LET'S CUT to the chase: Trail Blazers GM Stu Inman's choice of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the No. 2 pick in 1984 was born of conventional wisdom and positional need. Big men like Bowie were favored, and the Blazers already had scoring wings, including Clyde Drexler. But the move backfired spectacularly, with the injury-plagued center playing just 139 games in Portland as MJ soared.
Jordan would have transformed Rip City, Drexler would have been the world's greatest wingman and coach Rick Adelman would have been the Zen Master. Portland, with Nike nearby, would have been the center of the sports universe. Instead, as Portlanders well know, Jordan's Bulls and Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets combined to win every NBA title from 1991 through '98.
But before that decade of envy, the Blazers got a taste of life as the 21st-century Spurs—Jack Ramsay was plaid Gregg Popovich, Bill Walton was tripped out Tim Duncan. After winning their only title in '77, the Blazers opened the next season a sparkling 50--10. Walton, 26, was named MVP, even though injuries cost him 24 games and a near-certain repeat.
Rather than following Walton's lead through a wide title window, Portland never saw the Big Redhead again. Walton missed 1979 entirely, then parted ways with the Blazers following a dispute with team doctors. "Walton hurts more than Jordan," says Dave Deckard, editor of the Blazers Edge blog. "Losing something is harder than never having it."
Portland's latest shot at dominance came when it won the top pick in 2007. With Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge already in the fold, the Blazers picked center Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. But the league's most promising young core, designed with 1984 inside-out logic, never had a chance. Oden (below) missed his rookie season with a right-knee injury and appeared in just 82 games before being waived in '12; Roy's All-Star career collapsed due to knee injuries soon after; and Aldridge was stranded in a rebuild. To add insult, Durant blossomed into an MVP.
The Blazers' misfortunes have had repercussive effects across the NBA. Do the Showtime Lakers launch as smoothly if Portland is still rolling with Walton? Are the 1986 Celtics still one of the greatest teams ever without Walton as their supersub? With Jordan out West, does Shaq flee Orlando for L.A.? Could a healthy Oden have spoiled title runs by the 2010 Lakers and '14 Spurs? Could he have been the perfect interior antidote to the Heat's small ball around LeBron? Would Russell Westbrook and James Harden still be Thunder teammates if Durant had landed in Portland?
Curse be damned, the Blazers have made the playoffs 30 times since Walton's exit. This is a respectable, resilient franchise, even if its alternate history has taunted its followers for decades.