No. 8: Portland Trail Blazers


Next time somebody tells you about the importance of playoff experience, remind them of the 1977 Trail Blazers. Talk about inexperienced: The franchise had never even been to a playoff game or had a winning season before that year. Nonetheless, the combination of a dominating center in Bill Walton, a bruising forward in Maurice Lucas and a series of well-adapted complementary players produced a beautiful, flowing style and a surprise championship.

Portland has spent the three decades since trying to recreate the euphoria surrounding that team, coming close several times but never quite succeeding. The 1977-78 team had a chance to be even better before Walton and Bobby Gross were lost to injuries late in the year; they won a league-best 58 games but lost in the second round of the playoffs. Walton couldn't stay healthy and eventually went to San Diego as a free agent.

Despite 24 winning seasons and 26 playoff appearances (including 21 consecutive) in the 32 seasons since that championship, the Blazers have been more good than great ever since. In fact, the Blazers were amazingly consistent in their own bizarre way in the years after their championship, as 17 times in 26 seasons they made the playoffs and lost in the first round.

The best shot at another crown came during the Clyde Drexler era, when the star guard and an ensemble of not-quite-All-Stars made two NBA Finals (1990, 1992); unfortunately, their best team in that stretch was the 1991 squad that was upset by L.A. in the conference finals.

The Blazers rebuilt on the fly and had another great shot nearly a decade later, reaching the Western Conference finals in consecutive seasons with a big, deep ensemble cast led by Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Grant and (in the second year) Scottie Pippen and Steve Smith. Unfortunately they couldn't hold a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in L.A. in the 2000 Western Conference finals, one of the great collapses in NBA history.

From there, the Blazers became their own worst enemy. A series of player arrests and transgressions that could only be described as prolific saw them dubbed the "Jail Blazers;" Wallace stayed out of cuffs but did his part by shattering the league technical-foul record. Portland needed half a decade to clean up its act, suffering its only sustained playoff drought since the expansion years. They finally made it back in 2009 only to meet an amazingly familiar fate: yet another first-round playoff defeat.

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