As the holiday season begins and family and friends gather, it’s important to cherish the things that matter most. Good health. Good food. All our loved ones. And the Portland Trail Blazers.
Yes, even these Trail Blazers have something to offer every fan can be thankful for this time of year.
In this exercise, Oregon Sports News’ Casey Mabbott and Bryant Knox go back and forth “drafting” one thing they’re thankful for when it comes to the Blazers from different eras. We’re starting in the 1990s with Mabbott, then he and Knox alternate picks “snake” style through today’s Rip City experience.
Casey Mabbott (CM): Clifford Robinson (Can I get a headband?!)
It was a lot of fun to be a Blazers fan in the early 90s, but perhaps one of the more memorable things was when the team handed out “Uncle Cliffy” headbands. The team has done a lot of fun promotions in the past, but that was always my favorite. Before LeBron, even before Sheed and the Coolio track about headbands, there was Uncle Cliffy making it cool for kids everywhere to wear a headband.
Honorable mention – the Bust A Bucket song we all remember well
Bryant Knox (BK): Damon Stoudamire
To local folks and short kings everywhere, Damon Stoudamire was a hero. Mighty Mouse played above his size at 5’10”, never shying away from the rim moving downhill, and his Wilson High School roots and Letter To My Younger Self inspired Portland kids and Portland kids-at-heart from 1995 when he was drafted to well after 2008 when he retired.
Honorable Mention: Brian Grant made getting rebounds cool long before Kawhi Leonard declared, “Board man gets paid.” The Rasta Monsta made a career out of hitting the glass, defending Shaq, and being one of the easiest guys to root for in Rip City.
BK: Nate McMillan
“Mr. Sonic” joined the other side of the I-5 Rivalry in 2005 with the unenviable task of ushering Portland out of its Jail Blazers era and into a full-blown rebuild. Despite his unceremonious release from the team in 2012, Nate McMillan did everything within his powers to keep a team going that saw its Big 3 of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden play just 82 total games during the entire run together. The job was never easy for Nate. From dealing with injuries, to dealing with egos at times, to saving singers from National Anthem slipups, this guy represented Rip City as well as anyone could. He never figured out how to get his healthy players to the next level, but it’s easy to be thankful for someone who admirably played the hand he was dealt.
CM: Brandon Roy
The early 2000s were a lonely time to be a Blazers fan, but from 2006 on, you just felt like greatness was lurking around every corner. Sure, leg injuries were always a concern for any Blazers player going back to opening day in 1970, but you take the risk knowing you could see amazing things happen every minute. Roy took over a depressed fan base and gave them something to cheer for, and for the first time since Drexler left for Houston, you felt like everything might just be okay. As good as the late 90s Blazers were, they just didn’t have one player that made you believe great things were going to happen, but Roy made you believe in magic, and perhaps he should have been called the Commodore because he made it look easy like Sunday morning.
CM: Nicolas Batum
Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge were the only season-long starters from the 2010-11 season that survived the black Monday rebuild in 2011-12. Batum was just the guy we needed in Portland to help carry the load during some really lean years. The first and only French-Swiss Army knife, Batum could legitimately play four positions on both ends of the court, something only a handful of guys in the modern era can claim and back up with their play. Having a team player that can legitimately do it all is nearly impossible to find these days, especially when you ask them to play third or fourth fiddle most nights, regardless of who your face of the franchise happens to be in a specific year. No one stuffed the stat sheets quite like Batum, and he’s been missed ever since the team traded him to Charlotte for a bag of used potato chips. His name wasn’t hard to pronounce, but long live “Nick Badum” as he was known by too many professional talking heads outside of Portland.
BK: LaMarcus Aldridge
One of the first things that comes to mind every time I think of LaMarcus Aldridge is the 2014 first-round playoff series against Houston. You remember that series. It’s when we all witnessed Damian Lillard hit “The Shot” with 0.9 seconds left to send the Rockets home. It was Portland’s first playoff series win in 14 years. But as much as we remember the infamous walk-off bomb over Chandler Parsons, Aldridge’s Game 1 (46 points, 18 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Game 2 (43 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks) set the tone.
That’s a common theme for LaMarcus during his time in Portland. Always a bit under the radar, yet always crucial, always elite. It’s a shame he couldn’t come to terms with his role and status alongside Lillard because the two of them together would’ve been easier to build around than Dame and CJ during their primes. But despite any hard feelings from LA’s departure, he’ll always be a Blazers legend, and he remains a legend in the eyes of many.
BK: Damian Lillard
Not choosing Damian Lillard as what we’re thankful for from the 2010s is borderline criminal, but saving him for the 2020s makes perfect sense. This was when the incredible, improbable 2020 Orlando Bubble run took place, giving the Blazers good vibes in what was almost an entirely lost season. He also finally went under the knife two seasons ago to help the team, all before being asked to sit the final ten games to close last year to, once again, help the team. Of course, some say Lillard signed his contract and has nothing to complain about. I can’t quite get there. Dame’s time ran as long as it could in Portland, and Lillard tried hard to make it work with the team and the city that drafted him. The 2020s is obviously when Lillard Time ran out, but it also was symbolic of what Lillard had to go through as the face of the franchise for so long. As Casey wrote following Lillard’s trade this offseason, “Thank you for everything, Mr. Lillard.” It wasn’t easy, but Dame never shied away, and we are thankful for that.
CM: Terry Stotts
There hasn’t been a more perfect fit between coach and players since Rick Adelman. Stotts came here fresh from the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and an offense he had built around Dirk Nowitzki. With Aldridge on the roster, as well as Batum and Wesley Matthews, they had enough star power and veteran presence to help Lillard get ready for the NBA. It seemed like the pieces were in place for a long future of winning, but it turned out to be just two seasons, as Mathews went down with an Achilles injury and Aldrige sent himself to San Antonio. The years after Aldridge were not all great as the team went through an endless cycle of player turnover (the front office was in love with signing role players to overpriced deals and then trading them for more role players while telling the public it’s tough to get value in trades when you have a lot of money tied up), but Stotts became the first coach since Mike Dunleavy Sr in 2000 to lead a Portland team to the Western Conference Finals. His exit was not what he deserved, but it made him the hero we needed as the team went into rebuild mode behind the scenes and eventually brought on a full-scale rebuild, the first one since Black Monday.
CM: Youth Movement
It will probably be a rough couple of years, but I’m really excited about what this team has on paper. Some people weren’t happy to see Dame traded away, but he deserved to go to a contender and play alongside a future hall of famer. The net return isn’t showing on the court yet, but this is year one; you typically don’t see big things from new players until years two and three. Lillard didn’t make the playoffs until his second season, Roy didn’t make the playoffs until his second season, and Walton didn’t make the playoffs until his third season. Sure, Sheed and Clyde Drexler saw the playoffs in their first seasons, but they were lucky to be added to teams already putting together winning seasons. I love what the team has on paper; if they can get even close to that on the court, it will be fun to watch. It may not be on the level of Shaq and Kobe or even Duncan and Parker, but Scoot and Ayton could be one of the best duos in the league in a few years.
Okay…there really isn’t much about these Trail Blazers that’s familiar. But that’s why any semblance of familiarity is entirely worth being thankful for as the franchise resets. Think about it. On the court, there are new faces at every end of the rotation, but the in-arena voice of the Blazers, Mark Mason, reminds you every game that this is still Rip City in every sense of the word. On TV, again, it’s new faces throughout the rotation, but suddenly, a second-year forward in Jerami Grant provides borderline nostalgia compared to most on the roster. From Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd’s broadcast to sights of Shaedon Sharpe soaring through the skies, there are signs of familiarity. You might have to squint sometimes…but they’re there, and they remind you that even the new-look Blazers can provide a little home cooking.