In his autobiography, Living the Dream, Olajuwon mentions an intriguing draft trade offered to the Rockets that would have sent Clyde Drexler and the number two pick in the 1984 NBA draft from Portland in exchange for Ralph Sampson. Had the Rockets made the deal, Olajuwon states the Rockets could have selected Michael Jordan with the number two pick to play alongside Olajuwon and Drexler, who had established chemistry playing together during their Phi Slama Jama days in college.
We will get into the potential ramifications of that very real possible trade later in the article. Let’s first start with the choice Portland had on draft night and where they controlled their own destiny. If you haven’t read the other Parts of our Alternative History series, you can here and here.
As we all know, Portland would draft Sam Bowie #2 ahead of Jordan. What needs to be stress along with Bowies stress fractures, was that at this time in the NBA’s history, the big man was everything. The prevailing thought was to be a title contender, you pretty much needed a great big man dominating on at least one side of the ball, and for the most part that was very true.
Portland had won their only title 7 years earlier behind Bill Walton, and he would win the MVP the following year. Jack Ramsey was the coach of Walton and those teams and is still the coach in 1984. He undoubtedly was an influence on this pick as was GM Stu Inman who drafted Walton. Ramsey and Inman should have also understood, that by that point, big men and foot injuries usually don’t end well.
There was obviously less evidence of this at the time than now, but they had evidence on their face, as foot injuries had already derailed Walton’s career while in Portland. It caused him to miss 4 full seasons, huge portions of all but one of his 14-year career. They had already seen him hurt for 10 years straight, and half of them with Portland. If ANY organization should have had first-hand knowledge of and skepticism of the recovery of a big man with foot injuries, this is the organization that should have passed.
Does anyone notice any redflags here? Yes, he missed the 2 of the previous 3 years when he was drafted entirely, but what is mind-blowing to me is that when he came back he obviously wasn’t as good. It would be one thing if you were to draft the 20 year old fully healthy guy that averaged 17.4ppg, 9.1rpg, and 2.9blocks. Portland was drafting a 23-year old that averaged 10.5ppg and had seen his block rate tumble to under 2 a game.
I think It’s pretty egregious to draft him here, even if there was never a Jordan behind him. You contrast that to a healthy 2 years younger Michael Jordan at the time and it’s stunning even in the context of the times when the big man ruled. Jordan had won the National Player of the Year 2 times and hit the game winning shot for a national champion and they drafted a 23 year old that averaged 10ppg instead.
Inman was the GM of the Blazers at the time, he had been with them since the early 70’s. Inman and Ramsey had built the championship team and a consistent winner, even with Walton missing significant time or entire seasons all 5 years he was there. They still had winning records and were in the playoffs 7 of the previous 8 years, including a title.
What is so head scratching is Inman was a very good GM. what is never credited to him is even having the #2 pick to blow. The Blazers won 48 games in 1984 and the pick wasn’t their own and actually heisted off the Pacers in 1981 for 32 year old Tom Owens. Owens averaged 10ppg and 5rpg that season and he turned that into the #2 pick in the greatest draft ever that produced Olajuwon, Jordan, Barkley and Stockton.
There is a lot of good on Inman’s resume, including drafting an all-time great like Drexler at #14th the prior season. He drafted All Star Terry Porter with the 24th on a pick he had traded to get. He drafted 17 year vet Kersey at 46th, and Arvydas Sabonis at 77th. He drafted 2 time All Star Fat Lever at 11th. It’s almost amazing a GM with the draft record of finds like these could have missed so badly on Bowie/Jordan. Unfortunately, Bowie is the choice that he will always be remembered for, and there isn’t much defending it.
We have the basics out of the way, let’s assume Inman who was a good GM and Drafter otherwise comes to his sense or someone convinces him to draft Jordan. We will now explore how a partnership with Clyde Drexler could have looked. What is lucky for us is Portland was already a good team and winning. It likely would have drafted in similar areas of the draft the first 5 or so years to what they did even with Jordan was on the team. The supporting cast should be the same.
Porter and Kersey for sure would have been drafted. Two very good players in the same age window as Drexler and Jordan in our hypothetical to grow with them. What is cool here is that we will get to focus on the early part of Jordan’s career more where he likely would have been winning sooner whereas other editions were all about the 1990’s.
The Blazers were actually pretty stacked coming off a 48 win season in 1984. In real history, without Jordan they would go 42-40 this season. The way Jordan busts on the scene averaging 28ppg as a rookie, it’s safe to assume they would have been much better, likely around a 50 win team. They would advance to the 2nd round even without Jordan where they would lose to the eventual Champion Lakers.
As you can see, this was a pretty ready-made team to contend with. Not only that they were all still pretty young as well. Vandeweghe and Paxon were recent All Stars in 1983 and 1984. Mcyhal Thompson was a former #1 pick who had a very accomplished career. There really aren’t any bad players on this team almost all of them are solid and there is actually a lot of youth for Jordan to have grown with. The fit is really the only issue, with Vandewegh needing to play Power Forward and being completely incapable of rebounding by this point. 3.2rpg in 34.8 minutes has to be some sort of record in futility. It would only get worse the next season 2.7rpg in 35.3 minutes. Still, he was a valuable player that would average 24 to 27ppg through the mid 80’s and would have had value to trade if needed given the way he scored and his age. I think it’s safe to assume even this version is a 50 win type team but one that loses to the Lakers.
This was the year Jordan would have his own broken foot and miss the majority of the season and only play 25 minutes a game while Bowie had actually been healthy year one. Jordan however, ready for the playoffs would average 43.7ppg vs the Celtics.
The Blazers were 40-42 without him and lost in the first round of the Playoffs to Denver. You have to think with him back and playing like he did in the playoffs they would have advanced and may have even beat the Rockets in the 2nd round. The Rockets were able to advance to the finals with Olajuwon and Sampson that season over the Lakers but would lose to the Celtics. It’s possible this could have been the first season Portland makes the finals but I’m going to say it’s more likely the Lakers and Rockets were still better at this point and that even if they had advanced, the Celtic would have still won the title. I also have a hard time seeing how they would stop Kareem, Sampson or Olajuwon and they all played big in these playoffs in the west. Arvydas Sabonis was drafted in 1985 but unfortunately wouldn’t come over until 1995.
This season would see the emergence of Terry Porter future 2 time All Star drafted in 1985 and the addition of Kevin Duckworth through a trade who would go on to be a 2 time All Star as well. Vandeweghe is still scoring like crazy and allergic to rebounds as ever. This is really the breakout year for Jordan. Obviously, if Vanderweghe is still around he’s not scoring 37ppg nor would Vandeweghe averaged 27. Jordan would have had less usage with an actual talented team around him not the hapless Bulls he was trying to carry this season. The fit between Vanderweghe, Drexler, and Jordan was always be untenable, but at this point they really would need to trade Vanderwegh this season to optimize the roster. They wouldn’t need the scoring of Vanderweghe at the expense of the things he couldn’t do, so he likely would have been moved for a defensive/rebounding PF/C.
As it were, this was still a strong team even without Jordan winning 49 games before losing to the Rockets. They certainly would have had a chance to contend this season, but I still believe the Lakers would win. This was the Lakers 2nd to last title, and they had too much experience.
This is the year Drexler became a super star and joined Jordan as one of the elites in the game and and started the march to becoming one of the best players in the history of the game. Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter became borderline All Star level players as well. Vandeweghe would miss most of the season only playing 37 games. He was back for the playoffs but only played 18 minutes a game.
Jordan would post his best per possession season ever statistically, and I think this team was ready to step into the championship conversation truly this season. The Lakers were on the decline, especially Kareem from what they were, but would beat the Pistons in the finals. Jordan and Drexler together I think would have beaten the Pistons as well but the tough match up in my mind is with the Lakers. I think Blazers/Lakers in 1988 one could go either way. Magic is such a great player in his own right, though I think you have to lean Lakers IMO. The Blazers without Jordan did lose in the first round to Utah even as good as Drexler, Kersey and Porter were playing. Jordan takes them farther but I think we are one year to soon and the Lakers still take them out.
The Blazers would finally move Vandeweghe at the deadline of 1989, and by that point, not for the value he probably could have gotten earlier. He brought back the 22nd pick in the 1989 draft. This was a strange year with pretty much the same team from 1988 healthy, and they would regress to 39 wins after winning 53 the previous season. Checking the fundamentals, it’s mostly just some seemingly bad luck. They had the point differential of a 45 win team which would make more sense. The way the Lakers swept them in the playoffs in the first round by an average of 12 points a game it’s hard to say that even with Jordan they would beat them. It certainly would have been a tight series but I think you have to give it to the Lakers. The Lakers would lose to the Pistons in the finals.
1990 Getting to the First Finals and the Championship Window
After the regression of 1989 Portland would hire Rick Adelman. They would also draft Clifford Robinson with the 36th pick, so that’s likely unchanged in our alternative history. It’s just another All Star find deep in the draft. They would also finally trade for that hard-nosed PF in Buck Williams who was 29 years old. Dražen Petrović who they drafted in the 3rd round in 1986 would join the Blazers as well yet another All NBA player on a Deep Pick. It was in real life a stacked team that would win 59 games in the regular season and face the Pistons in the finals. With Jordan this is the year I think they clearly would have won the title and slammed open the championship window that wouldn’t have closed for nearly the next decade, only the one year Jordan retired IMO.
There was a lot more talent around Jordan and earlier than with the Bulls. Drexler was a better player than Pippen and better sooner. Kersey and Porter were probably better in the aggregate than Grant or either Armstrong/Paxon. Then you had Buck Williams, Duckworth, and what Clifford Robinson eventually would become. I believe they would have won the titles in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 as they were already in the finals 2 times without Jordan. They may have even got one in the 80’s You could see that potential.
After 1994 it gets much murkier with Jordan’s retirement. If he never retires, they probably could have won in 1994 and 1995 too with Cliff Robinson’s accent and getting Rod Strckland. Drexler likely isn’t traded and wouldn’t retire until 1998. Sabonis came over in 1995 and was still a very good player, he actually had 2 years he was a top 30 player in the NBA per NBA reference All NBA Shares and 3 in the top 40.
Even without Drexler the Blazers were a good franchise through the rest of the 1990’s. I think with Jordan he could have continued to contend until 2001 or 2002. Overall had he retired the one season in 1994 I think he ends up with 6 or 7 titles with the Blazers. If Jordan doesn’t retire in 1994 or 1999 maybe as many as 8 or 9. They were even pushing the Champion Lakers to 7 games (and getting screwed) in 2000 without him. It’s possible Jordan is still on the team in 2000 and the difference, and they even get a championship as well.
If Jordan sticks around in 1999 and 2000 which is far more likely given he said he still wanted to play, and the Blazers weren’t trying to blow it up it’s even likely he still gets to play with this guy.
No Jordan in Chicago would have drastically changed Pippen and Phil Jackson’s legacy as well. Rick Adelman is probably considered an all time great coach and Pippen was a nice player, but he wouldn’t be considered top 50 IMO. Certainly borderline if he was.
Overall the Blazers would make the playoffs every year from 1985-2003 spanning his entire career timeline even without Jordan. They would go to 2 Finals and 3 Western Conference Finals among them. I actually think it’s pretty much a fact Jordan would have been able to play with a better supporting cast in Portland. There was a serious amount of talent there for 2 decades. Drexler is a better player than Pippen and I do think he would have 7 to 9 championships had he been there and played until 2003.
Along with Drexler, Jordan theoretically would have been able to play with all of these guys that suited up for the Blazers from 1985-2003.
|Yers Playing With Jordan||Ages|
|Scottie Pippen||4||34-37||7 time All Star|
|Rasheed Wallace||7||22-28||4 time All Star|
|Buck Williams||7||29-35||3 time All Star|
|Terry Porter||10||22-32||2 time All Star|
|Kiki Vandeweghe||5||26-30||2 time All Star|
|Jim Paxon||4||27-30||2 time All Star|
|Kevin Duckworth||7||22-28||2 time All Star|
|Clifford Robinson||8||23-30||1 time All Star|
|Danny Ainge||2||31-32||1 time All Star|
|Kenny Anderson||2||26-27||1 time All Star|
|Rod Strickland||4||26-29||1 time All NBA|
|Steve Smith||2||30-31||1 time All Star|
|Dražen Petrović||2||25-26||1 time All NBA|
It’s not like these guys were washed up. Most would have played with Jordan in their 20’s and in their Prime. That is a better list of talent than he would have played with on the Bulls. I think the championship window stays open until the early 2000’s even with a diminished Jordan, which with Chicago it would have closed after 1999 regardless had they come back.
The Trade To Houston
So according to Hakeem, there was a real trade on the table and one in retrospect that the Rockets should have taken. Drexler and Jordan for Ralph Sampson on Draft night. This would have actually been a fair deal on paper at the time. Most would probably say Sampson was the gem in the trade and that Portland won the trade until they saw Jordan on an NBA court. The league so heavily valued the big man, it was understandable why they didn’t. The way Sampson had performed that first year averaging 21ppg, 11rpg, 2.4bpg with a 20.1 PER, he seemed well on his way to being the next great big man.
I believe Houston was very justified in not pulling the trigger on that trade at the time with the information they had. They had beaten an all time great Dynasty in the Lakers in the middle of their title run. A team who would go on to win the next 2 championships and even two more additional finals. They did this in Olajuwon’s 2nd year and Sampson’s 3rd year. What they thought could work with the Twin Towers certainly did. While it didn’t optimize Sampson and his numbers suffered even before injuries, there at least was a path to championships, clearly. It’s unfortunate, Sampson’s body just gave out on him shortly after that.
In the span of 3 years Jordan and Drexler were offered to Houston for Sampson in 1984 only to trade him in 1987 for Sleepy Floyd, Joe Barry Carrol, and Cash instead. Ouch.
What Could Have Been
This most certainly changes everything we know. One of these players was in the finals every year from 1990-1998 and they have at least 8 of those championships not even playing together. I think it’s safe to assume if the interpersonal could be worked out that they win at least 8 in that timeframe, probably all 9.
I don’t think that would have been all either. If Olajuwon could have taken out the Lakers in year 2 I think it’s entirely possible this dynasty gets started even sooner. They still might not have beaten the Celtics that year but I do think they would have a couple of titles in the 1980’s as well. Maybe Jordan walks away sooner if they are just dominating or one of them wants to strike out and try on their own. If they could hold it together until 1998 I think they have 10 or more titles. It would have been just to much for the league to deal with. Jordan and Olajuwon were almost entirely on their own. Together and oh btw with Drexler it’s lights out.
Jordan would still be Jordan, but it would certainly have an impact on his legacy, both good and bad. His stats probably aren’t as crazy with both Drexler and Olajuwon. He wouldn’t be the guy driving every win or saving them every time with those players on the court too. Having this much around him and not having to struggle any would likely be less appreciated over time and certainly at the moment. Even the Bulls felt inevitable after the first couple. I think you need some of that tension to appreciate it and a team with these guys dog walks the NBA for a decade.
Going to Portland and winning more championships with a slight upgrade over Pippen in Drexler, and a better overall supporting cast IMO would have still helped his Legacy. In a weird way, it would have probably hurt both Olajuwon and Jordan’s legacy not to do it on their own, even if they won 10+. At least with Jordan I think that’s the case. Maybe it pushes Olajuwon into the top 2 to 5, but he’s unlikely to have the same offensive numbers and it’s less how he would be viewed if that’s the case. That partnership seems too overwhelming to be respected the same as what Jordan was able to accomplish separately. That’s my take anyway.