The Portland Trail Blazers franchise has three players who have topped all others in Damian Lillard, Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler. Whether the criteria are based on championships, sustained success or statistics, between them, this group has them all.
Yesterday we all shared a bit about this great trio at the request of Liam, a 12-year-old reader who wanted to know who the best players we’ve ever seen in Portland are.
Today, as a follow-up, I want to share some great players that young Liam may not have heard of or may not have fully appreciated. I’m going to walk a delicate line here, avoiding most of the players whose reputation is legendary in Portland, which the fans will automatically appreciate. (Examples include Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant.) We want to go for players who rank high, but get mentioned less for some reason.
We’ll go in chronological order, only including the players I’ve actually met. For anything in the 70s, you fellow readers will have to help.
Mychal Thompson and Jim Paxson
These two are obvious stars, better known than the ones we’d normally include on a list like this. But they get lost in time because they played in the early 80s, when Portland was setting teams by 1977 championship standards and found them lacking.
Thompson, the first overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft, was a smooth scorer who could also rebound well and play one hell of a smart game. His defense was hampered a bit by injuries, but he was one of the best all-around centers the Blazers had ever fielded. He scored a career-high 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds in 1981-82, shooting more than 52% from the field. Any center doing that these days would easily get a Top 5 mention at that position.
Paxson was Portland’s “lost” All-Star, earning nominations in 1983 and 1984, scoring 21.7 and 21.3 points per game, respectively. Paxson was a master of movement off the ball, creating passing angles for himself and then releasing with deadly precision leapfrogging. His career-high percentages on the field hovered around 53%. This is center-to-edge territory. He finished with a career field goal percentage of 49.8%. For a guard to take over 9,000 shots in the NBA and hit half of them is impressive.
Danny Ainge and Cliff Robinson
We talked about Clyde Drexler yesterday. His runs in the 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals are legendary. He also had a great 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, best known for his championship runs earlier in the decade with the Boston Celtics. He had talent, but he was a guy who had nothing to stick to Sacramento, where he played for the Kings. When the Blazers got him, he immediately got 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 intelligence. Ainge helped the Blazers go from a very good upstart team to one that barely lost.
Cliff Robinson arrived in the 1990 NBA Draft, a second-round player who fit no particular position on the court. But at 6’11, with mobility and athleticism, plus a large dose of confidence, he ended up playing almost every position. He could defend anywhere on the court and eventually became a 20-point scorer. He ended up playing until he was 40. You have to be awesome to do that!
Jermaine O’Neal would go on to become a six-time All-Star with the Indiana Pacers at the height of his career. But before doing that, he was the 17th overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft, the height of the “out-of-high school draft players” era. O’Neal did not thrive in his first two seasons. He was trapped behind Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant and Arvydas Sabonis in an overly crowded frontcourt. But every once in a while he would come out with a huge dunk or a block that shook the seat, giving clues as to what was to come. He wouldn’t achieve that promise with the Blazers, but even watching him for 10 minutes in the right game was an unforgettable experience.
The Trail Blazers teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s were filled with former NBA All-Stars, thanks to general manager Bob Whitsitt’s penchant for big names on jerseys.
Steve Smith was one of them. He was an All-Star in 1998 with the Atlanta Hawks, making 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 drove in and out. 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 consistently devious drive and an amazing ability to draw favorable whistles from NBA referees that hadn’t been seen in Portland since Clyde Drexler. Smith was not so much a brick in the wall for Portland as the mortar that held the attack together. Along with Pippen, Wallace and Sabonis, he helped create one of the most complete and versatile starting lineups the Blazers have ever seen.
These are my six players that you wouldn’t think of right away, but who were must-have stars for Portland. Who would you add to the list for Liam?
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