Two words: What If?
Those two words have been mentioned in numerous situations over time in sports. From these two words, many different scenarios evolve and spawn, creating multiple avenues or streams for consideration.
One big “what if” involved arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan. It isn’t about his play on the court that made this one, though. This is about the 1984 NBA Draft and one huge decision that had a massive impact on the NBA.
Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan were a few of the names in the 1984 NBA Draft. The buzz in New York City was at an all-time high. At that time, it was almost a guarantee that the Houston Rockets, who owned the first overall pick, would draft University of Houston product Hakeem Olajuwon.
After the Rockets selected Olajuwon, that’s where things took a shift. The Portland Trailblazers had drafted University of Houston guard Clyde Drexler the previous season. In his rookie year, he only started three games and averaged 7.7 points. However, the Blazers were hopeful that he would continue to blossom and eventually become a starter at the guard spot.
With the Blazers thinking they were set at guard, they turned their attention to the center position. They were getting good production at the forward spot with Mychal Thompson but they weren’t sold with what they had in the middle.
The starter, Wayne Cooper, was giving them 9.8 points per game along with 5.9 rebounds. While those numbers were respectable, Cooper was not envisioned as the solution for the Trailblazers at that position long term.
From that viewpoint, Sam Bowie was viewed as the more essential piece for Portland. With the second pick, they selected the center from the University of Kentucky.
The Bulls knew a little beforehand that Portland was going to take Bowie second overall but in case they switched up and took Michael Jordan, the Bulls were going to select Charles Barkley.
Fortunately for the Bulls, they stuck with Jordan. Even though Quintin Dailey and Orlando Woolridge were the leading scorers on the team, they were leading the team nowhere, as the Bulls were 28-54 in the 1983-1984 season.
The Bulls had some talent but in a league that was trending towards star power, they knew they needed a star. They also needed someone that was going to lead that team. No one on their current roster was going to lead them out of the purgatory they were in.
Along with their bad record, the Bulls needed someone that would draw people in and Jordan was the exact guy for them and they hoped he would turn their fortunes around.
The Immediate Impact:
The Trailblazers drafted Bowie and he was solid in his first season, averaging 10 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Clyde Drexler would go from 7.7 points per game to 17.2 points per game the next season and the Trailblazers were a formidable team in the West.
Bowie was solid for Portland but they were not sure he would develop into the guy they thought he would be when they drafted him. But again, Drexler took time to develop as well and in his second year he was blossoming. So they were willing to give him time.
With the Bulls, the addition of Jordan had an immediate impact. The Bulls were 21st in the NBA in attendance in the 1983-1984 season, totaling 256,430 in total fans that season. In one season, the Bulls rose all the way to ninth in attendance with 487,297 total fans coming to see them play. The financial impact on the team was immediately felt.
As far as the impact on the court, Jordan led the Bulls to ten more wins and they qualified for the playoffs that season despite a 38-44 record. The Bulls knew right then and there they had someone they could build around.
That was different for that day and age of the NBA because no team really built around shooting guards.
The Ripple Effect:
The cost of not getting Jordan was felt for a while in Portland. The star of the team became Clyde Drexler but he did not average over 20 points per game until the 1986-1987 season. In that same season, Jordan was averaging 37.1 points per game as he was dominating the scene.
Sam Bowie was a talented player coming out of college but he was never healthy. By his own admission, he was not healthy coming into the NBA. He never really made the impact the Trailblazers expected and was gone from the team in a few years.
Portland would be good despite that but they would also miss that superstar guy they could have had beside Drexler. Jordan showed them how good he was when he dominated Portland in the 1992 NBA Finals by averaging 35.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
Outside of Portland and Chicago, the potential selection of Jordan to the Trailblazers would mean Barkley and the Bulls were matched. That could have also meant we got the pairing of Scottie Pippen and Barkley sooner than their one year in Houston after the Chicago Bulls dynasty was broken up.
We would have had a chance to see prime Charles Barkley and Pippen together and that could have been magical.
There were other talented players in the draft but Jordan, Olajuwon and Barkley were the most remembered out of this class and also the most accomplished.
The Final Assessment:
The Portland Trailblazers took a chance and missed out on arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time. Michael Jordan started putting up numbers from the jump and took a forgotten team like Chicago and made them a household name, while making his name a household brand.
If Portland would have drafted Jordan, imagine the pairing he and Clyde Drexler would have made.
Sure, there would have been some questioning as to who was the lead person at the beginning but once they figured that out, they could have arguably been the best wing pairing in NBA history. They definitely would have been the most electrifying with their aerial displays dunking the basketball. Along with the pairing being historical, they also would have collected a few championships.
Without Jordan, the Bulls would still be a team potentially middling around average and they more than likely would still be without any rings. Along with no rings, there more than likely would not have been the legend of Phil Jackson.
We may have saw the same Scottie Pippen that was the star of the team when Jordan retired to play baseball after the Bulls’ third championship.
Portland’s taking of Bowie goes down as one of the worst draft mistakes in NBA history. The interesting thing is Portland would make a mistake of epic proportions again in the NBA draft when they would select Greg Oden and his potential over super-sized small forward Kevin Durant.
That’s another “what if?” that Portland wishes it could do over.