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. 2 | Clyde Drexler
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 867, Postseason 94
*PTS: 20.8 | REB: 6.2 | AST: 5.7 | FG%: 47.8%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 1983, selected 14th overall in the 1983 NBA Draft
Departed Club: February 1995, traded with Tracy Murray to the Houston Rockets for Otis Thorpe, Marcelo Nicola, and a first-round pick
Place in History:
Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.
No player has scored more points for the Portland Trail Blazers. Nobody has played more games or minutes. Nobody has more All-Star nominations. Nobody has played in more playoffs games or brought more playoffs victories.
He is, without argument, the best overall player the Trail Blazers have fielded in the first 50 years of their existence. Nobody in their first 42 years even came close. One active player has the chance to overtake him, but it remains to be seen. The road is steep, the footprints embedded in it reveal enormous shoes.
Drexler was drafted with the 14th overall pick of the 1983 NBA Draft. That officially qualifies as the biggest steal in franchise history. Houston selected Ralph Sampson first overall that year. The names between Sampson and Drexler are respectable; Byron Scott, Dale Ellis, and Derek Harper stand among them. The General Managers who passed on Drexler—Rockets GM Ray Patterson included—still deserve their, “Wow! I could have had a V-8” moment. The guys they drafted might elicit knowing smiles from NBA historians and aficionados. Drexler evoked fear and awe in anyone with a set of eyeballs.
Clyde’s body was a cathedral, soaring and seemingly immovable. The book lists him at 6’7 and 210 pounds. It cannot describe the strength with which he bullied shooting guards and moved aside power forwards on the way to the rim. He was inexorable.
Most guards want to escape defenders. To Clyde, defenders barely mattered. He could shrug them off with a flick of his arm. Once he turned the corner and started downhill, nobody was stopping him. Over, around, or through you, he was getting to the cup.
If a defender did manage to stay in front of him, Drexler had height and length to spare. He could dribble to a spot where he was comfortable, rise, and shoot before you figured out the drive was done. If necessary, he could remain in the air long enough for his defender to leap, then descend, before releasing the ball. Either way, his jumper would fly unobstructed.
But the true, unadulterated, golden beauty of Clyde Drexler’s game came when he got up a head of steam on the break. When he leaped into the air, observers would swear he had slipped the bonds of gravity and left earth behind. Because it was basketball, he would come back down to deliver the thunderous slam, but he didn’t have to. Had Clyde vaulted the tomb of Icarus on his way to the moon, nobody would have been that surprised.
In Hawaii, on Maui, Mt. Haleakalā towers over the landscape. Because of its height, it creates the weather patterns for the entire island. Meteorologists who want to understand the environment must first look to the mountain.
That’s exactly the way Clyde Drexler was for the Trail Blazers in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It’s been 25 years since he last played for the Blazers. Both he and his teams remain legendary to this day.
Oddly enough, Drexler’s career did not start out large. As a rookie, he joined a team only six years removed from the NBA Championship. The Title Generation had departed, but their immediate successors were still in full swing.
The Blazers had won 46 games the season before Clyde arrived. They boasted names like Mychal Thompson, Calvin Natt, Fat Lever, and most importantly, Jim Paxson. Paxson was coming off a 22-point season and his first All-Star nomination. He was clearly the best player the Blazers had. He also played shooting guard, Drexler’s position.
At the time, the Blazers were coached by the legendary Jack Ramsay. He had taken them all the way in ‘77 with a system that favored ball movement and high-scoring big men. Ramsay’s shooting guards were supposed to play off the ball. They made instant decisions, either firing when open or passing if covered. Driving was certainly part of the package, but mostly on the break. Holding the ball and over-dribbling were twin sins, inconsistent with the team’s ethos.
Rookie Drexler had a hard time making headway against Paxson’s talent and Ramsay’s expectations. He appeared in 82 games, playing 17.2 minutes per. He averaged 6.8 field goal attempts, about a third of what would later become his norm. There were magical moments; his trips to the rim were something to behold. They were few and far between...more Billy Ray Bates curiosity than Lionel Hollins dependability.
Even so, it didn’t take too many times watching Drexler dunk, then realizing that he was still going UP as he slammed the ball through the rim, to figure out the Blazers had something. Watching him glide through seams in the defense was, frankly, amazing. Neither Ramsay nor Portland’s front office could ignore the talent that had fallen into their hands.
Clyde Drexler's Rookie Highlights ️
On Monday night, Dwyane Wade moved up to 3⃣0⃣ on the NBA's All-Time Scoring list, passing Clyde Drexler! Take a look back at some of Clyde's glides to the rim as a rook. : San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat : 7:30pm/et : League Pass https://on.nba.com/2EYDLbkPosted by NBA on Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Ramsay made compromises in Clyde’s sophomore season. He’d get more minutes and more freedom starting alongside Paxson instead of playing behind him. He still wasn’t allowed dominate the offense. The thought was impossible in a lineup that now included Thompson, Sam Bowie, and Portland’s new, big trade acquisition, Kiki Vandeweghe.
Drexler didn’t get to initiate as much as he’d like, but his shot attempts reached double digits and he made the most of it. In the first part of the season, he was good for 15-20 points per night, often shooting north of 50%. The Blazers now had a player who—most nights—hit shots as effectively as Dave Twardzik once had, but blew the doors off of any athlete they’d ever seen.
Eyes opened on February 27th when he scored 37 against the San Antonio Spurs. After a guy shoots 15-24, how do you limit him to 8 shots ever again? Drexler also had a near triple-double on that night, with 10 rebounds and 9 assists. Maybe getting the ball in his hands more was a good idea.
Heads continued to turn when Drexler scored 30+ against the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets in April. They started spinning as he averaged 19 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds per game in Portland’s first-round sweep of the Dallas Mavericks. That series included a 20-10-10 triple-double in Game 3. Drexler would average 17 points, 9 assists, and 6 rebounds in the playoffs overall that year, adding an incredible 2.6 steals per game. He only shot 41%, but when you counted all the add-ons, 41% from Clyde was better than 46% from most other guards.
In 1985-86, Clyde’s third season, an overstocked roster proved a hindrance to Ramsay as much as a help. He could not settle on a regular lineup. Vandeweghe and Thompson always started, but Drexler, Paxson, Darnell Valentine, and Steve Colter ended up in a hodgepodge mush.
Clyde scored 18.5 per game with 8 assists and earned his first All-Star nomination that year, replacing Paxson. Nothing was comfortable, though. As Drexler’s abilities continued to manifest, the gravity shifted toward him, away from Ramsay, Paxson, and the traditionalists. The team was clearly going in two different directions.
Portland muddled their way to a 40-42 record and lost to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Things were coming to a head. Drexler had paid his dues for three seasons. Neither he nor the team were completely whole. The Blazers had to make a decision. Would it be Jack, or Clyde?
This was a clash of style and theory. On one side you had an advocate of a proven, entrenched system that had guided the Blazers to ultimate success and several playoffs trips besides. On the other side stood Drexler, whose talent was too great to fit into any convention. Clyde and a couple other new recruits represented the next wave. Their style was much more personal, based on superior athleticism and skill over precision and floor management. They weren’t selfish. Their chess game played out as a supremely-talented athlete set up his defender rather than a supremely-cerebral team outwitting the opposing coaching scheme.
Neither approach was perfect. Neither was wrong. Ramsay’s system was sound, but it would only work with the right players under the right circumstances. Drexler, on the other hand, could dominate every night against anybody.
On the strength of that ability, the decision was made. The Blazers released the most iconic coach in franchise history that summer. The firing was not a personal thing. By all reports, the two men respected each other professionally. Drexler was simply too good to stop. He became one of the lead advocates for an entire new wave of basketball that would sweep across the league.
Ramsay was replaced by Mike Schuler, an assistant with the Nets and Bucks getting his first opportunity at as Head Coach in Portland. Schuler was, by all accounts, an accomplished X’s and O’s guy. He also knew why he had been hired, and for whom.
In Schuler’s inaugural year, Portland’s starting lineup solidified. Paxson went to the bench; Drexler started. Alongside Clyde: Vandeweghe, newcomer Steve Johnson, and a young promising guard that had been lost in the muck last season in Terry Porter. Power forward was the only position left open, split between Kenny Carr and Caldwell Jones. They defended and rebounded. The offense belonged to Kiki and Clyde.
Shuler’s moves worked like a charm. Drexler’s shooting percentage bounded to a career-high 50%. He’d score 22 points per game, exceeded only by Vandeweghe (who shot 53% and scored 27).
Porter’s athleticism complemented Drexler well. A young small forward named Jerome Kersey began to emerge. He was nearly as athletic as Drexler and played a similar run-and-dominate style.
The Blazers began mowing over opponents. They led the league in points per game, finishing fifth in offensive efficiency. They won 49 games, earning Schuler the first Coach of the Year award in franchise history. The only downer was a 1-3 loss in the first round to Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the Houston Rockets. Even with that, the positives far outweighed the negatives.
1987-88 was an even better year for Drexler. He skyrocketed to a 27 point per game average, territory previously occupied by Vandeweghe, an acclaimed offensive genius. He returned to the All-Star game, the beginning of a seven-year run.
Having proven he could be brilliant, Drexler now showed he could be consistently so. Producing like Clyde did would be a dream for 99% of the NBA, for even just a season. Drexler did it for the next six years.
1987-88 also saw the first use of the lineup in which Drexler would find his greatest team success: himself and Porter in the backcourt, Kersey at small forward, and rapidly-developing center Kevin Duckworth at center. Power forward was still mix-and-match. The Blazers split Jones and Johnson there, sometimes bringing in jump-shooter Richard Anderson. As long as Clyde got 20 shots per game, the four-spot was negotiable.
With spectacular numbers and even more spectacular finishing ability, Drexler had become fixture in the NBA. He participated in five NBA Slam Dunk contests, an NBA record. He never won, but always entertained.
Watching Clyde dunk was like watching Gordon Ramsay swear. It seemed natural, effortless, and it sure happened a lot! He was one of those rare players who could make even opposing fans come out of their seats anticipating his slams.
For all the scoring, high-flying, and All-Star appearances, one achievement still eluded Drexler. He could not seem to get out of the first round of the playoffs. The Blazers struggled to play a competitive series. Every winter they would show promise. Every spring it was one round and out.
That all changed in 1989-90 as the Blazers finally filled their four-spot with New Jersey Nets star Buck Williams. The eight-year veteran had been a fixture on the East coast, good for 17 and 12 most seasons. Like Drexler, he was a multi-time All-Star. Also like Drexler, he lacked playoffs success. Together, they vowed to change that.
Williams applied the glue to Portland’s lineup. He modeled unselfishness, sacrificing shots in favor of tough defense, big-time rebounding, and team unity. This was critical. The trio of Porter, Kersey, and Duckworth had all grown to the point where they were pushing the boundaries of stardom themselves. It was clear that any of them could score 20 on a given night. Under the right conditions, any or all of them could average 20 in a season. With all that power in the same starting lineup, there’s no way for every player to max out their scoring. Instead Drexler averaged 27 and the rest of them rode the carousel, waiting for their turn to shine.
When Williams arrived, Drexler pulled back his shot attempts and started to concentrate more on defense. His scoring dropped to 23.3 per game. Kersey, Porter, and Duckworth all scored 16+. Meanwhile Portland’s defensive rating rose from 14th in the NBA the year prior to 4th.
Suddenly the Blazers were in business. They won a brain-bending 59 games, second only to the Los Angeles Lakers in the West, equal with the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons. A showdown was coming. This time it looked like the Blazers might have a chance to win it.
That’s just what happened. They Blazers began the 1990 NBA Playoffs by summarily dismissing the Dallas Mavericks. Drexler had an uncharacteristically bad series, scoring 16 per game on 37% shooting, yet they still swept the opponent. With Porter and Kersey picking up the slack, it looked easy.
The second round proved more of a challenge. Portland faced David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs. Duckworth went down with an injury, leaving the Blazers without a center just when they most needed one. Drexler scored 21.1 with 7.3 rebounds, 8.4 assists, and 2.4 steals through a series that went right to the wire. Portland would pull it out in overtime of Game 7 behind a returning Duckworth. Porter scored 36. Clyde chipped in 22.
That was not the only break Portland caught in Round 2. On the other side of the bracket, the Phoenix Suns eliminated the 63-win Lakers. Magic was out. Portland would hold homecourt advantage in the Conference Finals.
The Suns were no pushovers. They featured Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, and Eddie Johnson. Everyone who took the floor knew how to score. Portland also knew how to defend. That made all the difference. Portland disposed of the Phoenix in five games.
Impossibly, incredibly, after years of first-round futility, the Portland Trail Blazers were on the way to the NBA Finals.
Car horns rang out across the city in celebration that evening. On the postgame show after Portland’s big victory, radio announcer Scott Lynn let slip that the team plane would be flying into Hillsboro Airport that night. Within an hour, the small facility was overrun by thousands, all hoping to get a glimpse of their new heroes. They scaled fences and crowded the tarmac. When Drexler and company emerged from the plane, their faces beamed as brightly as those of the fans. The players gave thanks, recalled that it had been a while since the team had gotten to the Finals, and promised to try to win one for Portland. It was a spontaneous, joyous moment, the likes of which had not been seen since the downtown victory parade for the 1977 Championship squad.
As it turned out, Clyde’s Blazers couldn’t make good on their promise. He had an incredible Finals series, scoring 26.4 per game with 7.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists. His fellow starters acquitted themselves well. Portland still wasn’t deep or experienced enough to handle the Pistons, who won in five. The final two games were decided by 3 points and 2 points, respectively. So close, but yet so far.
Even though Drexler did not emerge with a ring from that series, he and his Portland fans will always have this:
1990-91 would see the Blazers win a franchise-record 63 games. With second-year forward Cliff Robinson maturing in the frontcourt and former Boston Celtics great Danny Ainge joining the guard crew, the team was now deep enough to take on all comers.
Drexler pulled back the offense even more that season. In 1988-89 he had attempted 21.4 shots per game. In 1990-91 he put up just 16.3. It was a testament to his resolve and to the talent around him.
Portland’s defense ranked even higher (3rd in the league) and their offense went crazy (2nd overall). They barely ever lost period, let alone twice in a row.
It was like a fantasy come true...all of Jack Ramsay’s teamwork, speed, and beauty couched in a lineup as athletic and powerful as any the league had ever seen. Forget the best the Blazers ever had, this lineup might have become known as one of the best ever formed, period. All they needed was the banner to prove it.
Portland entered the 1991 NBA Playoffs as the top seed in the league, fully expecting to be taking home the rings. They struggled a bit against the Seattle Supersonics in Round 1, a five-game series in which Drexler averaged 25 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 steals. Emerging victorious, they summarily disposed of Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz. Both opponents would reach the NBA Finals later in the decade. In ‘91, Clyde and the Blazers were simply better.
This would not be the case in the Conference Finals when Portland finally met the Lakers.
The Blazers had homecourt and were clearly favored. L.A. came out hard in Game 1 and edged Portland by 5, putting them on their heels. The Blazers recovered, then slipped again, falling behind 3-1. They rallied to beat the Lakers in Game 5, but fell behind seriously in Game 6.
Knowing they were on the brink of elimination, Portland put on a furious show in the fourth period of that decisive game, climbing back within a single point on the final possession. Everyone expected Drexler to attempt the game winner, but he ceded it to Porter. The jumper was clear and well within Terry’s range. It simply wouldn’t fall, bouncing long and into the hands of Johnson, who hurled it into the air in victory. The Blazers left the court deflated, having lost their best chance at a title.
Los Angeles wilting in the finals versus the Bulls as Michael Jordan captured his first title didn’t help. They clearly didn’t belong there. The Blazers couldn’t help that now.
The 1991-92 season dawned with a mix of confidence and desperation. Portland had climbed near the mountain peak twice, failing to summit. People wondered what more they could do.
The answer was Clyde.
If the Blazers were going out, they were going out with their best player playing his best basketball. That’s what Drexler did all season long. His shot attempts rose to 19.4 per game, his scoring to 25. He averaged 7 rebounds and 7 assists. His usage rate soared to a career-high 28.7%. It was a tour de force, the will of one player carrying his team as far as they could go.
The prior two years had confirmed Clyde a winner. Now he became a blinding superstar, second only to Jordan in prowess, acclaim, and MVP votes. He was legitimately considered the second-best player in the entire league. For one season, he and Michael were on a planet of their own.
Appropriately, 1992 brought Drexler’s most memorable All-Star performance ever. He scored 22 points in 28 minutes, hitting 10-15 shots, with 9 rebounds and 6 assists. With his team winning by a wide margin, he looked all but assured of winning the All-Star MVP, which would have been a first for Portland.
It was not to be. The prior summer Magic Johnson had revealed his HIV diagnosis to the world. It was devastating news. As far as anybody knew, Magic’s career was over. Though he retired immediately after the announcement, fans still voted him in as a starter for the Western Conference All-Star team. Magic agreed to play.
The fourth quarter of the exhibition turned into a tribute to the departing star. All teammates—including Drexler—passed to him as “opponents” neglected to defend. Johnson soared ahead in the scoring and was named MVP over Clyde.
The Blazers didn’t win quite as many regular season games that year (57), but they did advance to the Finals again. Along the way they replayed their greatest hits series, squashing the Lakers, then taking out the Suns and Jazz. The showdown with Jordan awaited.
The 1992 NBA Finals saw Drexler score 25 per game. Michael tallied 36. None of Clyde’s teammates got anywhere near their former 20-point averages. Portland fell 4-2.
That defeat confirmed what Blazers fans had dreaded. watching Clyde’s desperation attempt at loading the team on his back. It wasn’t going to work. The curtain was closing. The run was done.
Drexler and his fans had some consolation in the Summer of 1992. He was part of the very first NBA “Dream Team” that took home gold in the Barcelona Olympics.
As training camp opened in 1992-93, Portland faced a new reality. Having played a hyper-athletic style for years, the bodies of several veterans were wearing down. Drexler was among them. He’d play in only 49 games that year. Portland won 51 behind sturdy defense, but without Clyde their offensive efficiency slipped markedly. They lost to the Spurs in the first round of the 1993 playoffs.
The next year, the 31-year-old Drexler appeared 68 times, averaging 19.2 points. Though he could still be spectacular in bursts, he no longer had the same speed or lift. His offensive game started drifting outside. The defense just wasn’t there.
This mostly-decent version of Clyde wasn’t enough to lift the Blazers out of mediocrity. They won 47, losing in the first round for the second year straight, this time to the Houston Rockets.
During this period Portland scrambled to fill holes around Clyde, trying to find the magic formula that would allow one more big run should he become healthy. They acquired veterans Mario Elie and Harvey Grant. They drafted James “Hollywood” Robinson and sharpshooter Tracy Murray. It wasn’t happening.
The writing was already on the wall, but in case anyone failed to read it, Portland made two huge executive moves in the Summer of 1994. They fired Adelman and hired young hotshot GM Bob Whitsitt. The changing of the guard had come.
PJ Carlesimo became Portland’s next head coach. He hearkened back to Mike Schuler, an X’s and O’s wizard and disciplinarian. It was quite a shift for the veteran Blazers, including Clyde. They had succeeded beyond expectation, playing at the highest level possible, earning acclaim and fame. Now a new middle manager was coming in with a fistful of memos about policy and procedure.
As the 1994-95 season dawned, two forces swirled together to create the river that would carry Drexler away from the only team he had ever known. One was Whitsitt’s practical assessment that the old style would not work. The new GM had no heart for nostalgia. He was eager to get cracking on Team Next. The second was Drexler’s own desire to win a title before he retired. At age 32, he had 3-4 years left. That was nowhere near enough for the Blazers to rebuild around him. His hometown Houston Rockets featured college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon. They also had championship designs. Most of Portland would have been fine with Clyde retiring in a uniform featuring a pinwheel rather than pinstripes. Clyde was ready to go.
Rumors of Drexler’s impending departure swirled as the season began. The Blazers held onto him as long as they practically could. He averaged 22 points for them over 41 games. Even if his shooting percentages was low, his numbers proved that he was still capable of being a lead scorer. Perceiving a resurgence, some even thought Portland might try to keep him.
By January, Drexler was giving interviews containing barely-veiled allusions to his discontent with new management and his desire to be play elsewhere. At that point it wasn’t whether Clyde was going, but when.
On February 14th, 1995—a Valentine’s Day that broke hearts—the Blazers traded Drexler to the Rockets (along with Murray) for power forward Otis Thorpe, the rights to European player Marcelo Nicola, and a first-round pick in that year’s draft.
As it turned out, the move led to good things for both parties. With Clyde on board, the Rockets would win the championship that year, rising from the 6th seed all the way to the top. It was their second of two, sweet for Clyde, bittersweet for Blazers fans. Portland would quickly rebuild into their next generation, featuring Rasheed Wallace and two trips to the Conference Finals themselves. They would not win a ring with the new crew, and still haven’t since.
Drexler retired at the end of the 1997-98 season. He’d go on to a career in college coaching and broadcasting, both in Houston.
Lack of a ring is the only possible demerit in Drexler’s dossier. Though he never took the Blazers all the way, he was the lead player during the best extended run the team has ever experienced.
The Blazers have never fielded another player like Drexler, so physically dominant and so incredibly gifted at the same time. He ended his career a 10-time All-Star, a 5-time All-NBA nominee. He’s been honored as a Hall-of-Famer and one of the 50 Greatest Players in league history. He remains the longest-tenured Blazers player ever. He played in an incredible 94 playoffs games, the equivalent of an entire extra season spent in Portland’s uniform.
Even in 2020, only four words are necessary to set hearts racing for anyone who saw #22 play. They’re so identified with good times and success, they might as well be the Star Wars theme of the Trail Blazers franchise:
Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.
Nobody did it better.
For inspiring performances, soaring dunks, and the best seasons the Blazers ever had stacked one upon another, Drexler earns the second position in our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
For some players on this list, we had to dig deep to find highlights. In this case, there’s no way we could even begin to scratch the surface. Enjoy.
[Possible lyrics warning on some of these videos. They’re probably worth it anyway.]
Share your memories of Drexler below, and come back tomorrow as our list concludes.