By Patrick Rogers, Oregon Sports News
Recently, Bill Simmons was speaking about the best Portland Trail Blazers of all time. He said Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler were better franchise players than Damian Lillard. I admit I was an avid Bill Simmons listener and reader, but he’s completely wrong in this case. I will tear his direct quotes apart, proving that he needs to revisit his opinion on Damian Lillard.
First up, Bill Walton.
I think [Bill Walton] is the greatest ‘what-if?’ guy of the last 50 years. He was the best player on the planet for 18 months. How we feel about Jokic right now, we felt about Bill Walton all of the ’77 season into the first 60 games of ’78 when they went 50-10, and he got hurt, and that was it.
There’s no denying that Bill Walton’s ability was ahead of its time. He was one of the very few big men who could pass the ball while also having the IQ to read defenses and pass lanes. However, Bill forgot perhaps the OTHER center in the league, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In that 1976 season, Kareem averaged 26.2 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game, 3.2 blocks per game, and 3.9 assists per game. He led the league in field goal percentage at 58%. He didn’t lead the league in the per-game categories of rebounds or blocks because he played more games than Walton.
For Lillard, he’s been constantly overshadowed by Steph Curry, and for good reason. Much like Kareem, Steph was a game-changer on and off the court. I’m willing to bet your dad has done the “Sky Hook” to you as a child, just like you or your kids have pulled up from half-court like Steph. While Dame has been in the top three for three-pointers made since 2020, Steph will always overshadow him. I’ll explain in the following quote why Portland’s success with Walton hinged on a significant factor that Dame hasn’t had yet.
I had him in, I think, in the low 30s [of greatest NBA player rankings]because [of]the fact he won a title in Portland with a team built around everything that he was great at. On paper, maybe the great center ever in terms of total package. [Bill] Russell is the greatest center. [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] is the second-best center.
Returning to that 1977 championship, the Blazers swept the Lakers in the playoffs that year, but this Lakers team wasn’t the “world beaters” with players like Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Cazzie Russell was their second-best player. Now, I’ll admit, as a basketball fan, I have no idea who that was. Why would I? Russell was a one-time All-Star and made the All-Rookie team in 1966. Do you know what Walton had? Perhaps Maurice Lucas is the most underappreciated player in Blazer history (minus Joel Pryzbilla, kidding). Lucas could bang down low with the bigs, peaking at 11.4 rebounds per game in the 1976 season. This allowed Walton to play the perimeter more, thus leading to more assists, while also allowing Walton to hawk defensively for rebounds himself and blocks on unsuspecting players. He was second on that team in Win Shares behind Walton at 8.2 (team leader in points scored at 20.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game), while his cohort Cazzie Russell amassed a 6.6 Win Share, averaging 16.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game.
Let’s not act like Walton didn’t have help. While I agree that the team was built correctly around Walton, that’s not something that Kareem, Bill Russell, or any player at the time could control. I argue that Kareem was better than Russell, but we’re defending Dame here. Dame has yet to have that great second player. The closest he came to win shares was during that 2017 season when Nurkic was at 7.8 win shares. After that, no other players have flirted with that since Dame has been on the Trail Blazers. It’s tough to win championships when you’re the only scoring option on a team; ask Allen Iverson or Carmelo Anthony.
But if you’re just talking about tools and ceiling and what a center can do on both ends, everything, doing the stuff [Nikola] Jokic did in the playoffs combined with shot-blocking and rebounding — he has to be the greatest Blazer ever. He’s the only one that won them a title. I’m sorry. That wins.”
Bill Walton is the only player in the history of the game that got in based on the ceiling. If you look at his career averages, he finished around 13 points, ten rebounds, and three assists per game. Nowadays, that’s the middle of the road center, or as we know him, Jusuf Nurkic. While we’re on the topic, what about Brandon Roy or Greg Oden? Roy was a promising 21-point-per-game scorer until his knee blew out. Oden was heralded as the best center prospect until his body broke down after he was drafted. Saying that the reason Walton is in the Hall of Fame is because his ceiling was so high is not a viable argument as to why he’s better than Lillard. After all, most people agree that Lillard will also make the Hall of Fame, given he was selected to the All-NBA 75th Anniversary Team.
We also forget that Walton wanted out of Portland after four seasons and was granted that. I understand that championships are everything, but if you’re looking at a career in one place, Lillard has been with the Blazers for eleven years, and you could argue with better numbers too. The only thing he doesn’t have is a championship, and that’s not his fault. You cannot name one transaction that brought a player of Maurice Lucas’ caliber over to the Blazers to help Dame win a championship. Great teams, not great players, win championships. Even LeBron had running mates like Wade and Bosh, Kobe had Pau Gasol, and Steph had Klay and Draymond, but the Blazers’ front office thought they could win with Dame and CJ McCollum or Jerami Grant. Give me Dame as a better Blazer than Walton all day.
Clyde Drexler was the lead of the 80’s and 90’s Blazers, showing off his insane athleticism and defensive prowess as a shooting guard. The consensus at the time was Clyde was the second-best shooting guard in the league, behind Michael Jordan, which isn’t a knock on Clyde. At his peak, Clyde had a two-year run starting in the 1987 season, where he averaged 27 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, and 5.8 assists per game, with 2.6 steals per game as well. He led the Blazers to the Finals twice in his twelve career with the Trail Blazers, losing each time to the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons.
Let’s pick apart the quote above to prove that Damian Lillard is a better TrailBlazer.
“Clyde was the MVP runner-up in ’92 to Jordan. I think [Lillard] was fourth once.”
Bill is correct that Damian Lillard finished 4th in MVP voting during the 2018 season. He fails to mention that Dame finished 6th in 2019, 7th in 2020, 8th in 2015, and 2019. In Clyde’s runner-up year (25.0 PPG, 6.6 TRB, 6.7 AST), you could argue that David Robinson (23.2 PPG, 12.2 TRB, 2.3 STL, 4.5 BPG) and Karl Malone (28.0 PPG, 11.2 TBR, 3.0 APG) should have finished above Clyde. Also, while Clyde did finish 5th in the 1987 season and 6th in the 1990 season, he didn’t crack the top ten in MVP shares in his four other years of gathering votes. Dame has the edge here. So what if Clyde was the runner-up? Do both Dame and Clyde get zero accolades for not finishing first?
Clyde made two Finals in 1990 and ’92 while, I think, the single most competitive time in the history of the league: 1990 to 1993. Clyde and the Blazers beat the Lakers; they dethroned the Lakers. Only two teams did that in the entire ’80s in the West: the ’86 Rockets, who were a complete fluke with [Ralph] Sampson and Hakeem [Olajuwon], and then the ’90 Blazers.
I’m unsure what constitutes the “most competitive time in the league’s history.” Being in a time where Steph Curry, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Luka Doncic are your fellow competitors would be just as tough as it was back then, but that’s an opinion. Putting some facts behind my opinion, Giannis, Jokic, LeBron, and Steph have seven of the top twelve best seasons ever by Player Efficiency Rating of all time. To further back that up, these record-breaking seasons happened within the past ten years. Michael Jordan is the only player from that era to crack that list, and he did it four years in a row from 1987-1990. To clarify my standing, players are more efficient than ever, meaning players nowadays can’t afford the mistakes of the past.
He mentions that the only team to beat the Lakers back then was a “flukey” Rockets team, even though Olajuwon is considered a top-three center of all time, as well as the Blazers in 1990. This brings up another great point in Dames’s favor. We all know that Lillards supporting cast has been league-average at best. Utilizing win shares, which calculates a players contribution to a win, let’s take a look at Clyde’s team that year versus Dame’s most successful team, the 2018 Blazers:
|Player – Win Share||Player – Win Share|
|Clyde Drexler – 12.8||Damian Lillard – 12.1|
|Terry Porter – 10.6||Jusuf Nurkic – 7.8|
|Buck Williams – 9.2||Al Farouq-Aminu – 5.8|
|Jerome Kersey – 6.8||CJ McCollum – 5.6|
|Danny Ainge – 5.2||Mo Harkless – 3.4|
|Cliff Robinson – 4.6||Jake Layman – 3.1|
|Kevin Duckworth – 3.3||Meyers Leonard – 3.0|
|Alana Abdelanaby – 2.1||Zach Collins – 2.9|
|Mark Bryant – 2.1||Seth Curry – 2.4|
Dame has never had the team that Clyde did. Simply put, Dame’s never had a Terry Porter. The only two players that come to mind that dragged a subpar team to the Finals was LeBron in his early days of the Cavs, when Zydrunas Ilgauskas was his second-best player, and Allen Iverson, with a broken down Dikembe Mutombo and “sharpshooter” Aaron McKie spacing the floor.
Clyde was basically 25 [points], seven [rebounds], and seven [assists]for it felt like eight [or]nine years. … He was the second-best guard of [Michael] Jordan’s entire generation. He made the All-NBA Team — First Team once, Second Team twice, Third Team three times.”
Clyde only eclipsed the 25-point-per-game threshold twice in his career (1987-1988). Also, looking from the 1987 season to the 1994 season (eight years), Clyde averaged 23.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game, and six assists per game, under what Bill had mentioned. For fun, I looked at Lillard’s past eight years, which would also be the best of his career, and his averages are slightly better. Granted, Lillard plays point guard and is smaller than Drexler, so his rebound numbers are lower. Regardless, Lillard averaged 27.5 points per game (four more points), 4.5 rebounds per game (two less), and seven assists per game (one more). He’s put up these numbers without the cast that Drexler had. Lillard has had a better career with the Blazers than Drexler.
On top of Dame averaging better statistics than Clyde, he’s also garnered more All-NBA selections than Clyde. Lillard has made First Team once (2018), Second Team four times (2016, 2017, 2019, 2020), and Third Team twice (2013 and 2022).
To wrap this all up, Drexler and Walton had great supporting casts that vaulted them into championship contention. Lillard’s best teammate in his tenure with the Blazers was 2018 Jusuf Nurkic, who is a far cry from Terry Porter or Maurice Lucas. The current-day Blazers suffer from just being good. Their players are decent, but they’re not the best. This keeps putting them in the 7th through 10th seed area every year. Other than Dame, the players that they have are just average. There is some promise with Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson, but until they mature, they will be stuck in the middle of the league for years to come.
Damian Lillard is the greatest Portland Trail Blazer of all time. Not Clyde Drexler or Bill Walton.