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What If ... Bill Walton, Greg Oden and Brandon Roy had stayed healthy for the Blazers?

by Ben Golliver

The Trail Blazers are in a rare position during this season of suffering, able to scoff at the collapses that recently cost the Warriors, Indians and Falcons. Because really, what’s a blown title compared to three squandered dynasties? 

Armed with perfect health and reasonable luck, the Blazers would take their place alongside the Celtics and Lakers among the NBA’s glory teams. But Portland’s history has instead been sabotaged by bad breaks and blown draft picks, including the most second-guessed selection in sports history.

General manager Stu Inman’s decision to take Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the second pick in 1984 was borne of conventional wisdom and positional need: big men like Bowie were favored, and the Blazers already had multiple scoring wings, including Clyde Drexler. But the move backfired spectacularly, with the injury-plagued center appearing in just 139 games in Portland as Jordan soared.

MJ would have transformed Rip City, Drexler would have been the world’s greatest wingman and coach Rick Adelman would have been the Zen Master. The city of Portland, with Nike nearby, would have been the center of the sports universe, in prime position to land long-coveted MLB and NHL franchises. 

Cruelly, a predraft coin flip with the Rockets could have saved Portland from hindsight’s glare. If the Blazers had called heads, they could have selected Hakeem Olajuwon at No. 1, reuniting the future-Hall of Fame center with Drexler, his college teammate. Jordan’s Bulls and Olajuwon’s Rockets instead combined to win every NBA title from 1991 through ’98, as Portlanders well know.

Before that decade of envy, the Blazers got a taste of life as the 21st-century Spurs. Jack Ramsay was plaid Gregg Popovich, a beloved and unorthodox coach who championed wellness and ball movement. Bill Walton was tripped out Tim Duncan, a complete big man with a knack for making his teammates better. After winning the franchise’s only title in 1977, the Blazers opened ’78 with a sparkling 50–10 record. Walton, 25, was named MVP, even though injuries cost him 24 games and a near-certain repeat.

Rather than following Walton’s merry lead through a wide title window, Portland never saw the Big Redhead again. Walton missed 1979 entirely, then parted ways with the Blazers following a dispute with team doctors, saddling the organization with an injury curse that bit Bowie and others. “Walton hurts more than Jordan,” says Dave Deckard, longtime editor of the Blazers Edge blog. “Losing something is harder than never having it in the first place.”

Portland’s latest shot at dominance came when it won the top pick in 2007. With guard Brandon Roy and forward LaMarcus Aldridge already in the fold, the Blazers selected center Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. But the league’s most promising young core, designed with 1984 inside-out logic, never had a chance. Oden missed his rookie season with a right-knee injury and appeared in just 82 games before he was mercifully waived in ’12. Roy’s All-Star career unexpectedly collapsed due to knee injuries soon after, stranding Aldridge in a rebuild. (Conspiracy theorists blamed everything from the practice facility’s hardwood court to the training staff, with one rumor suggesting Oden was injured playing Dance Dance Revolution.) Portland’s dream of starting three All-NBA players died without a single playoff-series victory. To add insult, Durant led the Thunder to the Finals and blossomed into an MVP.

The Blazers’ misfortunes have had repercussive effects upon many of the NBA’s best teams and brightest stars. Do the Showtime Lakers launch as smoothly if Portland is still red hot and rolling with Walton? Are the 1986 Celtics still in the argument for the greatest team ever without Walton as their supersub? With Jordan out West, does Shaquille O’Neal still decide to flee Orlando for L.A.? Does Olajuwon wind up ringless, like Patrick Ewing? Could a healthy Oden have spoiled title runs by the 2010 Lakers and ’14 Spurs? Could he have been the perfect interior antidote to the Heat’s preference for playing small ball around LeBron James? Would Russell Westbrook and James Harden still be Thunder teammates if Durant had landed in Portland? 

Curse be damned, the Blazers have made the playoffs 30 times since Walton’s exit in 1978. This remains a respectable, resilient franchise, even if its alternate history has taunted and haunted its followers for four decades.