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. 17 | Kiki Vandeweghe
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 285, Postseason 21
*PTS: 23.5 | FG%: 52.6 | 3PT%: 40.8% | FT%: 88.1%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1984, acquired from the Denver Nuggets for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper, and two draft picks
Departed Club: February 1989, traded to the New York Knicks for a first-round pick
Place in History: The summer of 1984 found the Portland Trail Blazers stuck in the dreaded no-man’s-land of NBA mediocrity. They had just finished their fourth straight season with a win total in the 40’s. They were always good enough to make the playoffs, not great enough to succeed there. The second round was their ceiling, the first their floor, and the story never seemed to change.
Just making the post-season was good enough for many franchises. The Blazers and their Head Coach Jack Ramsay came from different stock. They remembered the World Championship earned seven years before. They wanted more.
Portland won that title on the back of a superstar surrounded by excellent supplementary players. Their current lineup of Mychal Thompson, Kenny Carr, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, Darnell Valentine, Wayne Cooper, and Jim Paxson provided plenty of the latter. Ramsay wanted a central scorer to pull the group together, a jump start to get the team out of the quagmire and back on the road to glory.
With the team’s limitations on full display, most everybody expected the Blazers to do something that summer. Nobody could have predicted the trade they actually made to fulfill Ramsay’s wish, though. The collective gasp on June 7th was audible on either side of the Cascades as the Blazers traded what seemed like half the team for Denver Nuggets forward Kiki Vandeweghe.
The 25-year-old small forward sported an impressive resumé. He had just finished the season scoring 29.4 points per game for the Nuggets, earning his second straight All-Star nomination. He was practically a deity on offense, tossing lightning bolts from any and all ranges.
Still, there were doubts. Doug Moe’s Nuggets ran like crazy, scored like a pinball machine, and didn’t give a rat’s behind about defense. Your great grandma could probably post 20 for them cherry picking from her rocking chair. Despite Vandeweghe’s numbers, Denver only won 38 games. The Blazers themselves had done better. Would he really help that much?
And wow...the price Portland paid. Calvin Natt was a stalwart, a 20-point producer. Fat Lever was an up-and-comer, Wayne Cooper a regular rotation center. Plus the Blazers sent two (2) draft picks??? Could any player be worth that much?
As it turned out, Kiki was. Natt would become an All-Star. Lever would too, morphing into a triple-double machine. Cooper would start 324 games for the Nuggets over five seasons. Denver selected center Blair Rasmussen with Portland’s first-rounder; he’d play six seasons for them. Add it all together and Denver got 1525 games, 19416 points, 10055 rebounds, 4804 assists, 1644 steals, 1443 blocks, and three All-Star berths out of that deal, and that’s not even counting the playoffs. The Blazers still came out of it smelling like a rose. Vandeweghe was that good.
Kiki’s stats were enough to make even the most jaded fan vomit with joy. Instead of telling you which shots he could make, it’d be easier to tell you which ones he couldn’t. That would be none of them.
A perimeter-oriented, volume-shooting small forward who hits 50% for a season raises eyebrows. Kiki shot 52.6% from the field over his entire five-year run in Portland. That’s enough to lift the hair right off your head. He did it while scoring 23.5 points per game. He averaged 88% from the foul line as well, drawing over 6 free throws each contest.
The numbers become more impressive when you consider the company Vandeweghe kept. This was not Denver’s lineup, where—apart from an occasional post toss to Dan Issel—Vandeweghe and Alex English were free to put up a thousand shots, ignoring teammates. In addition to Paxson and Thompson, Kiki suited up with Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, and occasionally Sam Bowie. The team was stacked.
Kiki didn’t detract from the ensemble. His chemistry with Drexler was legendary. They’d play strong side-weak side ball to perfection. Clyde would drive and draw defenders then dish to the open Vandeweghe, or Kiki would threaten a shot and turn all eyes his way, only to toss to Drexler with a now-open lane in full view ahead. Results were predictable, but never got old.
Kiki also introduced Portland to the three-pointer. The shot had been around since 1979, but in the mid-80’s it was still considered half-gimmick. For most, it was a situational shot, used in desperation comebacks, last-minute deficits, and last-second buzzer-beaters. Serious players didn’t shoot from that range; traditional coaches seldom favored it. The distance was too far, the success rate too low.
Vandeweghe’s three-point attempt rate of 1.0 per game in 1986-87 looks ludicrously small by today’s standards, but his 48.1% success rate for the season would make anybody stand up and take notice. It was more of a surprise to see him miss one than make it. Home crowds began to yell as soon as he caught the ball at the arc, swelling to a roar that rested on a long “e” vowel sound. Nobody was quite sure whether the Blazers faithful were screaming “three” or “Keeee-ki” but it hardly mattered. It all got lost in the riotous screams as the ball went through the twine. Vandeweghe would end up averaging 40.8% beyond the arc over five seasons with the Blazers.
Vandeweghe posted at least one forty-point game in each of his seasons in Portland except 1985-86. He only got to 38 that season. In his defense, he did score 30 or more on 23 separate occasions that year. That was also the season he averaged 24.8 points per game on 54% shooting, a jaw-dropping stat line that left him among the franchise elite. In the history of the franchise, only Damian Lillard has exceeded Vandeweghe’s points per game production, and that only by half a point so far.
Kiki was no shrinking violet in the playoffs either. In 21 postseason performances for the Blazers over four years he averaged 21.1 points on 51.5% shooting, connecting on 94% of his free throws. Dude missed six foul shots total in four years of post-season play. That’s cold.
The only two knocks on Vandeweghe: a lack of defense (the Blazers knew what they were getting there, though) and the fact that Portland didn’t fare much better after his arrival than before. Had Bowie been healthy the story might have been different. As it was, Ramsay’s big scorer didn’t end up saving his coach’s job. Only once did the Blazers win 50 with Kiki on board. That was 1987-88, the year he got injured and played only half a season with severely limited minutes.
Health, defensive issues, and the advent of Jerome Kersey at small forward began to weigh against Vandeweghe as the decade neared its close. With their star scorer not playing much (thus no longer scoring), the Blazers pulled the trigger on a midseason deal in 1989 that shipped Vandeweghe to New York for a draft pick.
Vandeweghe would never score 20 again, limping his way through four more years before retiring in 1993. He later became a coach with the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets. He served as General Manager for the Nuggets and Nets. He is currently the NBA’s Executive Vice President for Basketball Operations.
The muted end to Vandeweghe’s Portland run doesn’t overshadow the eye-searing stats he produced in his prime. You only have to watch about five seconds of the videos below to see how good he was.
For the threes, for ALL the points, for justifying one of the biggest trades in franchise history, and for all the fun with Clyde, Kiki Vandeweghe earns the 17th spot on our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers. What a run.
Share your memories of Kiki Vandeweghe below, and stick with us as we approach ever closer to the number one spot on the list!