The Portland Trail Blazers franchise boasts three players who have soared above all others in Damian Lillard, Bill Walton, and Clyde Drexler. Whether the criteria rest on championships, sustained success, or stats, between them, this group has them all.
Yesterday we all shared a little about this great trio at the behest of Liam, a 12-year-old reader who wanted to know who the best players we’ve ever seen in Portland were.
Today, as a follow-up, I want to share some really good players that young Liam either may not have heard about, or may not have appreciated fully. I’m going to walk a tricky line here, avoiding most of the players whose reputations are legendary in Portland, whom fans will automatically rate highly. (Examples include Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant.) We want to go for players who stood among the best, but get mentioned less for whatever reason.
We’ll go chronologically, including only players I’ve actually experienced. For anything in the 70’s, you other readers will have to help.
Mychal Thompson and Jim Paxson
These two are both obvious stars, higher profile than we’d normally include on a list like this. But they get lost in the wash of time because they played in the early ‘80’s, when Portland was defining teams by 1977 Championship standards and finding them lacking.
Thompson, the first-overall pick in the 1978 NBA Draft, was a buttery-smooth scorer who could also rebound well and played one heck of a smart game. His defense was hampered a bit by injuries, but he was one of the better all-around centers the Blazers have ever fielded. He scored a career-high 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds in 1981-82, shooting over 52% from the field. Any center doing that nowadays would get Top 5 mention at the position easily.
Paxson was Portland “lost” All-Star, earning nominations in 1983 and 1984, scoring 21.7 and 21.3 points per game, respectively. Paxson was a master of moving without the ball, creating passing angles for himself, then releasing with a deadly-accurate jumper. His highest career percentages from the field hovered around 53%. That’s center-at-the-rim territory. He finished with a career field goal percentage of 49.8%, For a guard to take over 9000 shots in the NBA and hit half of them is impressive.
Danny Ainge and Cliff Robinson
We talked about Clyde Drexler yesterday. His runs to the 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals are legendary. He also had a fine starting lineup around him, including legends Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey. But the secret sauce to Portland’s success came off the bench in the form of Danny Ainge and Cliff Robinson.
Ainge was an NBA veteran, most famous for his championship runs in the early decade with the Boston Celtics. He had talent, but he was a glue guy with nothing to glue in Sacramento, where he played for the Kings. When the Blazers got him, he immediately slotted in behind Porter at point guard and Drexler at shooting guard, creating a triangle that provided rest for the backcourt without ever sacrificing shooting, scoring, and smarts. Ainge helped the Blazers gel from a very good upstart team into a team that barely lost.
Cliff Robinson came along in the 1990 NBA Draft, a second-round player who didn’t fit into any particular position on the floor. But at 6’11, with mobility and athleticism, plus a large scoop of confidence, he ended up playing nearly every position. He could defend anywhere on the floor and eventually became a 20-point scorer. He ended up playing until he was 40. You have to be great to do that!
Jermaine O’Neal would go on to become a six-time All-Star with the Indiana Pacers during the prime of his career. But before he did that, he was the 17th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, the height of the “Drafting Players out of High School” era. O’Neal didn’t prosper in his first couple seasons. He was trapped behind Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant, and Arvydas Sabonis in a too-crowded frontcourt. But every once in a while he would uncork with a massive dunk or seat-shaking block, giving hints of what was to come. He would not reach that promise with the Blazers, but even watching him for 10 minutes in the right game was an unforgettable experience.
The late-1990’s and early-2000’s Trail Blazers teams were packed with former NBA All-Stars, courtesy of General Manager Bob Whitsitt’s penchant for big names on jerseys.
Steve Smith was one of those. He was an All-Star in 1998 with the Atlanta Hawks, putting up one of his three 20-ppg seasons. When he came to Portland in the fall of 1999, he was not expected to fill that role, but to provide an outlet for Damon Stoudamire and Scottie Pippen as they penetrated and passed. Smith’s three-point shot made him up to the task; he shot 40% from the arc in the 1999-00 season. But he also brought a still-sneaky drive and an uncanny ability to draw favorable whistles from NBA refs that hadn’t been seen in Portland since Clyde Drexler. Smith wasn’t a brick in Portland’s wall as much as the mortar that held the offense together. Along with Pippen, Wallace, and Sabonis, he helped create one of the most well-rounded and versatile starting lineups the Blazers have ever seen.
Those are my six players you wouldn’t immediately think of, but who were unmissable stars for Portland. Who would you add to the list for Liam?
Don’t forget to send your own Mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll answer as many as we can!