The Portland Trail Blazers, in 2022, posted their worst season in 16 years, going just 27-55. They head into the 2023 season hoping to rebuild quickly enough to get Damian Lillard one last chance at a deep playoff and possible title run. It may not (probably will not) happen this year, but hope springs eternal.
That “worst season in 16 years” means 2006, a year Portland went 21-61. That year tied for the second-worst mark in team history and represented the worst record in 33 years, going all the way back to 1973 and their third year in existence.
Now normally, I’d not consider years so close to a team’s founding for worst-ever. But in 1972, the Blazers managed not just their worst record in franchise history at 18-64, but they actually regressed by 11 wins after their debut season in the league featured a 29-53 record.
How on earth…? Let’s answer that. I don’t care how new you are. An 11-win regression when you already stunk deserves a deep dive.
The On-Court Record
There were two weird-as-hell stretches in Portland’s 1971-72 campaign.
The first was an eight-game stretch in December when Portland went 4-4. The fun bit? Every one of the four wins was by a single point.
The second was a three-game winning streak right before the All-Star break.
The rest of the season?
In another bit of weirdness, Portland only had one double-digit losing streak, a 12-game skid in February and March that followed a stretch where they won three out of five.
Portland had four stretches of at least five games where they won at least half of them. The first was a 5-5 stretch that included that eight-game lunacy mentioned above. The second, which included the three-game winning streak, ended up a 4-3 stretch. That 3-2 stretch in February is the third. And the fourth and final stretch came in March and involved a two-game win streak creating a 3-3 stretch when it and a single win bookended a three-game skid.
That’s 15-13 in 28 games…and 3-51 in the other 54. Wow. And all with only one double-digit losing streak.
Portland’s Net Rating was minus-8.5. Obviously, they were nowhere near the caliber of a 44-win team like that 15-13 record would buy you. But neither were they a 5-77 team, the end result of a 3-51 pace across 82 games.
In point of fact, they underachieved their expected record by just one win. Wild.
The Featured Players
Dale Schlueter led this team in Win Shares. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was on the 9-73 Sixers team that posted the worst 82-game record in history a year later. That’s a snakebitten player right there.
Sidney Wicks, taken second overall in the 1971 draft, made the All-Star team for the first of four straight years and won Rookie of the Year. Too bad he’s probably better known for being a clubhouse cancer during his two years in Boston later in the decade.
In fact, Portland shipped Wicks out and won the title the very next year.
Geoff Petrie was on this team, and that’s two guys who played their last season in Portland in 1976 after winning Rookie of the Year with the team—Petrie got the honor in 1971 after the Blazers took him eighth overall in the 1970 draft. Unlike Wicks, Petrie’s demise came via injury rather than “get him off this team, he’s a head case.”
And where there’s a bad team, there’s inevitably a guy who played a thousand minutes or more and notched negative Win Shares.
In the ’72 Blazers’ case, that ended up being Charlie Yelverton and his minus-0.5 WS in 1,227 minutes.
How do you get fired when it’s just your second year and you’re coaching an expansion team?
That’s what “making negative progress” bought Rolland Todd. He went 29-53 in 1971. Then he started 12-44 in 1972. And then Todd never coached at any level of pro basketball again.
Stu Inman took over as interim coach, went 6-20, and he too never coached again.
Inman would later serve as an executive in Portland, where he traded Tom Owens to the Indiana Pacers in 1981 for Indiana’s first-rounder in 1984.
Although let’s not be too hard on Inman. He did draft Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, and Terry Porter during his tenure with the franchise. Even though he wasn’t around to reap the rewards, he basically built the team that went to the NBA Finals in 1990 and ’92.
Portland struggled throughout the early and mid-’70s. Their luck of drafting Rookies of the Year ran out in 1972, when Portland spent the first pick on LaRue Martin.
Martin, before Anthony Bennett or Michael Olowokandi (take your pick; either’s a good choice) replaced him as the worst first-overall bust in NBA history, averaged just 4.4 points per game as a rookie. He never cracked the starting lineup as a regular. Martin played over 1,000 minutes just once. And he was out of the league in four years.
If you think the Blazers’ woes drafting big men started with Bowie, don’t forget Martin.
On the bright side, Martin stinking out the joint meant Portland needed a big man in 1974. So that’s when they drafted Bill Walton.
The rest is history, with the Blazers winning the 1977 title. If it hadn’t been for Walton’s injury woes, the Blazers would probably have won it in ’78. They might even have won it in 1979 as well. It wouldn’t be until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came along for the 1979-80 season that you find a legitimate “no way Portland beats them” team. Washington and Seattle weren’t that good.
But an 11-game regression and not one but two coaches whose coaching careers crashed and sank on the rocks of history…wow. 2006 has nothing on 1972 in Portland.
NEXT: Sacramento Kings. A team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2006? Where do we start?
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!