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The Man Behind the Biggest Draft Blunder In NBA History

The 1984 NBA Draft SeriesOne of, if not the, biggest drafting blunders in NBA history belongs to the Portland Trailblazers.  They selected the  7’1 Sam Bowie out of Kentucky ahead of Michael Jordan.  Ok, everyone knows that already.  But do you know who exactly was responsible for making that pick?  Or what that person’s criterion was for making such a horrendous error in judgment?

Meet Stu Inman 
In 1984 Stu Inman was director of personnel and was in charge of scouting and drafting for the Portland Trailblazers.  Inman was widely recognized around the league as a basketball genius, a savvy executive with a deep understanding of the game, especially evaluating players.  Other teams would literally track Stu Inman’s scouting activities and use rumors about which players he was interested in to gain confidence in their own personnel decisions.  With such high NBA prestige it’s clear why Portland left the future of the franchise in Inman’s hands.   He was charged with ensuring the #2 pick in the ’84 draft was used to springboard the Trailblazers into long-term championship success.

Having lost the coin flip to Houston, Inman knew Olajuwon, the clear choice for the number one pick, would be going to the Rockets, but there was no clear choice on which player to take at number 2.  Little did he know that, in retrospect, the choice was quite simple, and his decision would go down as arguably the greatest gaffe in NBA history.  Not only that, but Inman’s well-respected career would be tarnished by one draft pick while the impact on the franchise would prove devastating.Stu Inman (left) offers up a little NBA Draft perspective in the war room with assistant coach Jimmy Lynam (middle) and head coach Dr. Jack Ramsay (right).

So how did Stu Inman come to this earth-shattering and eventual pro basketball-changing decision? 

Consider the reasons for choosing Bowie that actually made basketball sense for the Portland franchise in 1984.

  1. Redundancy:  Portland already had very good depth at shooting guard.  Led by Jim Paxson a 6’6 sharp shooter with just enough quickness to create his own shot.  The previous season Paxson played 33.2mpg and averaged 21.3ppg on 51.4% from the field.  In the 1983 draft the Trailblazers selected Clyde Drexler with the 14th pick.  Although Drexler was still a work in progress, he was considered a slashing, high-flying 2-guard from his days playing for the “Phi Slama Jama” basketball fraternity at University of Houston.  From a scouting perspective this was a very similar playing style to that of Jordan.
  2. Unpredictability: Nobody could have forecasted that Michael Jordan would become the famed “Air Jordan” and all the success and dominance that followed that nickname.  Not even his college coach Dean Smith.  Why?  At UNC the offensive system was not conducive to individual showcase of talent.  That is a large reason why Jordan only averaged 17.7ppg & 5rpg in college and only 16.5ppg in 10 NCAA tournament games.  In that sense the “real” Michael Jordan was hidden from Inman’s keen scouting ability.
  3. Due diligence: As part of the evaluation process Sam Bowie was put through a rigorous physical.  The doctors meticulously examined Bowie’s surgically repaired shin fracture that kept him out of two seasons at Kentucky.  He was cleared.  Therefore Inman and the Portland medical staff could not have known Bowie would quickly become the man made of glass.  I am willing to bet Portland’s ownership and fans are praying daily Greg Oden doesn’t suffer the same fate.
  4. 1977 NBA Champions:  Portland’s only NBA championship came in that 1977 season when they were led by “Big Red-Head” Bill Walton.  Inman believed the only way the franchise would reach the promise land again was behind another dominating player in the middle.
  5. Formula for success: Very good-to-great big men win championships.  History has shown this wasn’t just a philosophy but a requirement for winning a championship.  Look at the previous 5 NBA championship team’s big man: 
    • 1983: Moses Malone
    • 1982: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    • 1981: Robert Parish & Kevin McHale
    • 1980: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    • 1979: Jack Sikma (7-time NBA All-Star) 
      Add the Russell/Chamberlain days to that short list of Hall of Fame centers (excluding Sikma) and that is more than enough to cloud anyone’s judgment.

The big question Stu Inman and the rest of his scouting staff couldn’t overcome was, “Where’s [Jordan] going to play?”  It was clear Sam Bowie would anchor the middle on defense for Portland and provide the team with a decent scorer and excellent passer in Jack Ramsay’s intricate offensive system. 

Maybe the deciding factor for choosing Sam Bowie was his performance against Houston and Olajuwon where Bowie grabbed 18 boards and scored 8 points while holding Hakeem to 14 points & 12 rebounds before he fouled out.

Convincing enough argument for you?  No?  Yeah, me either.  But, those realities created a distorted view of Michael Jordan in Inman’s eyes when evaluating him as a player. 

In hindsight the correct move for Inman and the Trailblazers was to sign & trade Jim Paxson and Clyde Drexler for a center rather than pass on the greatest player in the history of the NBA. 

The sad part for the Portland franchise is that the 1984 NBA draft wasn’t the first major miscue on their part.  In 1972, Portland with the #1 pick selected LaRue Martin (who?) ahead of number 2 pick Bob McAdoo and Philadelphia’s own Julius Erving picked 12th! But hey, that’s why there are no geniuses in basketball.

Other 1984 NBA Draft Posts

Inspiration, quotes, excerpts & main source: TIP-OFF: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy


Coin Flip to Lottery: Did the Rockets Tank to Get Olajuwon?

The 1984 NBA Draft Series“They were losing on purpose.  It was a business decision” Frank Layden, the former Utah coach, reporting what an anonymous Houston Rockets’ executive told him first hand.  And why wouldn’t they, well besides integrity and respect for the game, when at worst they would get Jordan or Olajuwon.  In those days the two teams with the worst record would literally flip a coin to decide the 1 & 2 draft positions.  With that system, tanking games was an effective and almost guaranteed option to land a franchise-changing player in the draft.

That business decision was carried out to perfection for the Rockets.  They dropped 14 of their last 17 games, 9 of their last 10, and their final 5. 

One of the more suspicious actions was Coach Bill Fitch somewhat resurrecting 38-year old Elvin Hayes’ career for one last season – for no real reason.   Hayes played all 53 minutes in Houston’s 81st game of the season and the first 35 minutes in the last game, ending his career with exactly 50,000 minutes-played, the first player to do so.  This insignificant milestone was the reason Fitch claimed he played Hayes all those minutes.  Besides the fact this record meant nothing, the goodwill towards Hayes made less sense considering Fitch didn’t like him much.  Evidence of that is best described by this advice to his rookie center Ralph Sampson, “You stay away from that no-good, fucking prick,” Fitch said at the beginning of training camp in 1983.

The rest is pretty much history.  That history would not have been if the Rockets played to their potential in the beginning of the ’83-’84 season.  They had a group of talented young players led by Rookie of the Year Ralph Sampson’s 21ppg, 11rpg and 2.4bpg.  Management’s decision to go after Olajuwon or Jordan came only after they started 18-26 and getting man-handled by the Lakers to the tune of a 29-point blowout going into the All-Star break.  After that embarrassing game the top brass concluded it wasn’t working that season and made a conscious decision to play for the draft.  Houston positioned itself back in the coin flip for the 2nd year in a row.  They selected The Dream and went on to win back-to-back championship after reuniting Olajuwon with Phi Slama Jama running mate Clyde Drexler.Hakeem Olajuwon at the 1984 NBA Draft

From Coin Flip to Draft Lottery

This betrayal in morality may not be the first instance of tanking games, but it was without a doubt the most visible.  With the potential for greatness in the ’84 draft class and obvious losing tactics employed by the Rockets, new Commissioner David Stern had to take action.  The NBA had taken a hit after the ’83 season in the media and by the fans.  Immediately following the 1984 NBA draft Stern did away with the prehistoric coin flip for his draft lottery system starting in 1985.   At the time each of the 7 non-playoff teams would get an even chance for the #1 pick.  This made sense because now, no matter how many games a team dumped, they would have no advantage in the draft.  That resulted in Patrick Ewing to the Knicks in the famed “frozen-envelope” scandal in which the NBA allegedly rigged the lottery to send Patrick Ewing to a big market team the New York Knicks.  After much controversy over the new system (among the bad teams really) that teams with the worst records weren’t landing the top picks therefore being stuck in mediocrity, the lottery system was changed three more times before we got to the current version. 

  • 1987 – Only the first 3 picks were decided by the lottery the rest would be decided by record.
  • 1990 – The worst team would receive the best chance to get the #1 pick by getting 11 chances in the lottery (11 non-playoff teams). 2nd worst team 10 chances and so on.
  • 1994 – The teams would be weighted based on record with the worst record getting a 25% chance at the number 1 pick and decreased down the line to a 0.5% chance for the best non-playoff team.

This weighting system essentially revived the tanking strategy as now there was some incentive to dump games again.  Basically if at best a team would be the 28th seed why not try for 30 and get a higher percentage chance at the top pick?

Tanking games is unquestionably unethical and a disgrace to the game, but it did pay off for Houston.  By winning back-to-back championships in ’94 & ’95 when MJ decided to give the league a break for two seasons, the Rockets essentially paved the “tanking” way for the other teams as well. 

The Most Recent Example of Dumping Games

In 1996, seven teams were vying for the #1 pick in the upcoming draft.  The prize: Tim Duncan, a franchise-changing big man with a boring, yet undeniably effective game.  By losing excessively down the stretch those 7 teams went a combined 13-57 in the last ten games of the season.  The Spurs conveniently lost their last 6 (the only team to do so) and secured the 3rd worst record in the league at 20-62 or more accurately stated: 3rd best in the Tim Duncan sweepstakes.  The record itself may not be enough to assume tanking but consider the following:

  • Questions were raised about whether David Robinson’s foot fracture had healed to the point where he could and should be playing.
  • Similar to the Houston debacle this team was suspiciously led by another well-past-his-prime superstar in Dominique Wilkins (age 37). At the same time other healthy, younger players were being sidelined and rested for no apparent reason. Here’s Barkley’s first hand account after a game vs. the Spurs in 1997:

That was significant in that the Nuggets, Sixers and Mavericks finished just 1, 2 & 4 games better than the Spurs, so winning even one of those last 6 games could have been the difference between getting #2 pick Keith Van Horn rather than Duncan.   That was one of the biggest turnarounds considering the Spurs were 59-23 the previous season. 

Two years later (a much faster turnaround than Houston) had San Antonio winning the 1st of 4 championships in 9 years – led by Duncan.  With this much success from allegedly losing games on purpose, can we really believe it won’t happen again in the near future?

Inspiration, quotes, excerpts & main source: TIP-OFF: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever by Filip Bondy

The 1984 NBA Draft: How It Changed Basketball Forever

The 1984 NBA Draft SeriesEver wonder who exactly made the decision to draft Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton?  And what the hell they were thinking?  Or how Houston managed to get the #1 pick in the 1984 draft after having the first pick  and drafting Ralph Sampson (21ppg 11rpg 2.4bpg his rookie season) the year before?

Sixers fans, ever wonder if we had a real chance to get MJ?  How about why Barkley said “Oh, fuck” when he heard Commissioner Stern announce that Philadelphia had drafted him?  Or why he gained over 20 pounds in 24hrs before his final weigh in with the Sixers?

 These questions and more are addressed in Filip Bondy’s book TIP-OFF: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever.  A well-written, inside How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Foreverlook at the teams, players and behind-the-scenes stories surrounding that historic day in pro basketball.

I recommend all basketball enthusiasts and sports fans in general to pick this book up today.  But I understand not everyone has S.A.D. – Sports Addiction Disorder (yes I made that up, but isn’t it a fitting acronym?) like I do and willing to read 262 pages about sports let alone a single NBA draft.  So the upcoming 1984 NBA Draft Series will serve as the Recliner GM’s version of CliffsNotes for TIP-Off.  I’m not typing out chapters (that’s just dumb) rather answering some of the major questions about the ’84 draft, pulling out some of the more interesting stories and of course adding my own insight and opinions. 

If you have specific questions or something you want addressed, leave a comment.  I will try my best to answer it.  Enjoy!