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Blazers Top 100: The Technical Purist

A look at the 100 players and personnel who have influenced the Trail Blazers’ 50-year history.

Detroit Pistons v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images

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. 15 | Jim Paxson

Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 627, Postseason 33

*PTS: 16.0 | AST: 3.2 | FG%: 50.3% | FT%: 80.4%

*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland

Joined Club: June 1979, drafted 12th overall in the 1979 NBA Draft

Departed Club: February 1988, traded to the Boston Celtics for Jerry Sichting

Place in History: A cultural and stylistic wave swept across the NBA in the early 1980’s. Traditional “attack with the pass, hit ‘em where they ain’t, five-man squad” conventions were about to meet a new generation of player typified by Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan. Incredible athletes with finely-honed skills would bring isolation, matchup basketball to the fore, bulling their way to MVP votes and NBA titles.

Before the old era gave its last gasp though, it advanced one, final proponent in Portland Trail Blazers guard Jim Paxson.

Paxson wasn’t a physical specimen. He was athletic enough, running fluidly and jumping smoothly. He could cut laterally with the best of them. But he wasn’t particularly strong. He wasn’t big either. At 6’6 he looked every bit of 6’5. He never dunked. He was seldom tricky with the ball. Playing among the NBA elite, he seemed like just...a dude. At first glance, you might mistake him for a guy you should watch out for in YMCA league or a Hollywood actor researching a part for a basketball movie.

That impression evaporated the first time you saw him run a play. Paxson was a technician. His dribbles, cuts, and reads were impeccable. Head Coach Jack Ramsay—himself an advocate of technical basketball—might have been able to teach a PhD course on hoops simply by saying, “Watch this, then do what Paxson does.”

Jim Paxson was the unquestioned master of off-ball movement. Small cracks in the defense were broad daylight to him. Actual daylight might as well have been Paxson and two points running towards each other in a flowered field with string music playing in the background. Watching him curl around a screen on the wing or cut through the paint only to emerge on the other side ready to receive the pass...these are Monet and Renoir moments. To say he understood the floor is an understatement. He became an extension of the court, of the game itself.

Paxson’s shot was fluid and consistent. Two-foot layups and 20-foot jumpers carried the same, languid ease. His shooting prowess gave his impeccable pump fake authority, allowing him to tease defenders into the air then drive past them. This was less about speed than the ability to force the opponent to choose between two options, either of which was going to end up bad for them.

Nowadays we celebrate difficult shots, throwing them on YouTube and asking, “Can you believe he made that?” In Jim Paxson’s world, if you had to take that kind of shot, you probably missed the point of the game to begin with. His highlights aren’t aerial feats or twisting triples, they’re shots so easy that they make you ask, “How did he get that???” Congratulations. You’re beginning to ask the right questions.

After being selected 12th in the same 1979 draft that brought Earvin “Magic” Johnson to the NBA, Paxson would stay eight and a half seasons in Portland. He’d hit over 50% of his attempts from the field, 80% from the foul line. He averaged 21+ points in 1982-83 and 1983-84, playing for the Western Conference All-Star squad in both seasons. His game didn’t translate as well as Johnson’s to the national limelight; working without the ball isn’t as noticeable when teammates don’t want to pass it to you. Most observers probably wouldn’t have noticed him or remembered he played. But then when you look at the boxscores from those appearances, he hit 10 of 16 shots.

“Oh yeah...that Jim Paxson.”

“That” Jim Paxson was also named to the All-NBA 2nd Team in ‘83-’84. Apparently somebody noticed.

Nagging knee injuries and the meteoric rise of Clyde Drexler bit into Paxson’s minutes and shots as the mid 1980’s arrived. In ‘85-86 he was eased out of the starting lineup. He’d still score double-figures off the bench but his effectiveness plummeted, along with his coveted shooting percentages. He wasn’t enough of a defender to compensate, nor was he a three-point shooter. The new style was not for him. As the halfcourt, ball-movement game set over the horizon, so did Paxson’s career.

The Blazers traded Paxson to the Boston Celtics mid-season in 1987-88. Bench sharpshooter Jerry Sichting was a small return, but the Blazers weren’t using their former star much anymore anyway. His knees had gone bad. They had younger, quicker options.

Paxson rebounded for 150 more games in Boston over two and a half seasons, though. He retired at age 32 with 11,199 points to his name. Just over 10,000 of them came with the Trail Blazers. At the time, he was the leading scorer in franchise history. He ranks 7th to this day. He stands as one of seven Blazers selected to an All-NBA team, one of 12 multi-time All-Stars.

After his playing days were done, Paxson became an NBA executive, serving as the General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1999-2005. Among other things, he would draft Andre Miller and LeBron James, plus he’d trade Darius Miles to the Blazers for Jeff McInnis.

Paxson’s Portland teams never made it past the second round of the playoffs, but they did reach the postseason in 7 of the 8 seasons he suited up for them. He wasn’t going to take them over the top by himself. That wasn’t his nature. But give him a tall defender and a lane to steer him by, and it was amazing what he could do.

For making shots and the game look easy, for the hard work it took to do it, for helping carry an otherwise forgettable era, for the league-wide honors, and for reminding us that basketball is beautiful, Jim Paxson earns the 15th spot on our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.

Just watch.

Share your thoughts and memories of Jim Paxson below, and stick with us as we continue onward towards #1!