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. 13 | Cliff Robinson
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 644, Postseason 78
*PTS: 16.2 | REB: 5.2 | FG%: 44.6% | 3PT%: 34.9%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1989, drafted 36th overall in the 1989 NBA Draft
Departed Club: August 1997, left via free agency
Place in History: Cliff Robinson played 18 seasons in the NBA, retiring in 2007 at the age of 40. Of all the accomplishments in his illustrious career, the most surprising may have come in his very first season.
At first, Cliff’s rookie year doesn’t look like much. He averaged 19.1 minutes a night in the regular season while playing all 82 games. He added 18.6 minutes per contest in 21 post-season appearances. He didn’t score in double figures. He didn’t shoot well. It’s not the kind of year to warrant a second look. But you have to consider the circumstances under which Robinson operated.
Everybody in the NBA knew that the 6’10 Connecticut grad had more talent than his second-round, 36th-overall selection in the 1989 NBA Draft would indicate. Questions of focus and fit dogged him as he entered the league. He was a loose cannon. He didn’t fill a clearly-defined position. Normally that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s why he fell so low.
Robinson solved this problem by scanning the entrance exam, skipping down to the question, “Position on Floor?” and checking every box he could find. Over his eight seasons in Portland he mixed and matched assignments at power forward, small forward, and center with determination, skill, and boundless confidence.
The key to Robinson’s immediate success was his ability to defend. He was long and quick enough to bother wings, tall and sturdy enough to watch big men. He blocked shots and created steals. His tenacity and enthusiasm were evident every night. Whether it was the right play or a mistake, he was going to make it.
The most remarkable thing about Robinson’s growth curve wasn’t that he traversed it so quickly, but that he got to try at all. He joined a frontcourt featuring Kevin Duckworth, Buck Williams, and Jerome Kersey. The previous year’s first-round draft pick, Mark Bryant, occupied the reserve power forward slot. Veterans Wayne Cooper and Robert Reid were all prepared to pick up the slack at center and small forward. Then Cliff hit town and the Blazers found themselves waiving the underachieving Reid to make room for him.
Second-round rookies aren’t guaranteed to crack any lineup, let alone one flush with veterans. They really, really aren’t supposed to play significant minutes for a Finals-bound team. Cliff did.
From the start, Robinson was unabashed on the floor. Whenever Cliff caught the ball, he was going to try and score. Fair enough. He had length, moves, and could dribble. From a certain angle, he was a walking mismatch. On a team starring Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, the rookie became a black hole. Cheeky? You betcha.
Unfortunately the angles weren’t kind to Cliff at first. His 39.7% shooting rate in his rookie season brought more frustration than approbation. Paradoxically, this shows you how good Cliff was. When you can look Clyde Drexler in the eye, say, “I’ve got this,” then miss 6 of 10 shots, but the coach STILL puts you out there every night, your defense must be something special.
Robinson’s defensive skills would remain with him throughout most of his career. Fortunately for the Blazers, his offense came around too. As his “chill quotient” rose during his second season, his shooting percentage followed suit. He had been useful even while shooting 40% from the field. Shooting 46% made him downright valuable.
Had Robinson played in an era where the standard for centers wasn’t 7-feet and 250 pounds, Robinson would have been an amazing offensive pivot. Instead he spent his learning years playing both forward positions, developing his post and face-up game at the same time. As a result, he could score anywhere from the restricted zone to (eventually) the three-point arc. He became a big load to handle for smaller forwards. He was able to draw opposing centers outside with his shooting. Things were starting to roll.
Over the next two seasons, Cliff’s shooting percentage and minutes would continue to rise. Whether the Blazers used him as a huge three, a rangy four, or a quick five, he gobbled up minutes and touches. By his fourth year, he was playing 30+ per game, producing serious results. He scored 40 points against the Utah Jazz on April 15th, 1993. He won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award at the end of that season, and it wasn’t even close. He would not be eligible to repeat the year followed, as he was promoted to starter, a role he’d keep until he was a grizzled veteran of 38.
Robinson’s initial year in the starting lineup also brought his only NBA All-Star nomination. He earned it by scoring 20.1 points per game playing center. The next season, 1994-95, he scored 21.3 while playing small forward. The bulk of his time in Portland would be spent at that position, suiting up alongside Williams, Chris Dudley, and Arvydas Sabonis.
How many players could make the All-Star team at center one year, then post the best and most productive seasons of his career at small forward right after? The list is small. Tim Duncan maybe? LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo could probably pull it off. And Uncle Cliffy.
As Robinson continued to grow, so did the buzz around him. 20-point outings became the norm. He remained a fine defender, if a bit less eager than he had been in his earliest years. Many tabbed him as Portland’s next big star. He aided that impression by playing in 461 straight games between 1989 and 1995, a franchise Iron Man record yet to be broken.
Though most of the publicity during this time was positive, Robinson had auto-related infractions in the Portland area. There were whispers about marijuana use as well. Those issues would dog him later in his career.
In the end, neither on-court performance or off-court friction that ended the relationship between Robinson and the team that had drafted him. Though his regular-season play was always good, he never developed into the franchise centerpiece the Blazers were looking for. He had string of poor playoffs performances. In the Summer of 1996, General Manager Bob Whitsitt traded for the star who would become the Next Big Thing: Rasheed Wallace.
Sheed was 6’11, capable of playing multiple positions, and would soon develop into a threat from multiple ranges. He was a 21-year-old version of Robinson with more offensive upside. He also played on a rookie contract that was far cheaper than what Robinson could theoretically command on the free agent market.
Let’s scratch the record to a stop for a moment. For one season—1996-97—the Blazers had Robinson, Rasheed, and Sabonis as their starting frontcourt. In actuality, Wallace and Robinson didn’t mesh well, but wow, in hindsight the temptation to run it back for another try is strong, especially since Robinson would spend another full decade in the league, with seven years as a full-time starter.
Alas, it was not to be. One year after bringing Wallace on board, the Blazers stood aside as Robinson accepted a one-year, $1 million contract offer from the Phoenix Suns. He’d make four playoffs appearances with them (soon earning far bigger paydays) before heading to Detroit. After he was once again displaced by Wallace, he took his talents to Golden State and New Jersey. He wrapped up his career after the 2006-07 season at the ripe old age of 40.
At the end of his career, Robinson had scored 19,591 points on 16,875 field goal attempts in 42,561 minutes played. He currently ranks 23rd on the NBA’s all-time minutes played leaderboard.
Robinson also ranks 5th on Portland’s all-time scoring list, 6th in minutes played, and 5th in games played. He’s Top 10 in rebounds, field goals attempted, field goals made, three-pointers attempted, three-pointers made, and steals. He’s second only to Mychal Thompson in total blocks. He pretty much ruled every category you could name except the obvious two: free throw percentage and assists, neither of which he was known for.
None of this came because Robinson was exceptional at any one thing. He earned his place by being good at pretty much everything, and great enough at defending, that coaches had to keep him on the floor.
After Robinson retired, he appeared on the CBS show “Survivor” and moved to Portland. He is currently among the most prominent advocates of the medicinal/recreational substance for which he once received criticism, now legalized in his home state.
For the streak, for bulling his way into league and lineup on his own terms, for defending willingly, scoring often, being the consummate example of an all-around player with talent to burn, and always doing it his way, Uncle Cliffy earns the 13th spot on our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Share your memories of Cliff Robinson below, and stick with us as we continue onward towards #1!