The Portland Trail Blazers, since 1977, have missed the playoffs just eight times. They were just two wins away from making three straight NBA Finals between 1990 and 1992, losing to Magic Johnson and the Lakers in six games in the Western Conference Finals in 1991.
Other than a lost decade between 2004 and 2013 that featured just three playoff appearances sandwiched with a five-year playoff absence before 2009 and a two-year drought after 2011, the only year they missed the playoffs was 1982.
“Since 1977” is the key to all of this. Portland missed the playoffs in each of their first six seasons after being expanded into the NBA for the 1970-71 season, but a combination of young talent starting to mature and getting hot at the right time, the stage was set for the team’s first playoff appearance to go all the way to the championship, a lofty height they have approached but never matched in the 44 years since.
Fun fact: If you want to know how old I am, just ask “how long since the Blazers last won the title?” I was born during the 1977 offseason. Unfortunately, I don’t get to go back to being a kid if the Blazers win it all again. I get to march steadily toward the grave whether Damian Lillard makes a 3-pointer in the playoffs or not.
Anyway, digression over. On with the show.
The On-Court Record
Portland has had plenty of better regular seasons than the one they had in 1977. They went 49-33, but they were far better than their record. With the NBA expanding to 22 teams by absorbing four ABA teams after the 1976 season, this actually made things more difficult for the old NBA teams. The San Antonio Spurs made the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets won their division. And the Philadelphia 76ers got to poach Julius Erving, which touched off a nine-year run of excellence that led them to the 1977 NBA Finals that the Blazers won for the title.
Still, Portland was second in offense, fifth in defense, and had the best Net Rating in the NBA. Their expected record was 55-27, best in the league; they underachieved by six games.
Portland ending up the 3 seed meant they had to play a first-round best-of-three series. Basketball had a playoff system similar to pro football before 2020. The two division winners got a first-round bye while the 3 seed played the 6 seed and the 4 played the 5.
Chicago was the 6 seed; Portland beat them in the full three games.
The Blazers then got the 2 seed Nuggets in the conference semis, winning Game 1 on the road by a single point, 101-100. The teams held serve the rest of the way, as classic an “underdog in 6” series as they come.
Finally, the resurgent Lakers, back in the playoffs after a two-year absence thanks to acquiring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, posed the final roadblock. Portland turned the roadblock into nothing more than a speed bump, sweeping the Lakers in the conference finals.
Then, when the NBA Finals came around, even though Dr. J scored 30.3 points a game, Portland neutralized the rest of Philadelphia’s attack and won the series in six.
The Featured Players
Bill Walton is one of the most enigmatic Hall of Famers in NBA history. When he was healthy, he was dominant; his ability to neutralize opposing big men was a big part of why Portland swept the Lakers in the conference finals and beat Philly—who wouldn’t win a title of their own until they got Moses Malone for the 1983 campaign—for all the marbles.
Walton averaged 18.6 points and 14.4 rebounds per game on 52.8 percent shooting. His .215 WS/48 was powered as much by his defense (4.8 of his WS were defensive) as his offense (5.4; 10.2 WS total.) He posted 5.0 VORP, the only Blazer to break three that year.
Maurice Lucas, in just his third year in the league, was the top scorer, scoring 20.2 points per game and adding 11.4 rebounds of his own. Even though the advanced stats weren’t kind to Lucas’ defensive game, he still posted 2.1 VORP in his first NBA season after starting his career in the ABA.
By advanced stats, Bob Gross, at 2.8 VORP, was Portland’s second-best player. The 23-year-old shooting guard put up a .580 TS% and .159 WS/48 on top of that solid VORP number. It was a classic case of someone making the most of limited shots. Gross scored 11.4 points on just 8.7 FGA per game, hitting 52.9 percent of his field goals and making 85.1 percent of his shots at the line.
Speaking of ABA refugees, Dave Twardzik came to Portland in the ABA dispersal draft after playing for the Virginia Squires for four years. He posted 2.5 VORP and .186 WS/48, both the best of his career by a mile. His .689 TS% led the NBA. Shooting 61.2 percent from the field (3.6 out of 5.8 shots per game) and 84.2 percent from the line will do that for someone. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that Twardzik was a point guard, but he certainly wasn’t a traditional floor general, scoring 10.3 points and dishing just 3.3 assists per game.
Portland’s other two key contributors were Lionel Hollins (1.2 VORP) and Larry Steele (1.5 VORP); below the sixth man, there was a lot of dropoff. Still, Portland’s starters were so good that even though they went ten deep with a six-deep team, they still won 49 games and stepped up in the playoffs. Portland massively shortened their rotation, and in the Finals they largely went seven deep, with only the six guys already mentioned plus Lloyd Neal playing more than 15 minutes per game.
The legendary Dr. Jack Ramsay helmed this Portland team. He got his start coaching the Philadelphia 76ers from 1969 to 1972, skipping town just in time for the bottom to drop out of the Sixers and for them to go 9-73 in 1973.
Ramsay landed in Buffalo, where the Braves franchise had their third straight awful season to start their existence as a team. They went 21-61 after matching 22-60 records in 1971 and ’72, but as Bob McAdoo matured, the Braves made the East semis three straight years from 1974 to ’76.
Ramsay then decamped to Portland, where he would coach for 10 seasons, making the playoffs nine times and winning that title in ’77. One can only speculate what Portland could have done had Walton stayed healthy, but Ramsay’s coaching was good enough to keep them perpetually above water even as their title team crumbled as the ’70s yielded to the ’80s.
He ended his coaching career with two full seasons in Indiana; he was fired after starting the 1988-89 season 0-7 and hung up his clipboard at age 63, building a second career in broadcasting as one of the elder statesmen of the game before passing away at the age of 89 in 2014.
Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Kevin Porter, and the rest of the late-80s/early-90s Blazers peaked at the wrong time. Their first Finals appearance, in 1990, ended at the hands of the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons. They made the Finals again in 1992, running face-first into Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Drexler ended up in Houston a couple of years later, getting a ring in 1995. The rest of the core aged out of the league, and that was that.
Portland had another brief resurgence in 1999 and 2000 with a different group helmed by the likes of Arvydas Sabonis, adding veterans Detlef Schrempf and Scottie Pippen on the downside of their careers. They made the conference finals in both seasons, and Blazers fans will argue to this day that they were screwed by the league and by the referees in their 2000 conference-final loss to the Lakers.
And finally, another honorable mention goes to the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum-led teams of the late 2010s, who had the misfortune of having their playoff window coincide with the Golden State Warriors’ otherworldly five-year run between 2015 and 2019. Three times in those five years, the Blazers’ playoff hosts were extinguished by the menace from Oakland.
Portland barely made the playoffs in 2020 and ’21, needing to win play-in games to get into the tournament and then falling in the first round. It seems they’ll have to rebuild once again, but if franchise history is anything to go by, it’s only a matter of time before they’re still in the playoffs on Memorial Day once again.
But the ultimate high-water mark is still that miracle run of a Hall of Famer and his ABA refugee buddies who took the world by storm for one glorious year.
NEXT: Sacramento Kings. From Eastman Kodak to Big Shot Rob, a deep cut history is coming tomorrow. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!