Portland is known for bad luck when drafting centers. People are quick to connect Greg Oden to Sam Bowie, and even LaRue Martin if they want to show off. Bill Walton won a championship with the Blazers so gets excused from the discussion at times, even though the truth is that Portland was poised to compete for several more titles had Walton remained reasonably healthy.
Lost amongst the high profile disappointments are the selections of Arvydas Sabonis in 1986 and Jermaine O’Neal in 1996. Even these players were heart breaking in their own ways: Sabonis because the hobbled but still impressive version of him that showed up showed what could have been had he came earlier, and O’Neal because he became an All-Star after Portland traded him. Injuries then brought O’Neal down as quickly as playing time had lifted him up.
Portland has a history of drafting talented centers that don’t work out as hoped. In some ways the Blazers have an even harder time drafting point guards, at least over the last twenty-five years or so. At the point guard position the trouble seems to be finding competence, not health.
Since selecting Terry Porter in 1985 Portland has struggled to draft a solid point guard. Before Porter quality point guards seemed to come and go with regularity, after Porter the Blazers were lucky to draft a player that could last in the NBA at all. Take a look after the jump. (Note: If a drafted player never made his way to minutes I didn’t bother including him.)
Fat Lever (1982): Played two seasons in Portland before being traded to Denver as part of the deal for Kiki Vandeweghe. Lever became one of the best point guards in the League and is probably the least appreciated player to ever come close to averaging a triple double. (19.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.9 assists in 1988-89.) Where is the love?
Darnell Valentine (1981): Solid enough to start fourteen games as rookie, more during his second season, and then firmly hold the starting job by his third season. Even better, Valentine played his best in the playoffs. Injuries and the rise of Terry Porter made Valentine expendable in the eyes of management and he was traded for the draft pick that became Arvydas Sabonis.
Ronnie Lester (1980): Was traded to Chicago and never played for the Blazers. Since we are doing this I might as well add that Lester was a good player with bad knees. Lute Olson considers Lester the best player he ever coached.
Johnny Davis (1976): Another solid point guard sent packing before his prime; Davis lasted two seasons in Portland before being traded for the draft pick that became Mychal Thompson. Davis is now an assistant coach under Lionel Hollins in Memphis.
Lionel Hollins (1975): Hollins won a title in Portland, was an All-Star in Portland, and was twice named to the All-Defensive team in Portland. Then he was traded for a draft pick that became Al Wood. Yep, that happened. Now he coaches the Grizzlies.
Dave Twardzik (1972): Played four seasons in the ABA before joining the Blazers. Twardzik started for the 1977 championship team and is now Assistant General Manager for the Orlando Magic.
Craig Neal (1988): Was waived by the Blazers in early 1989 and out of the NBA by 1991.
Alvin Williams (1997): I always thought of Alvin Williams as more of a combo-guard, but then again I admit to not thinking about Williams very often. Williams played 43 games as a Blazer before being sent to Toronto as part of the deal for Damon Stoudamire. In 2002 Williams had his best statistical season averaging 13 points and 5 assists.
Even though Williams may not have been a point guard in the rigid sense of the position, and even though his best season was 13 and 5 with another team, he is still probably the best point guard Portland has drafted since Terry Porter.
Next came Erick Barkley (2000), Sebastian Telfair (2004), Taurean Green (2007), and Mike Taylor (2008). I think they are recent enough for me to spare both of us the trouble of recapping how they have fared since being drafted by Portland.
This brings us to Patty Mills, drafted by Portland in 2009. As a second round pick with skills that seemed a poor fit with Portland’s system it was an achievement that Mills even made the roster. (There are theories that Mills was able to hang on because Paul Allen has some sort of crush on him and really loves the Crocodile Dundee movies or something.) During that first season Mills was sent down to the D-League, which was usually a death sentence under the Kevin Pritchard administration.
Mills’ chances of being an impactful Trailblazer failed to improve during his first off-season. He broke his foot and wasn’t able to play in summer league. Meanwhile, rookie point guard to be Armon Johnson was winning supporters.
Mills managed to earn a roster spot with the Blazers once again, but Johnson was getting the majority of back up point guard minutes. Then the rookie faltered just enough for Mills to see the court. The Brandon Roy-less Blazers play a more open style that is a better fit with Mills and he produced. Now Johnson is in the D-League and Mills has been receiving the most consistent minutes of his NBA career, although his game to game contributions have remained erratic.
Mills might seem destined to falter like every other point guard the Blazers have drafted post-Porter. Yet since Mills has survived against the odds before thriving feels possible. If not, there is always another draft and the opportunity to try again. It’s a big ocean.