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What Caused the Downfall of Clyde Drexler’s Trail Blazers?

Why one of the greatest eras in Blazers history lasted three years instead of a decade.

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Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

We’re taking a break from the Trail Blazers Top 100 today to divert into a Mailbag Question surrounding Clyde Drexler and his teammates from the early 1990’s. It was a thrilling time for the franchise. Our friend Jay wants to know why it had to end so soon. Take a look...

Mr. Dave,

Younger reader here and I’d like you to address a question that came up in the comments of your best Blazers list. Drexler was 27 when the Blazers played in the finals against the Pistons. Most of his team was that age or younger. They had 3 years but why wasn’t it more? Why not keep that team together and build, especially when Tim Duncan and Tony Parker played until they were 80 or something? They had the talent. What happened to those Blazers?

Jay

This is an interesting question because, as you identified, it connects with some of the history that we’ve been talking about in our Top 100 list. As you’ll see, it also has some bearing on how we interpret today. Let’s tackle it.

(P.S. Clyde was 28 in 1990-91, but the point still stands.)

Though we clump the three significant seasons of the Drexler era into one for historical convenience, they were actually quite different.

The peak-level, Drexler-led Blazers were still finding themselves in 1989-90. Their core players had been together since the mid-1980’s, of course. They had grown individually and had become familiar with each other. Adding Buck Williams as the final piece of the puzzle pushed them over the top, but into what? Portland had not yet experienced the NBA elite into which they were about to enter. They thought they had a chance at a championship, but they didn’t really know.

The 1989-90 team won because they were super-talented, because they had a dominant five-prong attack, and because they just physically outmatched other teams. Watching the 89-90 Blazers was like watching race car drivers who somehow got their hands on an M1 Abrams tank. They drove fast, didn’t care much about sticking to the road, and mowed down everything in their path. This is where the Blazers got the lingering reputation of being potent, but not necessarily smart, as a unit. (A reputation that was exaggerated and oversimplified, by the way.) The plowed through opponents until the Pistons proved too big of an obstacle to overcome in the NBA Finals.

1990-91 was the year it all came together for Portland. The group had confidence and another season of experience. They knew what their goal was collectively: championship or bust. Danny Ainge coming on board complemented the backcourt perfectly. Cliff Robinson played under control as well. A franchise-record 63 wins stand testimony to how well that unit worked with each other. They were not only powerful, but professional.

In my opinion, it’s hard to overestimate how significant the Western Conference Finals loss to Los Angeles was that year. This was Portland’s season of destiny. There was no doubt how good they were...either the best or second-best team in the league, results to be decided in an epic NBA Finals matchup with the Bulls. Getting ousted by the aging Lakers, who then flopped against Chicago, called everything into question.

Twice the Blazers had been within shouting distance of the rings. Twice they hadn’t made it. Were championship aspirations viable? How much better could they play, really?

Being shaken into asking that grey area helps explain what happened in 1991-92. The Blazers would reach the Finals again, but not a seamless team. This would be the Year of Clyde.

In 1988-89—the year before Williams came on board—Drexler averaged an astounding 27.2 points per game. Once the new starting five was set and it was clear he was surrounded by title-level talent, Clyde stepped back a bit, focusing on getting his teammates involved. He led the new-look team by becoming their first, and primary, investor.

Drexler could have scored 25 anytime, anywhere, all year long without thinking. It was just a matter of how many shots he took. In 88-89 he had attempted 21.4 per game. In 89-90 his attempts dropped to 18.6, then again to 16.3 in 90-91. The decline made a clear statement. If Drexler wasn’t worried about his own stats, none of his teammates could worry about theirs either.

But Clyde stepping back hadn’t brought Portland the title. Instead the trophy went to Jordan, who wasn’t taking a back seat to anybody. Having hit the wall twice sublimating his scoring ability, Drexler was now set to do it the other way. In 1991-92, he took over big-time, attempting 19.4 shots per game while averaging 25 points. His Usage Percentage went from career-average-level 25.7 in 1990-91 to a career-high 28.7 in 1991-92. This was still a team, but it was clearly Clyde’s team.

Nobody was complaining. The season became a tour de force, Clyde unmasked and unbound with RPM’s red-lined all year. It worked...kind of. The Blazers won 57. They made it to the Finals again. Once there, they succumbed to MJ and the Bulls, an echo of their 1990 run.

The narrative after that second Finals loss wasn’t, “Well done! Keep going! One of these times we’ll get ‘em!” It was, “What more can the Blazers do? Clyde just had the best year possible. They’ve tried every other option. Nothing has worked. Now Jordan is rocketing into superstardom and it’s hard to envision Portland ever catching up.”

That said, the Blazers would have been happy to make another run. What else could they do, really? But 1992-93 was the beginning of Drexler’s decline into injuries. His teammates were too good to fall apart without him, but they were not at peak effectiveness without a fully-healthy Clyde.

57 wins and a Finals appearance in 1992 turned into 51 and a first-round exit in 1993, followed by 47 and another quick departure in 1994. The season after, the Blazers would trade the 32-year-old Drexler to the Houston Rockets. He wanted out. Management obliged him. Ultimately it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway; the lineup wasn’t returning to their early-90’s glory anytime soon.

The simplest answer to your question is that the Blazers broke up because Drexler’s body didn’t hold up well enough past 1992 to keep them in contention. The ancillary answer is that, perhaps sensing the end stage of his career coming, Clyde wanted to go to Houston while he still had some juice left. It was no good keeping him under those conditions.

What about Drexler’s legendary teammates, though? Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth, and Terry Porter have all gone down in franchise lore among the all-time greats. Cliff Robinson would become the team’s next star.

Without Clyde, the group was good, but nowhere near great. Holding onto them would delay the need to rebuild without eliminating it. At a certain point, the Blazers decided to value whatever came next higher than nostalgia over what they had just accomplished. The impulse was probably aided by a comparatively-new owner who had inherited the Drexler-based roster, now ready to build something on his own. (Paul Allen reportedly would have kept Clyde, but once he couldn’t, there wasn’t much reason to keep any of it.) The transition would be accelerated when General Manager Bob Whitsitt came on board in 1994.

The non-viability of keeping the Drexler-era core intact after Drexler himself departed doesn’t just show us something about Clyde’s greatness, but about the way we evaluate talent between eras and the value of superstars. We call Kersey and Porter great, and rightfully so. Their abilities shone through 100% playing next to Drexler. Remove Clyde, though, and their collective effect was much less pronounced.

Sometimes, when comparing star players between eras, we say, “But so-and-so had better teammates whereas this guy had to do it all alone.” Nobody does it alone. NBA Basketball is always played 5-on-5. Superstar players tend to make the people they play with look better and feel greater. Not every player has that knack.

Saying a superstar “got to play with better teammates” might say as much about that star’s ability to make the guys around him shine as it does about the players themselves. The Drexler-era Blazers are a fine example of a good supporting cast maximizing into fantastic because of the star they centered around.

Thanks for the Mailbag question! We’ve eased up on them during the hiatus because we’re doing the Top 100, but we’ll continue to read and answer as we can. Send yours to blazersub@gmail.com if you’d like it considered!

For a deeper look at those Drexler-era teams, try The Long, Hot Winter by Portland columnist and media luminary Dwight Jaynes.