Sunday Brandon Roy was in Dallas taking part in his third All-Star Weekend. A lingering hamstring injury kept him off the court, but it doesn’t diminish the substantial achievement: Roy is the first Blazer since Clyde Drexler to be selected to three straight All-Star teams. Now, The Glide was my boyhood hero. As such, he sets the gold standard for all subsequent Trail Blazer wings. Drexler slashed, defended, floated, glided, and led Portland to the finals—twice. While he was a Blazer (1983-94), the team never missed the playoffs. Clyde was an original member of the Dream Team, a 10 time all star, the Western Conference’s answer to Michael Jordan, an NBA Champion (albiet with the Rockets), a first ballot Hall of Fame selection and named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. These acolades shape the lens through which I view all Trail Blazer wings. Drexler’s greatness tints how I look at Portland’s new three time All-Star, Brandon Roy.
Now when talking about legends like Drexler and how they might compare to the stars of today, the conversation cannot be based on raw box score statistics alone. The Drexler-era Blazers played at a much faster pace. For instance, the Blazers averaged 103.5 possessions per game through Drexler’s first four seasons according to Basketball-Reference. In contrast, during Roy’s four year tenure, the Blazers averaged just 87.6 possessions per game. If Roy were to play at Drexler’s pace, Roy’s per game statistics last year adjust from 22.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 1.1 steals, to 26.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1.3 steals. As you can see, these are more Drexler-like numbers. (For more on the issue of pace, Tom Haberstroh of HoopData wrote a great article on the deception of pace last week that does a great job of exploring just how much pace inflates statistics.)
Therefore, to be fair to both parties, when making a comparison across decades, it is best to use pace adjusted statistics to help avoid the problem of pace differential. Of course, there are many more differences between the NBA of Drexler’s era and that of Roy’s. In Drexler’s time, it was ok for defenders to hand-check the opposing player to help stop penetration, while zones defenses were outlawed. Now even the slightest hand-checking leads to a quick whistle and zones have been re-introduced. Rules are only part of the game. Today, players are bigger, faster, stronger, and pulled from a larger world-wide talen pool. In his day, Drexler was an athletic marvel and his teammate Drazen Petrovic was one of the first European success stories in the league. However, many of these variables are difficult to quantify, so we’ll stick with the pace adjustment with the knowledge that the comparison, while apples-to-apples, may be “granny smith to fuji.”
Now, all current advanced basketball metrics have their flaws, but I have chosen to use John Hollinger’s player efficiency rating (PER) and Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares, because both are pace adjusted and readily available. Two metrics should also help balance each other’s flaws.
According to Hollinger’s system, Clyde Drexler’s best season in terms of PER was 1987-88 where he put up a PER of 24.1. Brandon Roy, last season put up a PER of 24. In the 87-88 season Drexler earned 13.2 Win Shares (9.3 offensive and 3.9 defensive). Last season Roy earned 13.5 Win Shares (10.9 offensive and 2.6 defensive). Both players had virtually identical usage rates.
Looking at the advanced statistics for each player’s best season, it is clear that Drexler better at snagging rebounds and getting steals and blocks while Roy is a better shooter and scorer, a more effective passer, and less likely to turn the ball over. Drexler had an offensive rating of 118 and a defensive rating of 106, Roy had an incredible offensive rating of 123 (for reference sake LeBron James’ best offensive rating so far is 122, Jordan’s best ever was a 125) and a defensive rating of 109. The offensive and defensive ratings of each player confirm what we already observe. Roy is an offensive force, but he needs to step up his defense on a regular basis to attain that ultimate echelon status. Clyde was a better defender, but he wasn’t the shooter that Roy is.
Therefore, based on PER and Win Shares, last season Roy was as good as Drexler ever was, albeit in different ways. Drexler was the slasher, the high flyer, running the court with grace and speed. Roy is the deceptively athletic scorer with the old man game and herky-jerky crossover. Clyde did his damage at the rim, in the post, and in the midrange. Roy can do all that and shoot the three. Both get to the line at similar rates.
Now, the caveat here is that Drexler was consistently excellent; his’s resume as highlighted above, is long and broad. Roy will have to keep up last year’s level of production for the next decade to compare to Drexler. However, Roy has rivaled some of Drexler’s single game accolades already. 50+ points in a game? Check. A 40+ point playoff outburst? Check, 10 steals? Check. Triple Doubles? Check. In addition, Roy has shown himself to be a clutch, cold blooded assassin. He is one of the best fourth quarter scorers in the league and has given Portland a highlight reel of last second buzzer beaters and even a few clutch defensive plays. Notably absent from Roy’s resume is a playoff series victory, much less an NBA Finals appearance. However, playoff success has more to do with the team as a whole than the individual player. Drexler’s supporting cast consisted of Terry Porter, Buck Williams, Kevin Duckworth, and Cliff Robinson; all of these players were All-Stars at some point in their career, all but Buck Williams were All-Stars while with Portland. Roy has yet to have a teammate join him at the All-Star game.
Before Roy’s selection, Portland had gone seven years without any All-Stars. Now, it is almost guaranteed that he will be selected by the coaches. Roy may never get voted in by the fans, but absent injury, Roy figures to be one of the top shooting guards in the league for the foreseeable future.
What would Roy have to do to rise above Drexler in the pantheon of Trail Blazer greats? Well, absent winning multiple titles, he probably won’t. To simply match Drexler, Roy must continue playing at the breakneck pace he did last season for many years to come.