By Ben Golliver
Two big mistakes. Zero apologies.
The Trail Blazers can be criticized for making bad draft decisions and they can be pitied for being cursed with terrible injury luck, but they can't be accused of bending under the pressure of second-guessing or running from their mistakes.
Portland -- which won its only title in 1977, hasn't reached the NBA Finals since 1992 and is without a playoff-series victory since 2000 -- has been haunted by two key draft decisions: selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the No. 2 pick in 1984 and choosing Greg Oden over Kevin Durant with the No. 1 pick in 2007. Injuries crippled Oden's and Bowie's careers, while Jordan and Durant blossomed into scoring champions. MJ won six titles and became the greatest of all time, too; Durant made his first Finals appearance in 2012, losing to the Heat.
The Oregonian reported Wednesday that Harry Glickman, one of the Blazers' founders and a member of the basketball operations staff in 1984, admits his team didn't just want Bowie over Jordan but also everyone's favorite TNT analyst ahead of His Airness.
“If you look back at the draft,” Glickman said, “if we hadn’t selected [Bowie], we wouldn’t have selected Jordan. We probably would have gone with Charles Barkley.”
Blazers executive Chad Buchanan stood his ground in similar fashion back in February, just weeks before Oden was released to clear a roster spot after undergoing his third microfracture knee surgery. No regrets about passing on Durant, Buchanan said.
“Looking back on it, I would still draft Greg,” he said. “Hindsight, it’s easy to make an assumption [now]. … You can’t predict the injuries that would come. Going back on it, I wouldn’t have changed anything in drafting Greg.”
“Nobody in this league is feeling sorry for us and we're not going to feel sorry for our situation,” Buchanan said.
Similar reasoning prompted both the Bowie and Oden picks: Portland was drafting to fill a big-man need. In 1984, the Blazers already had future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, a scoring guard, and Kiki Vandeweghe, a scoring forward. In 2007, the Blazers had Brandon Roy, a scoring guard who became a three-time All-Star, and LaMarcus Aldridge, a long, athletic scoring power forward who made the All-Star for the first time last season. Then-GM Kevin Pritchard made it clear in 2007 that he liked Durant a lot. If Oden had not been available, or if the Blazers had won the No. 2 pick in the lottery instead of No. 1, Durant undoubtedly would have been the selection.
But 1984 was a different story. The Blazers took Bowie, in part, because they lost a coin-flip tiebreaker for the No. 1 pick to the Rockets, who immediately declared their intentions to draft future Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. Glickman's somewhat uncertain phrasing here suggests that the Blazers' pecking order didn't really go much past Olajuwon and Bowie. Were any trade scenarios seriously considered? Did the Blazers go through the process of filling out a big board, as is common today, or was this as simple as "A or B"? Assuming they had a board, or were to construct one after the fact, would Jordan be in the top five? The top 10? At what point would the hassle of trying to make things work with a Drexler/Jordan perimeter tandem have been considered worth a first-round pick? The Oregonian reported that Jack Ramsay, the Blazers' coach from 1976-86, said in an upcoming documentary about Bowie: “I don’t remember Michael Jordan’s name being mentioned.”
Barkley, meanwhile, went No. 5 to Philadelphia. He spent eight seasons with the Sixers and four each with the Suns and Rockets. He retired in 1999 with 11 All-Star appearances and one MVP award, but no rings. Until Drexler joined Olajuwon in Houston and won a title in 1995, his name was included alongside Barkley's on the long list of stars denied a ring during Jordan's reign: The Bulls beat Drexler's Blazers in 1992 and Barkley's Suns in 1993. Barkley joined Drexler and Olajuwon in Houston in 1996-97, but the Rockets were unable to advance out of the Western Conference.
Even without Barkley, the Blazers wound up with a strong front line through the late 1980s and early 1990s. Portland drafted small forward Jerome Kersey in the second round in 1984 and traded Bowie for workhorse power forward Buck Williams. Of course, Williams was no Barkley. Imagine if the Blazers had entered the 1990 and 1992 Finals with a starting five of point guard Terry Porter, Drexler, Kersey, Barkley and center Kevin Duckworth? Drexler and Barkley together, in their primes rather than their declines, surrounded by three solid starters? That's a tantalizing thought, much like the idea of a Roy/Durant/Aldridge trio was in recent years, at least until Roy's career arc was thrown off course by multiple knee surgeries. Those scenarios are left to the dreams of basketball fans and the nightmares of unapologetic Blazers executives.