The Portland Trail Blazers have one NBA Championship, a handful of NBA Finals appearances, and a whole bunch of playoffs runs to their name. Over the course of their history, they’ve seldom stood among the league’s elite. It’s not a case of nice guys finishing last, rather a fine, approachable team falling into the designated middle ground, neither horrible nor great.
In today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, one Blazers fan wonders if that’s enough, and why in the world the Blazers haven’t been able to make the leap forward that so many desire, that other franchises seemingly have.
For 53 years the Blazers have, for the most part, been a middling team. They are one of the more successful teams at making the playoffs (37 times), but certainly has struggled to win it all (once in ‘77). We seem to have extreme difficulty making it over the proverbial “hump”. What gives? Most blame players. Some blame coaches. Still others blame management. I even blamed the owner for a while but now even that has changed hands, and we still remain mired in mediocrity. The only ones left are the fans, but surely they aren’t responsible for the team’s woes, are they?? Perhaps the blame shouldn’t be directed toward a faulty person as much as it should be directed toward a faulty culture. If so, how can the Blazers culture be transformed from win-some to win-it-all?
My .02 Cents
While almost everything you mentioned plays a role in the franchise’s momentum, that’s only one factor in the journey, and not even the primary one. In order to understand Portland’s middling performance, you have to understand the trip they plotted for themselves, not just their forward progress upon it.
Not all journeys are equal in professional sports. Sometimes the distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line, other times a twisted, slanted mountain road. Teams make the road easier or harder by their access to, and decisions during, inflection points along the way.
In the NBA, the biggest, all-encompassing inflection point comes via the draft, particularly among its highest picks. Teams that draft better than others will succeed more on average, but if we’re talking singular championships, those come from the kind of generational superstars that can’t be duplicated by any amount of scheming or culture.
Prior to their 1977 title, the Blazers selected Bill Walton first overall in the 1974 NBA Draft. That was the correct choice. Despite Walton’s injuries, it paid off for a year, vaulting them past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and the other superstars of the time. Had Walton stayed healthy, Portland might have founded a dynasty in the 1970’s to rival the ones the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics built in the 1980’s.
As soon as Walton went down, so did Portland’s championship aspirations. That was true even though they fielded a similar lineup with identical schemes from the same coach in the same culture. The Blazers could do well in all those other areas, but if they wanted the title, they had to have the “shortcut superstar” to turn momentum into tangible achievement.
Following Walton, Portland selected Mychal Thompson first overall in 1978. Thompson was talented enough to last 13 seasons in the league, averaging almost 21 points per game in 1981-82. But the Boston Celtics took a flyer on drafting Indiana forward Larry Bird that year, even though he wouldn’t suit up for them for another year beyond. Portland and Thompson did well; Boston started a legendary run.
In 1984, the Blazers and the Houston Rockets had to flip a coin to determine which would get the first overall pick in that year’s draft. The prize was center Hakeem Olajuwon. Portland called tails. The coin stopped on heads. The Rockets got Hakeem and a pair of championships. The Blazers famously selected center Sam Bowie second, leaving Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls. Anybody who’s ever watched the NBA knows what happened after that.
In 2007, the Blazers held the first overall pick again. They took center Greg Oden over Texas forward Kevin Durant. Durant didn’t win championships with the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder, but they did make the NBA Finals after they drafted him. He’d go on to win with the Golden State Warriors, who themselves took a risk selecting undersized guard Stephen Curry seventh overall in 2009, establishing their own dynasty.
Portland did just fine with their sixth overall pick in 2012, taking Weber State guard Damian Lillard. They wouldn’t get that high in the lottery for a decade after, but technically speaking they did have the opportunity to draft Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 and probably could have bought a second-round pick to take Nikola Jokic in 2014 had they been so inclined. Those picks would have changed the course of the franchise as much as Lillard did.
Note that I am not saying that the Blazers drafted poorly, either in these instances or as a franchise overall. In aggregate, they’ve done just fine. But “just fine” doesn’t win titles. Nor do skillful edges that put you 5% ahead of the average competitor.
All of these potential draft picks shortened the distance between their respective teams and the NBA Finals. These players—plus a half-dozen others like Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and probably soon Victor Wembanyama—converted well-running engines into checkered-flag finishes. The Blazers’ engine has also run fairly well, but when the Spurs and Warriors only have to travel 200 miles to the championship and you have to travel 300...uphill...both ways...they’re going to get there before you every time. No amount of incremental tinkering with the motor and suspension is going to change that.
Some teams do have other ways to create shortcuts for themselves. The Lakers can buy LeBron James with deep coffers and the promise of ad dollars. The Blazers can’t make that kind of offer and will never get that superstar signing. Even methods like that aren’t automatic, though. The New York Knicks should, in theory, be able to do the same thing. They’ve been rotting in less-than-mediocrity for years.
Nor is winning the lottery the only means of shortening the path. As we just mentioned, Jokic and Antetokounmpo were both selected in relatively modest positions, and Curry wasn’t that high in his draft order.
Path-shortening players can be found in various ways, sometimes as surprises. We don’t know when the next one will pop up. We do know that without one of those players on your team, it’s hard to compete with the franchises that feature transcendent talent. That’s true no matter what else you do. Set the table as immaculately as you wish. If there’s no pot roast to put at the center, it’s just a fancy way of going hungry.
Most of the time the Blazers have encountered those franchise-changing moments over the last 49 years, they’ve zigged when they should have zagged. Those basic decisions set the length and difficulty of their course, leaving them to toil harder for less obvious reward. Every subsequent mistake they made put them even farther behind. Every success became a way to feel better about themselves as they moved up in the order, but fell short of the ultimate goal.
As much as we’d like to cite different causes—because they seem more controllable, and thus in our ability to change—the reality is that once they passed on Jordan for Bowie and Durant for Oden, Portland’s road became so long that even the recovery they made was pretty miraculous.
That the Blazers represented the Western Conference in the 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals was a huge deal, all things considered, a testimony to the players, coaches, and executives of that era. Still, it’s hard to miss that the uttermost high-end of Portland’s bell curve was losing in the Finals twice, while the middle of Chicago’s ended up being six championships won. Switch one moment at that critical inflection point and those results invert.
This is why all of us were waiting with breath held as Portland’s advancement in the 2023 NBA Lottery drawing became clear. The difference between San Antonio’s first-overall pick and Portland’s third cannot be measured by numbers alone. One ping-pong ball at the right moment will probably change the next decade for each franchise.
It’s also why many fans are eyeing Shaedon Sharpe with hope and trepidation as the upcoming trade season opens. Damian Lillard is clearly a better player than Sharpe...maybe better than Sharpe will ever be. Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant rank above him as well. But we’re pretty sure we know the ceiling on the three veterans. Sharpe, with his dazzling potential, might affect the team’s future more than Lillard, Simons, and Grant combined. Nobody wants to move him, just in case he becomes the next version of Steph, Giannis, or Kobe. A tiny chance at that kind of advancement carries as much weight as near-surety of incremental improvement.
Culture, coaching, and infrastructure all matter in the NBA. They turn average teams into good ones, great teams into champions. But that distance between good and generationally great only gets bridged when you have superstar talent in tow. For the most part, the Blazers haven’t. By definition, at least one or two of their rival franchises will in any given generation. There’s your explanation for Portland’s “good, not great” performance over the years. Not much can be done about it. They just have to keep tuning the engine, running the race, and make sure they’re ready for the next opportunity when it comes along.
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