they weren’t going to let go of it until they had wrung out everything possible.
Buck’s own game mirrored that. He could post in the halfcourt when needed, executing basic moves to perfection. He was more of a “slip in the seams” guy, though. He’d wait until defenders were paying attention to Drexler or Porter, then he’d slide to the hoop to catch a pass with surprisingly soft hands and dunk with scary authority. If the guards didn’t get him the ball, he’d lurk in the vicinity until they shot. If they made it, great. He wasn’t concerned about his touches or numbers. But if they missed, the errant shot might as well have been a pass. Buck’s dominant offensive rebounding kept opponents on their heels, praying they got the carom instead of watching him execute a demoralizing put-back slam.
The year before Williams came on board, the Blazers had the 14th best defensive rating in the league, finishing 19th in field goal percentage allowed. In Buck’s first season they earned the 4th best defensive rating with the 4th best field goal percentage allowed. That’s an astronomical leap for a single season. And it only got better from there as the Blazers went on to win 59, 63, and 57 in consecutive seasons. During that span they made the Conference Finals each year, advancing to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992.
As 1993 and 1994 passed, the Drexler-era Blazers began to fade. One by one the beloved names dropped off: Duck, Clyde, then Terry and Jerome. The last man standing from that starting five was Buck. He played in Portland through 1996, departing to New York after logging 631 total games...only 25 fewer than he had played for the Nets, 480 more than Bowie had played in Portland.
All throughout his stay in Portland, the Blazers boasted higher-profile players than Buck Williams. Even so, nobody was more responsible for turning the talented, but under-achieving Trail Blazers of the 1980’s into the monstrous, dominating machine of the early 1990’s than he was. Williams became the proverbial final piece of the puzzle that completed the picture and made it all come together. A beautiful picture it was, too.
Williams would return to town to serve as an assistant coach under Nate McMillan from 2010-2012.
For giving Portland everything it expected and way more than it bargained for, for defense, commitment, and showing up every single night to work, for the rebounds and slam dunks and finally bridging the gap between talent and victory, Buck Williams earns the 20th spot on our Portland Trail Blazers Top 100 list.
Check out the work on the boards and the break.
Share your memories of Buck Williams below, and stick with us as we continue onward towards #1!