Portland Trail Blazers: Six Surplus Seasons of Sabonis

DALLAS - MAY 4: Eduardo Najera #14 of the Dallas Mavericks shoots past Arvydas Sabonis #11 of the Portland Trail Blazers in Game seven of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 4, 2003 in Dallas, Texas. The Mavericks won 107-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
DALLAS - MAY 4: Eduardo Najera #14 of the Dallas Mavericks shoots past Arvydas Sabonis #11 of the Portland Trail Blazers in Game seven of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 4, 2003 in Dallas, Texas. The Mavericks won 107-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) /
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Portland Trail Blazers Arvydas Sabonis (L)
Portland Trailblazers Arvydas Sabonis (L) locks arms with Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O’Neal (R) 29 February 2000 in Portland, OR. AFP PHOTO Dan Levine/dbl (Photo by DAN LEVINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images) /

This was a season in which they disappointed, finishing with a 39-43 record and losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers, 3-0. Mike Schuler was fired mid-season and Rick Adelman took over.

While it is an interesting thought exercise to ponder if Schuler would have kept his job because of Sabonis’ brilliance, I think having the seven-foot-three center would have only increased expectations, and therefore Schuler would have been let go eventually.

The other complication the team would have to sort out was having two starting calibre centers. Do you trade Duckworth for a starter at a different position? Or do you just keep both? The latter would have been the best choice, given the reality that really tall people generally aren’t as durable. Playing both of them fewer minutes would have benefited them from a health standpoint, and likely increased their longevity.

Factoring in the coaching transition, and the team needing to get used to playing with Sabonis, this particular Blazers group would not have been good enough to compete for the title. However, they surely would have fared better with the Lithuanian giant. A 46 win season and a trip to the Western Conference Semi-finals feels right.

This is where things get really exciting. The 1989-90 team has a full training camp to learn Rick Adelman’s system, Drazen Petrovic joins the team (he was also a 1986 Blazers draft pick), and a lot of the young core I mentioned at the outset are hitting their primes.

This also happens to be the first season I could find international statistics on Sabonis. In his age 25 season, he averaged 23.3 points per game, 13.5 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, shot 50.5% from the field, and 40.9% from three (35 games). Portland won 59 games that year and made the NBA Finals, losing to the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons in 5 games.

While losing 4-1 does not inspire confidence that it was a close series, it very much was. The Blazers lost games 1, 4, and 5 by a combined total of 11 points. This is the first year having the “Big Red” nets real historical significance. Sabonis makes the difference in those tight games, the Blazers win in 6, and claim their first title since 1977.

Following the 89-90 season, the Blazers front office was not satisfied. In the off-season they added Danny Ainge. He brought championship experience and quality backup guard play. This did come at a cost, as Petrovic, an incredibly talented player, didn’t get the opportunity to showcase his ability.

Being the 4th guard behind Drexler, Porter, and Ainge led to a trade demand. I wanted to create a world in which the international presence of Sabonis would have made Petrovic more content in Portland, but he was too good to be a bench-warmer and was right to ask for a chance elsewhere.

There’s another scenario where having Sabonis and winning the title would have led to the front office being more complacent, and trusting the talent they already had on the roster. I just don’t know how much having Petrovic instead of Ainge for 20 minutes a night really changes things, so it’s not worth going down that rabbit hole.

The 1990-91 season was another incredibly successful year for Portland. During their extended six-year run, this particular team was by far the best from a record and statistical standpoint:

1987-88 Blazers: +4.4 Net Rating, 4th in Offense, 10th in Defense, 53 Wins

1988-89 Blazers: +1.4 Net Rating, 11th in Offense, 14 in Defense, 39 Wins

1989-90 Blazers: +6.1 Net Rating, 9th in Offense, 4th in Defense, 59 Wins

1990-91 Blazers: +8.5 Net Rating, 2nd in Offense, 3rd in Defense, 63 Wins

1991-92 Blazers: +7.2 Net Rating, 7th in Offense, 3rd in Defense, 57 Wins

1992-93 Blazers: +3.1 Net Rating, 14th in Offense, 4th in Defense, 51 Wins

The team, despite its brilliance, fell short of its title aspirations, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in 6 games. Despite having home court advantage, the Blazers lost game 1 by 5 points, 111-106, and were outscored 31-14 in the final period.

Duckworth had a terrible game, finishing with 8 turnovers. Portland suffered another heart-breaking defeat in game 6, 91-90. Duckworth struggled once again, shooting 4-12, committing 4 turnovers, and having an offensive rating of 59 while he was on the court.

Replace the vast majority of Duckworth’s minutes with Sabonis, and the Blazers win both of those games, and with it, the series. This would set up the first of two consecutive NBA Finals match-ups with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

The 1991 Finals that actually took place felt a bit anticlimactic. Despite it being a showdown between Magic Johnson and MJ, they rarely guarded each other, and the Lakers ended up being decimated by injuries.

Game one came down to the wire, and we also got the famous call from Marv Albert in game two, “A Spectacular move by Michael Jordan.” But with Lakers starters James Worthy and Byron Scott both dealing with separate ailments later in the series, it was perhaps Jordan’s easiest Finals appearance.

The alternate reality in which Sabonis and the Blazers are the Western Conference Champions provides the series with a bunch of fascinating storylines.

Not only would Jordan be competing against the defending champions, but he would have to deal with something the Bulls never really had to worry about during their 6 NBA Finals appearances, an elite center.

The 1990-91 Blazers roster with Sabonis and championship swagger would likely be talked about as one of the greatest teams of all time. 70 wins would have been possible. And while the Bulls were certainly on their way to becoming a dynasty, at this point, the Blazers would be ahead of them in the process.

The biggest issue for Portland in the real life match-up was the fact that MJ was simply better than Clyde. In simple terms, when your best player gets outplayed in his head-to-head match-up, that doesn’t bode well for your team’s chances. That’s where Sabonis’ presence is so valuable, he would be the team’s best player, and Clyde could fill the role he played when he won his lone title with the Rockets in 1995.

Out of the six Chicago championship teams that decade, the 91 team was in the bottom half, and weren’t good enough to stop this Blazers juggernaut. Portland wins in six games to seal their second consecutive championship, and Sabonis is now widely considered a top 50 player of all time.

The 1991-92 Blazers made another appearance in the NBA Finals. Arvydas was 27 during this season, and put up some of the best stats of his career overseas: 21.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 53.8% from the field, and 41.2% from three (32 games). This was also Drexler’s final élite season, posting a player efficiency rating of over 23 for the final time in his career.

Winning three consecutive titles is an incredibly difficult task, fatigue and lack of motivation become potential stumbling blocks. Few teams in the history of the NBA have done it. Portland, with their dynamic 1-2 punch, would have had all the talent necessary to put themselves in select company.

The Blazers opponents in the NBA Finals would once again be the Chicago Bulls. This Bulls squad was even more prolific and dominant than the 1990-91 group. The 1991-92 Bulls won 67 games, and had a net rating of +11. That’s right, they outscored opponents by an average of 11 points per game (only to be outdone by the 1995-96 and 1996-97 teams that won 72 and 69 games respectively).

We also have a version of MJ that had to wait another year for a shot at his first title. The actual Blazers lost the series in six games, and got completely blown out in game one, 122-89 (The MJ “shrug” game).

Game six was a game the Blazers should have won, up 79-64 entering the final quarter, they got outscored 33-14 to lose by 4. With Sabonis, this series goes seven games and likely is considered one of the best series in the history of the NBA playoffs.

Given the fact that MJ was such a maniacal competitor, and considering the Bulls would have had home court advantage in a theoretical game 7, I have to favor them in a do-or-die basketball game. So, Jordan might finish his career with 1 fewer title because of Sabonis, but the G-O-A-T wouldn’t let anything or anyone stop him from holding the trophy eventually.

After winning Gold in the 1988 Olympics, Arvydas proved in the 1992 Olympics in Spain that he was just as good if not better than he was four years earlier. Now playing for his native Lithuania, he put on a brilliant performance in leading them to a third place finish.

In the quarterfinals against Brazil, he dazzled with 32 points on 12 of 17 shooting from the field. He averaged 23.9 points and 12.5 rebounds for the tournament, including 27 points and 16 rebounds in the Bronze Medal Game victory against the Commonwealth of Independent States (formerly Soviet Union). Lithuania’s only loss came in the semifinals against the “Dream Team.”

The 1992-93 season would be the first real test of the Blazers resolve. Not only have they played in three consecutive NBA Finals, but their top players, Sabonis and Drexler, both competed in the Olympics as well.

Danny Ainge left the team as a free agent for the Phoenix Suns, and players like Jerome Kersey and Kevin Duckworth started showing signs of athletic decline. The actual Blazers won 51 games and had just a +3.1 net rating. They lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, 3-1. Portland lost game 1 by a single point and game 4 by 3 points.

This is another series where Sabonis would have made a major impact. Talk about a great storyline, Sabonis versus David Robinson, after battling each other in the previous two Olympics, going head-to-head in the playoffs. Sabonis outplays Robinson, and the Blazers advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.

This is where they would run into the 1 seed Phoenix Suns, led by MVP Charles Barkley, and recently departed Blazer Danny Ainge. The Suns won 62 games, and had a +6.6 net rating. The Blazers lose in a tight seven game series to the Suns, and with the loss, end up slowly falling out of title contention in the subsequent years.

With every “what if,” comes a multitude of other questions. After winning two championships in Portland, would Clyde Drexler have wanted to pursue a championship in Houston? Or would he have remained a Blazer for life?

Next. Damian Lillard says he would add LaMarcus Aldridge to current Blazers in Twitter Q&A. dark

Would the legacies of Sabonis and Drexler be altered significantly in this rosier timeline? Does losing in 1991 convince MJ to stay in the league after the 1993 NBA Finals? If Jordan sticks around, does Hakeem Olajuwon get his title moments in 1993-94 and 1994-95?

If Sabonis is in the NBA, grinding out 82 game seasons throughout the 90’s, does he stay in the league long enough to be a part of that 2000 Blazers team? There’s so many interesting subplots that surround Sabonis’ unique basketball journey.

We’ll never know the answer to these questions for sure, and I suppose I’ve asked enough hypothetical questions for one day.