The Portland trail blazers, their nickname notwithstanding, have been little more than tenderfeet in the 1980s. The organization points with pride to its consistency—Portland has won 40 games or more in each of the last seven seasons—but that's just a device to avoid saying, "Boy, we've sure been mediocre, haven't we?"
At this early checkpoint in the current season, however, the Blazers are on the right path. With victories Saturday at Phoenix (133-115) and Sunday at home over New York (117-99), Portland ran its winning streak to an NBA season high of nine. The seventh—and most significant—victory in the string was a 117-104 road triumph over the Lakers on Dec. 2, which ended a 19-game Blazers' losing streak (including playoffs) at the Los Angeles Forum dating back to the final game of the 1982-83 season. Combined with L.A.'s three-game nosedive last week, Portland's wins put it in first place in the Pacific Division by half a game as of Sunday. Can the Blazers remain a serious contender? A four-game road trip that begins on Dec. 8 in Detroit should provide a clue.
Some folks don't need any more proof. "You better believe they're legitimate," said Suns coach John Wetzel after the Blazers set a Phoenix Coliseum record with a .682 shooting percentage from the field. "You look at their talent, and it's right up there with the top three or four teams in the league." Remarkably, a big chunk of that talent has been all but inactive lately. Kiki Vandeweghe, normally the focal point of the Blazer offense, has played in only one game (against L.A.) during the streak because of a lower-back strain. In his place, Portland has unleashed Jerome Kersey, heretofore known as a valuable guy to have around but only if you were holding a dunking contest. Kersey has averaged 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in the nine games that he has started for Vandeweghe. Blazer coach Mike Schuler says he will face "a pleasant dilemma" when Vandeweghe, who is being evaluated on a daily basis, is ready again.
Vandeweghe's ills began on Nov. 18 when he scored 41 points in a 120-114 loss to Seattle. After the game he could barely walk because of the pain and stiffness in his back. That loss put Portland's record at 2-5, and even a mediocre season appeared to be in grave doubt. Vandeweghe's rebounding and defensive deficiences have been well chronicled, and everyone knew those weaknesses would be offset, and then some, by Kersey, a superb 6'7" athlete. But Vandeweghe, a 24.9 points-per-game scorer during his three seasons and change with Portland, seemed to be absolutely indispensable to the Blazer offense.
"Kiki was, and still is, the main man," says Trail Blazer guard Clyde Drexler. So why, the surprising play of Kersey aside, have the Blazers prospered without Vandeweghe? For the simple reason that Drexler, named the NBA Player of the Week on Monday, has his main man mixed up.
In Vandeweghe's absence, Drexler's production (he is averaging 26.3 points per game for the season) has not only increased, but it has also been remarkably consistent: He had games of 32, 31, 32, 27, 28, 35, 28, 34 and 27 points during Portland's run. Drexler's 2.69 steals per game ranked sixth in the league, and he should again finish as one of the NBA's best rebounding guards.
The main reason Drexler has stepped up in class, however, is his improved jump shot, a point of contention between him and Schuler last season. Schuler believed that Drexler's shot selection and lack of concentration caused him to miss too many jumpers. Drexler didn't exactly agree. "My problem was that I could always get by my man too easily," he said last week. "When you can do that, you tend not to think about the jumper too much. Besides, I had always been a good percentage shooter. It's not like I'd been struggling."
Indeed, the numbers seemed to support Drexler's argument. In averaging 21.7 points a game last season, he shot a more than respectable .502 from the floor. Michael Jordan, by contrast, shot .482. Still, to prove that statistics can indeed be misleading, the Blazer coaching staff ordered up a video review of all of Drexler's shots from the 1986-87 season. It showed, they said, that Drexler—whose speed, quickness and leaping ability enable him to get a lot of breakaways and dunks—made only about 30% of his jump shots.
Drexler didn't wholeheartedly endorse that finding, but he admits that Schuler's message got through. "I was a good scorer, but Mike convinced me that to become a great scorer, I'd have to improve my jumper."
So Drexler enrolled in the Kiki Vandeweghe summer jump-shooting school, with branches at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and The Sports Club/LA in West Los Angeles. During Drexler's workouts there, he and Vandeweghe alternated sets of 10 jumpers, each racking up 300 to 400 a day. Vandeweghe, a career .537 shooter, provided pointers in his soft-spoken manner: "Shoot every shot the same.... Square up when you shoot.... Stay on balance.... Get a higher trajectory." Drexler had heard it before, of course, but had perhaps never taken it seriously enough.
The schooling continued under Trail Blazer assistant coach Geoff Petrie, a guard from the Blazers' early days who had a deadly jumper. "We wanted to get across that we weren't trying to change his game," says Petrie. "It was like having a really nice car and just trying to put a few more options on it."
The way Drexler is playing now, if he were a car, he would be something like the sleek taupe Jaguar XJ-SC he drives around Portland. Ten of his 15 field goals against Phoenix were classic square-up jump shots, several of them from 20 feet.
There's still plenty of time for Portland to revert to its mediocre ways, but this is a solid team. Point guard Terry Porter is only in his third season, but he has the intelligent game of a 10-year veteran. Up front, the Blazers have power forward Caldwell Jones, the 37-year-old defensive specialist who doesn't like to shoot (only 3.6 field goal attempts per game this season), and center Steve Johnson, who doesn't like to miss (his .585 career field goal percentage is second only to that of Artis Gilmore among active players). And it's impossible to ignore Maurice Lucas, the 35-year-old backup power broker the Blazers brought back to the scene of his—and their—greatest glory, the 1976-77 NBA championship. "He's a hollerer, and a motivator," says Drexler. "I just wish he would stop hitting me in the chest to get me motivated."
Motivation has never been Drexler's problem. Outside shooting was, and he's apparently taken care of that. "Since I improved the jumper, tell you the truth, it seems real easy to score," he says. And that is going to make it real hard on the rest of the league.