1977 – That was the year of the Portland Trail Blazers first and only NBA Championship. Coached by the legendary Jack Ramsey, and led by Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, the Blazers, well, blazed their way through the playoffs in route to a 4-2 Finals victory over Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers. It was high drama as they overcame a 0-2 series deficit with Walton taking Finals MVP honors.
The next time the Blazers would be contenders was the early 1990s, otherwise known as the Clyde Drexler Era. Two Finals appearance in 1990 and 1992 resulted in defeats to the Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, respectively. Drexler, aka Clyde the Glide, was a generational talent who spent the bulk of his Hall of Fame career with Portland after being selected 14th overall in the 1983 Draft out of Houston — home to Phi Slama Jama, the ubiquitous nickname given to the Cougars when Drexler and fellow NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon ruled college basketball.
Once Drexler was traded to the Rockets in February 1995 and reunited with his Phi Slama Jama cohort Olajuwon, he would go on to win his only championship versus Orlando and a young Shaquille O’Neil. As for the Blazers, they returned to being a middling NBA franchise that repeatedly failed to meet or surpass expectations.
In 2017, the Blazers are still searching for answers and respect. With a losing record, they are in a tug of war with the equally average Nuggets for the 8th and final playoff spot. The good news is that oddsmakers at SportsBetting.ag believe they are a better bet than Denver to win the Western Conference.
Of course, it’s laughable to presume they’ll “win” the West, but at least oddsmakers peg them as more likely to make the playoffs (and subsequently get crushed by the Warriors in the opening round).
The funny thing is, the Blazers actually have decent talent. The backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is arguably the best in the league, rivaled by only Toronto and Washington. They finished either first or second in the Northwest Division from 2013-2016. And yet, an Oklahoma City team without Kevin Durant and a balanced but boring Utah Jazz squad have leapfrogged them in the standings.
The problem is the Blazers aren’t bad enough to get better. The last time they were, they landed Lillard with the 6th pick in the 2012 NBA Lottery. They struck gold again in 2013 when they nabbed McCollum with the 10th pick. But in a league where superteams reign supreme, having a great backcourt isn’t enough. Perhaps if they had been able to hang on to LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015 before he bolted to San Antonio in free agency, things would be different.
Like so many smaller market teams without a generational talent, it’s hard to compete in today’s NBA. Lobbing insults at Sam Hinkie is the trendy thing to do, but at least he understood that being good or average is basically the same as being awful. If a team can’t beat LeBron or Steph, they must get their own LeBron or Steph. Hinkie’s “tanking” in Philly resulted in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and possibly a third elite talent in the upcoming draft. For better or worse, the so-called “Process” worked. It doesn’t mean the Sixers are the next Cavs, but they are a helluva lot closer with Embiid and Simmons than without.
Portland is probably better off not making the 2017 Playoffs. The opportunity to land another Lillard or McCollum is worth a lot more than being swept to the curb by the Warriors. The NBA isn’t like the NFL, NHL, or even MLB. Very rarely does a team come from nowhere to advance to the Finals.
Check out the Western Conference odds last October prior to the NBA season tipping.
Golden State -240
San Antonio +500
LA Clippers +1750
Oklahoma City +2800
Okay, so they missed the boat on Minnesota (WTF?!) and Houston, but Portland is securely sitting in the 8th spot. Right where they sit today.
So it should come as no surprise that the two times Portland had Hall of Fame caliber players, they were legit title contenders. Lillard and McCollum are great players, no doubt. But neither is in the same league as LeBron, Curry, Durant, Harden, or Westbrook. Until they acquire someone who is, the Trail Blazers will remain just another middling NBA franchise.