Trail Blazers News: Bill Walton Represents Ultimate Portland 'What-If'

The Hall of Fame center's career was impeded by injuries.
Jan 16, 1975; Richfield, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; Portland Trailblazers center Bill Walton (32) is defended by Cleveland Cavaliers center Steve Patterson (50) at Richfield Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 16, 1975; Richfield, OH, USA; FILE PHOTO; Portland Trailblazers center Bill Walton (32) is defended by Cleveland Cavaliers center Steve Patterson (50) at Richfield Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports / Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports

Hall of Fame former Portland Trail Blazers superstar center Bill Walton, who passed away on May 27 at the age of 71 after a cancer battle, unquestionably enjoyed the greatest peak run of any Portland player ever, even if it was marred by ailments beyond his control. He led the club to its first and only title in 1977, and won the league MVP the following season, with the club seemingly on pace to repeat before he went down after playing only 58 healthy contests.

During a recent episode of The Oregonian's "Blazer Focused" podcast, Aaron Fentress and Craig Birnbach unpacked the lasting legacy of Walton in Portland and wondered how many titles he'd have won with the team had he never incurred a cascading series of career-altering foot injuries, starting with that fateful 1978 one.

"So let's get to his legacy. It's very interesting because he was only here for a few years, he didn't leave on good terms, but he made by far the greatest individual impact any player ever has [in the history of Blazers basketball]," Fentress opined. "But when people talk about the greatest players, they talk about Dame and Clyde, mainly because they played longer in Blazers uniforms."

Walton suffered a series of debilitating foot injuries that eventually compelled him to force a trade to his hometown San Diego Clippers in 1979. During his run with Portland, which started when he was picked No. 1 overall in 1974 after winning two championships at UCLA, the 6-foot-11 big man averaged 17.1 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 67.4 percent shooting from the floor, 13.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.6 blocks and one steal per game. Big Red made two All-Star teams, two All-NBA teams and two All-Defensive teams during this five-year stint (it was really just four seasons, since he missed the entirety of 1978-79).

"So if you say he's healthy for the next ten years [instead of getting hurt], that takes them into the '80s where yeah, they're battling it out with Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar, both Los Angeles Lakers greats], they're battling it out with maybe [Larry] Bird's [Boston] Celtics, and then of course Moses Malone goes to the [Philadelphia] 76ers etc. etc., but at that point already, Walton had already beaten Kareem, he'd already beaten the Doc [Julius 'Dr. J' Irving, also of the Sixers]. So he'd already established himself a true, No. 1, marquee, elite talent. No one else in Blazers history can say that. I don't care what your records were, I don't care how many All-Star games, All-NBA [appearances] or whatever. No one else can say they were MVP, no one else can say they were the true No. 1 catalyst for a championship team, and a team that like Walton — and [All-Star Blazers teammate] Lionel Hollins said the same thing — probably wins multiple titles if he's able to remain healthy because he was that good."

Walton would indeed go on to eventually win a second NBA championship anyway when, long removed from his MVP prime, he reinvented himself as a 33-year-old Sixth Man of the Year for the 67-15 Boston Celtics, during the team's championship run in 1985-86. He appeared in a career-most 80 contests that season.

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Alex Kirschenbaum

ALEX KIRSCHENBAUM

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