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Blazers Top 100: Sorting the Top 3 and Different Lists

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

Portland Trail Blazers Vs. Boston Celtics At Boston Garden Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

We finished our Top 100 list of Portland Trail Blazers players and influencers last week, ranging all the way from Danny Young to Bill Walton, with a hundred other figures and bios in between. It was a long, exhausting experience, one that required a ton of investment not just from the writer, but from readers as well.

In this, my last personal post about the list, I want to talk about the challenge of sorting out the Top 3 players and look at how the list might have changed based on different criteria that could have been employed.

The Big Three

Ordering Damian Lillard, Clyde Drexler, and Bill Walton in the top three slots of the list wasn’t the most controversial decision in the process, but it was close. Everything seemed easy as pie through the first 90 positions. “Oh yeah, everybody knows Dame, Bill, and Clyde are the Top 3. No worries there! It’s all set!” As it turned out, “all set” fell apart completely when we turned to the question of actual sorting.

The problem starts when you consider how superlative each player is in his own areas of strength.

Lillard leads the Blazers in career points per game average and is fourth in assists per game. Provided he stays in town and healthy, he’s destined to become the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer in short order. He is also the highest-profile, most charismatic and community-based leader the Blazers have ever had. If he finishes his career in Portland, or even comes close, he’ll be the face of the franchise not just in his own time, but in perpetuity. He lacks the team success of the other two. His .553 regular-season winning percentage is good enough. The Blazers are only .373 in the playoffs with Lillard on board. Drexler’s post-season percentage with the Blazers is .478, Walton’s .714. Also Walton and Drexler were, at one time or another, legitimately considered the 1st or 2nd best player in whole NBA...not at their positions, but overall. Lillard hasn’t come close to that level among his peers, let alone all-timers.

Walton has ALL the hardware. He’s the only NBA MVP in franchise history. He led the team to a World Championship in 1977, another singular accomplishment. He won Finals MVP that year. He was clearly the best all-around player of the three, doing literally everything well. His cultural influence (not just charisma or popularity) was enormous as well. The ripple effect of the championship was immeasurable. He captured the popular culture of his time and helped create a mystique that would surround the Blazers for decades after his departure. The story of “team ball beats talent” was authored by Jack Ramsay, but Walton was its star representative and the reason it stuck. But all of those accomplishments were packed into just 209 regular-season appearances...roughly 13 of Lillard’s and less than 14 of Drexler’s. Walton’s great accomplishments came over a season and a half, 144 total games. Drexler played 94 playoffs games for Portland. Walton’s legacy was meant to be eternal, but his feet wouldn’t hold up. It’s hard to credit what might have been when enduring greatness stands alongside already.

Drexler embodies that enduring greatness. He is the biggest talent ever to put on the uniform. He combined Walton’s winning (in everything but the actual title) with Lillard’s ability to score and lead a team. He captained Portland’s longest run of success, remains the franchise leader in points scored, games played, and minutes played, and he’s second in total in rebounds and assists. On the other hand, he never became the same kind of cultural icon as the other two. In retrospect, several of Clyde’s teammates are arguably more beloved than he. Drexler was a legend on the court and in the air. The farther you get from the hardwood, the more muted his cultural legacy becomes.

If Walton would have stayed healthy another two years—or even for the rest of 1977-78 to win a second title—the debate would have been solved. So, too, had Clyde won a single title or had Lillard made it to the NBA Finals. Heck, the list might look different four years from now if Lillard just keeps playing at his current production level, no matter what.

None of that least not yet. And that’s where we’re stuck. That’s why ordering the Top 3 was impossible.

Originally I had my order as Drexler-Lillard-Walton. I had envisioned a list based around on-court performance. As I progressed, it became clear that the cultural impact we remember from the great figures of the franchise is just as critical to the story as their statistical accomplishments. Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams get lost in the (very good) crowd a little if you just look at their stats. The way they transformed their teams was more than numerical. Their legend is important. So, too, with the executive, coaching, and broadcasting figures who had no numbers to quantify, but loom large in the evolution of the franchise.

Factoring in all these things, the three top players were radically different individually, but practically indistinguishable when ranked side-by-side. To resolve the issue, I began to ask for opinions among people I respected in the NBA world as well as in Portland. Most of the Portland folks ranked Walton first. The farther-flung people tended to advance Lillard. Everyone had Clyde high; few placed him #1. In the process, many local historians reminded me just how huge Walton’s impact was at the time. I already know, myself, how big of a footprint the championship left...a factor most people underrate four decades onward.

Gradually, and grudgingly, my viewpoint changed. All three deserved the top spot. Perhaps instead of ranking them, I should just concentrate on the parts of their stories that recommended them most. As it turned out, there was plenty. The top three articles totaled 14,000 words between them. I could have strung together 4 hours of highlights for Clyde and Dame.

Talking about all their positives, it became clear that Lillard had room to grow still, and appeared to be doing it. It was fine to place him third of the group, which was where most opinions had him. If he really was #1, he was going to leap into that spot soon no matter what I said. If so, let this list be the last hurrah for the franchise classics. If not, they belonged as kings of the hill anyway.

That left Clyde versus Bill. Drexler was second in winning, first in tenure, third in cultural impact. Walton was was first in winning, third in tenure, second in cultural impact. In the end, I decided winning and cultural impact would edge out the tenure disparity, especially with the title looming as large as it did. Crucially, Walton’s piece ended up less about him being superior to Clyde than the championship being superior to anything else the Blazers have ever done. It’s likely that all three players would agree with that assertion.

That wasn’t the only way the list could be ordered, though. Had I favored different criteria, here’s how it might have gone down.

Most Talented Player

  1. Clyde Drexler
  2. Damian Lillard
  3. Bill Walton
  4. Brandon Roy
  5. Terry Porter
  6. LaMarcus Aldridge
  7. Maurice Lucas
  8. Rasheed Wallace
  9. Kiki Vandeweghe
  10. Jerome Kersey

Best All-Around Player

  1. Bill Walton
  2. Rasheed Wallace
  3. Terry Porter
  4. Mychal Thompson
  5. Cliff Robinson
  6. Clyde Drexler
  7. Fat Lever
  8. Arvydas Sabonis
  9. Scottie Pippen
  10. Nicolas Batum

Most Beloved Player/Figure

  1. Damian Lillard
  2. Bill Schonely
  3. Brandon Roy
  4. Jerome Kersey
  5. Terry Porter
  6. Jack Ramsay
  7. Arvydas Sabonis
  8. Brian Grant
  9. Buck Williams
  10. Clyde Drexler

Biggest Contemporary On-Floor Impact

  1. Bill Walton
  2. Clyde Drexler
  3. Damian Lillard
  4. Brandon Roy
  5. Maurice Lucas
  6. Rasheed Wallace
  7. Billy Ray Bates
  8. Geoff Petrie
  9. Buck Williams
  10. Kiki Vandeweghe

Biggest Enduring Cultural Legacy (Player, Positive or Negative)

  1. Damian Lillard
  2. Bill Walton
  3. Rasheed Wallace
  4. Brandon Roy
  5. Brian Grant
  6. Jerome Kersey
  7. Clyde Drexler
  8. Sam Bowie
  9. Isaiah Rider
  10. Jermaine O’Neal

Thanks again to all who helped form and produce the list. We have one more event to bring you at the end of the week. Four Blazer’s Edge staffers and a reader are going to redraft the entire franchise into five teams, then we’ll let you vote on whose team would end up best (or at least your favorite). Stay tuned for that!