Greatest Portland Trail Blazers in Team History

| by David Berri

The previous post on Maurice Lucas focused on the greatest power forwards in Blazer history.  In the process of writing this post I had to look at the productivity of every power forward who ever played for Portland.  And that process involved looking at every Blazer in the history of the team.

Actually, let me amend that statement.  The data needed to calculate Wins Produced only goes back to 1977-78.  We can try and estimate what a player likely did (as I did for Lucas and Sidney Wicks).  But I haven’t done this for every player in the NBA yet.  So my list of greatest players in Blazer history – reported in the following table — starts with the 77-78 season. 

Before we discuss the numbers, let me note that a player needed to play at least four seasons in Portland – and average 20 minutes per game – to qualify for the list.  These benchmarks were chosen because the players who received fan votes at all seemed to cross these thresholds (plus I wanted to limit the size of the table).

Our discussion of the above numbers begins with the selections of Portland’s fans.  These fans said the following players were the best in team history:

PG: Terry Porter (54.5% of the vote)

SG: Clyde Drexler (91.2% of the vote)

SF: Kiki Vandeweghe (60.8% of the vote)

PF: Rasheed Wallace (43.5% of the vote)

C: Bill Walton (85.5% of the vote)

It appears that Blazer fans and Wins Produced agree about the point guard and shooting guard positions.  Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler produced more wins at these positions than any other player; although Rod Strickland – with a 0.215 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]– is essentially as productive as Porter [0.214 WP48] on a per-minute basis.  So the 37.2% of fans who selected Strickland might have an argument (although as I note below, Porter did have an amazing season in 1990-91). 

And although Bill Walton doesn’t appear in the above list, those who selected Walton at center are also on fairly solid ground.  Across the time period considered, Walton only played one season for the Blazers (that is why he is not listed).  In 1977-78 he posted the following numbers: 16.3 Wins Produced, 0.405 WP48.  This was all done in 58 games.  Walton was hurt after the 60th game of that season.  At that time the Blazers’ record was 50-10.  Without Walton the team went 8-14.  In other words, with Walton the Blazers were the best team in the NBA.  Without Walton, the Blazers would have had trouble making the playoffs (the Warriors missed the playoffs that season with a mark of 43-39). 

Again, we don’t have all the information we need to measure Wins Produced before 1977. Specifically we are missing turnover data.  But given what we know about Walton we can estimate how many turnovers he probably committed.  Consequently we can estimate what Walton did for the Blazers.

1974-75: 6.6 Wins Produced, 0.277 WP48

1975-76: 7.8 Wins Produced, 0.223 WP48

1976-77: 17.0 Wins Produced, 0.361 WP48

1977-78: 16.3 Wins Produced, 0.405 WP48

Totals with Blazers: 47.8 Wins Produced, 0.326 WP48

Walton’s Wins Produced total only ranks 6th in team history [again, history begins in 1977-78].  But his WP48 mark is easily the best in team history.  So although Arvydas Sabonis produced more wins at the center position for the Blazers, I think one can easily argue that Walton is the “best” center in Portland history (and the primary reason the Blazers won the only NBA championship in franchise history).

So Wins Produced and the fans appear to agree at the one, two, and five spots.  At the small forward spot, though, there is a clear disagreement.  The fans prefer Kiki Vandeweghe, who came to the Blazers in 1984.  With the Blazers, Vandeweghe played until February of 1989 and averaged 23.5 points per game.  Scoring – as is often mentioned – drives perceptions of performance in the NBA.  Vandeweghe, though, was a classic unproductive scorer.   He only produced 12.0 wins for Portland, and his WP48 was only 0.059 (although he was 6-8 in height, he was apparently allergic to rebounds). In contrast, Jerome Kersey produced 13.6 wins in one year (the 1989-90 season).  Overall, Kersey produced 85.9 wins for Portland, with a 0.190 WP48.

One might note that the most of the “most productive” Blazers played on the same team. The 1990-91 Blazers had an efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 8.3.  This mark was the best mark in team history, and easily bests the mark of the 1976-77 championship team (5.0 differential, which was better than the 76ers and everyone else that season, but only ranked 8th in franchise history).  The 1990-91 team started the following players:

PG: Terry Porter: 0.377 WP48

SG: Clyde Drexler: 0.337 WP48

SF: Jerome Kersey: 0.185 WP48

PF: Buck Williams: 0.231 WP48

C: Kevin Duckworth: -0.062 WP48

Obviously the weak link was Duckworth (who 0.9% of fans thought was the best center in Portland history).  Sabonis was originally drafted by the Blazers in 1986. Had he arrived by the 1990-91 season (he didn’t come to the team until 1995) – and if Sabonis posted a WP48 of 0.276 (what he averaged in his career with the Blazers) – I think the Blazers would have been better than the 1990-91 Bulls (who had a differential of 10.6).  In other words, the Blazers – with Sabonis – might have won the title in 1991. 

With Duckworth, though, the Bulls were the better team.  And that means that Kersey and Williams are not generally seen as great players.

And this is especially true with respect to Buck Williams. Here is Henry Abbott’s response to my discussion of Maurice Lucas:

David Berri says that the best power forward in Blazer history was not my candidate, Maurice Lucas, but Buck Williams. The difference, fair or not, is that Lucas was the inspirational leader of a title team, while Williams was a role player on a two-time runner-up. No, that doesn’t prove Lucas was more productive. Yes, I think it does give Lucas a special place in history, and a reputation that may extend beyond his production.

What if Sabonis played back in 1990-91 with the Blazers and that team won the title? Would the perspective on Williams change?  My sense is that a ring on his finger would make Williams appear to be a better player.  And I think that is incorrect.  A player should be evaluated independent of his teammates.  Lucas got to play with Walton, and that means Lucas got to win a title.  Sabonis could have come to the Blazers in 1989, but decided to play in the Spanish League instead.  As a result, Williams didn’t get his title.  The decision made by Sabonis, though, shouldn’t change how we perceive the value of Williams (but of course, I think it does).

- DJ