Is It Yet *Another* "What If" Era for
The Portland Trail Blazers?
With an impressive core of young talent amassed in the late 2000s, the Portland Trail Blazers seemed poised to challenge for multiple NBA championships in the middle part of the 2010s. Now, that ostensible window appears to have closed quite abruptly, following this month's news that Brandon Roy's days as an All-NBA player are apparently over due to the deterioration of his knees, and that Greg Oden's promise will continue to be delayed indefinitely due to yet another serious injury.
One of the things which I found most engaging about reading Bill Simmons's The Book of Basketball was the "What If" concept. What if this trade or draft pick or twist of fate would have gone in a different direction - then what would have happened? In looking backwards at basketball history - at past seasons and past championship teams already etched in stone - it can sometimes seem as if things were destined to be, as if there could be no other result. Simmons's in-depth look back reminded me how easily things could have been different.
By the end of the book, I was struck by this realization: man oh man, there's no other franchise which has had as many potential NBA championships left on the table as the Portland Trail Blazers, and as far as I can tell, it's really not even close.
Obviously, "Sam Bowie" is the probably the first thing which comes to mind when broaching this topic. But forget for a minute even talking about bad decisions (which is where we'd classify the Bowie v Jordan blunder) or titles that were tantalizingly close to being in the grasp (such as in 2000).
Let's just talk about the centers who became ghosts.
Bill Walton and 1977-79. After leading Portland to its famed 1977 Blazermania championship, the Blazers were an even better team the following season. They had won a championship with a 49-33 team, but in 1977-78 they were dominating the league with a 50-10 record when Walton went down with a broken foot and the season collapsed. They finished 8-14, lost to Seattle in the playoffs, and an injection of a painkiller into Walton's foot for the playoffs left the big redhead angry at the organization. He would never play for Portland again.
Meanwhile, here are the records of the 1978 and 1979 finalists:
- 1978: Washington (44-38) defeats Seattle (47-35)
1979: Seattle (52-30) defeats Washington (54-28)
- Lionel Hollins, 24
Johnny Davis, 22
Bob Gross, 24
Maurice Lucas, 25 (RIP, Big Luke)
Bill Walton, 25
The destiny which opened the door to two of the more mediocre champions in NBA history was actually Walton's broken foot. Looking back, I think the 1978 championship was a near certainty for Portland, and the 1979 championship was likely as well, if Walton had stayed healthy.
[Note that, in the book, Simmons frames the question as "what if the Blazers hadn't traded Moses Malone to Buffalo on the eve of the '76-77 season?" He argues that Moses could have taken wear off of Walton's body and/or provided an MVP-quality insurance policy for the redhead's injuries. I tend to agree, though I'd chalk that one up as a bad decision more than bad fortune. In any event, the Moses saga only strengthens my belief that the 1978 and 1979 championships were as there to be taken by the Portland Trail Blazers as any titles have ever been.]
Arvydas Sabonis and 1990-92. Simmons did not include this one in the "What if" section, but did discuss it as he ranked Sabonis as the no. 86 all-time player by "exercising the 'what could have been' clause".
The legendary 7-3 Lithuanian was drafted by Portland in 1986, but was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union until 1989. At that time, Sabonis opted to play in Spain rather than the NBA, and did not end up coming over until 1995.
Since I didn't fully understand the value of per-minute stats back in the '90s, sometimes the numbers of past players jump out at me when I'm looking back at them on Basketball Reference, and Sabonis is definitely one of those guys. Check it out.
In 1995-96 as a 31-year-old rookie who'd lost significant athleticism due to multiple injuries, Sabonis averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists in just 23.8 minutes per game (24.7 PER).
Sabonis played his heaviest NBA minutes in 1997-98, when he averaged a 16-10-3 in 32 minutes per game (20.9 PER).
Even though his NBA career spanned the ages of 31 to 38, Sabonis still averaged a career 21.2 PER, with 12 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists in just 24 minutes per game.
I do believe that a healthy Arvydas Sabonis in his prime would have been in the Olajuwon-Robinson class of centers. For 45 seconds of heavily-pixilated joy, check out this highlight video from when Sabonis matched up with David Robinson at the 1986 World Championships, to get a sense of the skills and athleticism of the young Vydas:
Now remember that, in 1989-90 - the season in which Sabonis could have come over as a 25-year-old - the Blazers won 59 games and lost in the Finals to Detroit in five games with Kevin Duckworth starting at center (RIP, Big Duck).
In 1990-91, Portland won 63 games before being upset by L.A. in the Western Conference Finals, and in 1991-92, they took the Jordan Bulls to six games in the Finals.
This team was close enough to the Larry O'B. as it was. If they could have added Arvydas Sabonis in his prime, and he'd been able to stay healthy, I do believe that Portland would have won at least one championship from 1990-92, and possibly all three.
And now Greg Oden, and Brandon Roy. Again, don't even worry about what's turned out to be the bad decision of taking Oden instead of Kevin Durant for now. Just judge what Portland's actually had.
Obviously, this Blazers team never proved that they could make a championship run, as the late-'70s and early-'90s editions did. But I still believe that the Roy-Oden-Aldridge nucleus was talented enough to make deep playoff runs in the mid-2010's.
I still believe that Oden has the talent to be a dominant center, and I'd still point to how he dominated Joakim Noah almost exactly one year ago (24 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks on 7-8 FG in 27 minutes) as an example of how well he was coming along.
At this point, though, while Oden still has hope at just age 22, he certainly can't be counted upon, and it pains me to say that I don't see how Brandon Roy, a guy I've been watching since high school, can regain his superstar form, given the nature of his injury.
While lots of teams have lost individual championships due to injuries or losing close games and/or bad calls, in reading the Simmons book, and in pondering it further, I don't see any NBA franchise with anything close to having multiple potential multi-championship runs wiped away due to lost players. [Please feel free to let me know in the comments if you think I'm making glaring omissions.]
[The closest thing I could find was actually with the Boston Celtics, who could have easily won championships in 1973 and 1958 if not for playoff injuries to John Havlicek and Bill Russell, respectively, and then who knows what could have been, if not for the deaths of Len Bias (in 1986) and Reggie Lewis (in 1993). But to say, "well, they could have 22 championships instead of just 17!" doesn't seem to fit the spirit of this sad exercise.]
And then... to go back and consider bad decisions, and add Moses and Michael into the Blazers equation... well, it's enough to make your head spin. Could this franchise have 10 championships since 1977 with just a few twists of fate which aren't terribly far-fetched?
Yet the devoted Rip City fan base has but one championship trophy to hold on to. Readers in Phoenix say, "No sympathy, at least you have *one*." Readers in Seattle say, "No sympathy, at least you have a team."
Still, I feel for you, Blazermaniacs. Even though you've had a successful, model franchise for a long time, with multiple winning eras, you've been so, so close to so much more.