Our third NBA Tuesday miniseries goes north last week’s highlighted franchise; right up Interstate 5, in fact, to Portland. The Trail Blazers entered the league as an expansion franchise in 1970-1971, and by 1977, the team had won its first (and only) NBA championship. Overall, in 52 seasons, the Portland organization has made the postseason 37 times, with a few other Finals appearances (1990, 1992), albeit unsuccessful. Oh, and did we mention the royal shafting by the league, too?
No. 5: 1977-78 Portland Trail Blazers
This team was defending its 1977 title, and it posted a 58-24 record to finish first in the Pacific Division. The Blazers were No. 1 on defense and No. 12 on offense, adding up to a No. 1 SRS rating. But despite finishing 11 games ahead of the Seattle SuperSonics in the regular season, the two teams battled through a 6-game series with the upstart Sonics dethroning the Blazers on their way to the NBA Finals. Seattle won three games in the matchup by single digits to sink Portland’s repeat.
Six players posted at least 5.2 Win Shares, led by center Bill Walton (8.4), small forward Bob Gross (7.1), and power forward Tom Owens (6.0). But due to chronic injuries that would derail his career, Walton played just 49 minutes total in the playoff series against Seattle. The Sonics stole home-court advantage in the first game on the road and never looked back as the home team won every other game throughout the matchup. Seattle only outscored Portland by 1.6 ppg, too.
No. 4: 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers
The aforementioned royal shafting still pains Trail Blazers fans. This team was a great one—59 wins and a No. 2 SRS rating, built on the No. 3 defense in the league. Portland lost just once in each of the first two rounds of the postseason, dispatching the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz with relative ease. And then came the conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers: the Blazers outscored the Lakers by 1.9 ppg and somehow lost the series. Uh huh.
Four guys stood out on this impressive roster: shooting guard Steve Smith (10.4 WS), PF Rasheed Wallace (9.3), SF Scottie Pippen (7.8), and C Arvydas Sabonis (7.1). The first three all won NBA titles elsewhere, and Sabonis was an Olympic gold medalist from the 1988 Games. This team was that good. The Blazers fell behind the Lakers, 3-1, in the playoffs, but they came back to hold a big lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 on the road before … well, yeah.
No. 3: 1989-90 Portland Trail Blazers
These Blazers finished with 59 wins, too, and the team was No. 3 in the SRS—mostly built upon the No. 4 offense. Portland swept the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the postseason, before needing 7 games to get past the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. Then, the Blazers eliminated the Phoenix Suns in 6 games to advance to the Finals. Unfortunately, Portland had to face the defending champs from Detroit, and the Pistons repeated with a 5-game win.
The best players on this team? Point guard Terry Porter (11.7 WS) and SG Clyde Drexler (11.6). This dynamic backcourt duo was effectively balanced by SF Jerome Kersey (8.8) and PF Buck Williams (8.7). The five dropped games against San Antonio and Phoenix probably taxed these four players, as the bench was thin. Then again, the Pistons were just that good. The Blazers stole Game 2 on the road before losing three games at home—including the final two by 5 points total.
No. 2: 1991-92 Portland Trail Blazers
Portland had some back luck in the early 1990s, for sure. Winning 57 games and finishing No. 2 in the SRS enabled the Blazers to win all their first three playoff series while dropping just four contests combined against the Lakers, the Suns, and the Jazz. Once in the Finals, though, it was a similar story: Portland had to take on the defending champs, this time a squad from Chicago with some guy named Michael Jordan in command. The Bulls won in 6 games, somewhat easily.
Drexler (12.8 WS), Porter (10.6), and Williams (9.2) were the standouts here as much of the supporting cast was different from the 1990 team above. In the Finals, the Bulls won Game 1 at home by 33 points, and it could be argued that the veteran Blazers never recovered. Then again, Portland did manage to forge a 2-2 tie in the series, before losing Game 5 at home by 13 points and Game 6 on the road by 4 points. Overall, Chicago outscored PDX by 7.3 ppg, though, so … context.
No. 1: 1990-91 Portland Trail Blazers
The best team in franchise history was squeezed between the two teams that made the Finals and lost to dynastic champs. With 63 wins—still a franchise best—these Blazers finished No. 2 in the SRS again, thanks to the No. 3 offense. But they had a rough playoff opening, needing 5 games to dispatch Seattle in a best-of-five series. Portland did drop Utah in a 5-game series, readily, but against the Lakers and Magic Johnson, the Blazers lost in a 6-game series.
Once again, the super trio led the way: Porter (13.0), Drexler (12.4 WS), and Williams (8.5). This team had 7 players with at least 4.2 WS, too, so the depth was there. But the Blazers couldn’t figure out how to win in Seattle during the first-round matchup, and that meant extra effort which came back to haunt them later. The Lakers stole home court with a Game 1 road win by 5 points, and Portland had to play catch-up from there. A one-point Game 6 loss on the road sealed fate.