Looking Back On The Past To Understand The Portland Trail Blazers’ Future

The Portland Trail Blazers entered the National Basketball Association (NBA) as an expansion team in 1970. According to basketball-reference.com the Trail Blazers played their first game on October 16 vs the Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs) in Portland. Behind strong guard play from Jim Barnett’s 31 points and Geoff Petrie’s 21 points, the Blazers were able to pull off a fourth quarter comeback by outscoring the Cavs by 12 points and winning by a close 3 points. After that first game, the Trail Blazers were officially off and running. Their first game success would not last and the team struggled throughout the year finishing at the bottom of the Pacific Division standings with 29 wins and 53 losses.

For the next three out of four years, the Blazers would have a top three pick in the NBA draft that would lay the groundwork for their lone championship season in 1977, just seven years after entering the league. According to NBA.com, in 1971, the Blazers selected Sidney Wicks as the number two overall pick. In 1972, the team picked LaRue Martin with the number one pick, who’s considered one of the biggest busts in draft history. Martin gained a lot of pre-draft buzz because of having an outstanding game by upsetting the dominators of college basketball at the time in Bill Walton lead team of UCLA. The very man that helped make his name against in 1974 when the Blazers selected Bill Walton with the first overall pick would soon replace him.  Walton was coming off one of the greatest college basketball runs of all time, winning three College Play of the Year awards and two national titles. Walton and Martin both played the same position, forward/center but Martin was never able to recapture his college glory days and was traded to the Seattle Supersonics before the start of the 1976-1977 season. Walton struggled with a variety of different injuries his first two years with the team and the Blazers missed the playoffs in his first two seasons.

During the 1976-1977 season, led by a healthy Walton at center, the team would catch fire as he would lead the league in rebounds and blocked shots. He would lead the team to a conference finals sweep of Los Angeles Lakers led by Kareem- Abdul-Jabbar. During the finals, he helped the Blazers fight out of a 2-0 series deficit and create an upset series victory over the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers.

During this time in NBA history, the 1970’s could be argued as the most competitive. The Trail Blazers made up one of the 8 different teams that won championships during this decade, which according the NBA.com, is the most in any 10-year period in the leagues history. Also, only six times did the team with the league’s best regular-season record earn a trip to even play in the NBA Finals; and not one championship winner defended their title during this span.

The Blazers had the best chance of starting a dominate run after their championship season; starting the 1978 season with a dominate 50-10 record. But Walton’s devastating foot injury would break up any chance of the team defending their championship. The coach of the team Jack Ramsey said “Eventually that team just broke apart when Walton got hurt and wasn’t able to play as effectively ever again.” He went on to add, “I think that was a big factor there. We would have had back-to-backs.”

Now as the Trail Blazers enter their 49th season, they look to move on from an embarrassing sweep at hands of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of last season’s playoffs. After having a successful regular season, finishing with an overachieving third seed and home court advantage only to be swept by the Pelicans, has shown that the team lacked depth and experience.

The Blazers are following their history with today’s team by building a strong competitive and balanced team through the draft. Time will tell how this group will develop and grow together, hopefully without injury or bad luck but as history has shown us anything can and will happen.

Over the past five years, the Blazers have overachieved by making the playoffs in each of those seasons; but fail to elevate past more balanced and dominate teams. With a focus on balance and depth, the higher authorities have turned toward youth and culture development, led on and off the court by All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, and backcourt sharpshooter CJ McCullum. This year’s draft continued that trend with the selection of small forward and nineteen year old Anfernee Simons with the 24th overall pick.

This year’s summer league team has shown focus on building their young core to establish a stronger foundation moving forward, hoping to build the structure for a team rich in depth and eventually experience. With the likes of frontcourt players such as Jake Layman, Caleb Swanigan, and Zach Collins, participating during the summer shows that they are hoping to develop their frontcourt to help aid and support one of the league’s best backcourts. This group has played well together during the short summer season and have advanced to their second straight championship game. Despite winning the summer league crown last night, the same questions will remain heading into next year’s season. Can this group of young and talented players capture the some magic as the teams of yesteryear to have a deep and meaningful run in the playoffs? Is this team built to overachieve and fail when it matters? Time will tell all and as all basketball heads know, ball don’t lie.