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

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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

My all-time NBA team: Can you beat me in a 7-game series?

The Big O invented the fade awayI challenge everyone to a NBA 7-game series.  I want to see how my twelve guys match up against yours.  I won’t have who I think are the 12 best players although I definitely will have a few.  I am starting 3 guards, but don’t think you can take advantage of me at the small forward spot.  And I have a fortress in the paint, starting 2 centers.

Coach – Chuck DalyWhy? Because he coached the greatest team ever assembled – the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.  He has also proven himself by winning back-to-back NBA championships with the Pistons.

Starters:

Guard – Michael Jordan – This is my killer.  His competitiveness and will can carry an entire basketball team.  MJ in my opinion is the best player ever to grace a basketball court, no question (Bill Russell is a close 2nd).  Some may say that statement is debatable. And the main player people like to argue (not even close) is Wilt Chamberlain, since he is probably the only guy who would vote for himself as the greatest anyway.  Just about every other hall-of-famer or greatest-ever comparable would tell you themselves that MJ is the best.  That by itself should be enough to end that argument. 

Guard – Oscar Robertson – This is my all-purpose stud.  The big O spawned the bigger combo guard who can do everything.  Score from everywhere on the court, rebound and dish.  He did something that will never be duplicated EVER.  Not only did he average a triple-double in a full season (1961-62 – averaging 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game), but if you put together his first 5 seasons (400+ games), he averaged a triple-double from 1960 to 1965.  That is freakin’ ridiculous! And people are in awe of King James…

Guard – Magic Johnson – My floor leader and the best point guard of all-time – and he was really a power forward at 6′ 9.  Can play all 5 positions, sees all the passing angles and can thread the needle in every situation. At that size he can score on anyone and is the perfect guy to run the fast break with MJ (think 1992 Dream Team). Not to mention completely unselfish and all about winning.

Power Forward – Bill Russell – My second and third line of defense and the best big man and greatest winner in the history of the game.  He matches up well vs. some of the quicker bigs because he was very agile for his size and clearly held his own against the bigger guys (Wilt Chamberlain) as well. 

Side note: I have to take a moment to explain why The Big Dipper is not on my team.  Think back to game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals.  With a severely torn muscle in his thigh Willis Reed made a heroic appearance from the locker room to match up against arguably the most dominant big man ever.  Reed went on to score the first two buckets of the game vs. Wilt and inspired his team to victory.  An immeasurable display of leadership that in my opinion should never have happened.  Basketball, and any sport, is about winning, taking advantage of every (allowable) edge you have and not giving anyone a free pass.  And that is exactly what Chamberlain did in that game.  He should have PUNCHED those two shots into the 3rd row seats sending a message to the Knicks that in no way, shape or form was it their day to win.  That has always bugged me and for that reason I cannot have Wilt on my team.

Center – Moses Malone – This is my bruiser.  My relentless rebounder, shot blocker and post defender.  I had to start him because he was the missing piece that led the Sixers to the 1983 championship; he is my hometown guy.  He is going to make sure nobody comes down the lane for any freebies and dominate the boards.  This guy actually had 15 OFFENSIVE rebounds in a playoff game. Wow.

Bench:

Isiah ThomasThis was a tough pick for me.  It was between Isiah and A.I. (check his career playoff numbers and you won’t be as surprised why this was a bit of a dilemma).  Ultimately it came down to winning, and although Iverson is my dude, Isiah is the proven champion.  Not that I would be losing much as Thomas was just as electric with the rock as the “Answer”.

Reggie Miller – In this day and age you can’t win without a consistent threat from beyond the 3-point line.  You saw how the US team struggled in the last Olympics because they didn’t have a shooter.  Well, here is the best in the history of the NBA.  And if somehow I end up down 3 late you can be assured Reggie will be ready to nail that clutch triple at the buzzer.  That is if MJ lets someone else shoot with the game on the line anyway!

Larry BirdThis quote sums up why Larry “Legend” (not to mention it’s Larry “Legend”) is on my team – “The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me,” Bird said. “I still don’t understand why. A white guy would come out (and) I would always ask him: ‘What, do you have a problem with your coach? Did your coach do this to you?’ And he’d go, ‘No,’ and I’d say, ‘Come on, you got a white guy coming out here to guard me; you got no chance.’ For some reason, that always bothered me when I was playing against a white guy.” “Disrespect,” Magic said. Said Bird: “Yeah, disrespect.” Full 2-on-2 interview

Kevin GarnettI had to have at least one current player on my team, and right now this is my favorite.  His energy, unselfishness and ability to do just about everything from the power forward spot are the reasons he fits well on this team.  I needed a strong passing big man to play the high-low game. As well as hit the pick-and-pop jumper when he sets perimeter screens.

Hakeem OlajuwonThis was a toss up between Hakeem and Shaquille O’Neal.  The deciding factors were free-throw shooting and versatility.  I didn’t want to have any weak links on this team.  The Diesel opens this team up to the Hack-A-Shaq strategy and bigger defensive mismatches against pick-and-rolls.  Really though, I just want the “Dream Shake” on my team!

Utility Guys:

Scottie Pippen

Robert Horry

There you have it.  Can anyone think of a better, more well-rounded team?