Bob Knight to the Blazers: “Draft Jordan and play him at center”

Do you draft the best player available, or according to your team needs? The Portland Trail Blazers went with the second approach and made the greatest mistake in NBA draft history. After the Rockets picked Olajuwon with the no.1 pick in the 1984 draft, the Blazers were choosing between Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan. They went for Bowie, as they already had Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson taking care of the perimeter. Chicago is eternally grateful. 

Sometimes that approach makes sense. One of the mistakes the 76ers made in the process was drafting Nerlens Noel in 2013, Joel Embiid in 2014, and Jahlil Okafor in 2015. There’s no way to develop all three, give them playing time, and get appropriate value in a later trade. Especially if you’re Portland and already have your guy in Clyde Drexler. You’re not thinking about getting the best guy; you think you already have him. Portland was looking for someone to support Drexler’s team.

Well, you don’t think about positional fit when a perennial All-Star is available, and even at the time of the Draft, a lot of people knew that Jordan would be more than that. Back in those days, there was no one-and-done. MJ spent three years playing for Dean Smith and made his mark on the college level. During his three seasons with the Tar Heels, Jordan averaged 17.7 ppg on 54.0% shooting. MJ did more than collect stats – he made the game-winning jump shot in the 1982 NCAA Championship game against Georgetown, which was led by future NBA rival Patrick Ewing. All that was enough for coach Knight to make a bold statement before MJ ever set foot on an NBA court.

“If I were going to pick three or four best athletes I’ve ever seen play basketball, he’d be one of them. I think he’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen play basketball, bar none. If I were going to pick people with the best ability I’ve ever seen play the game, he’d be one of them. If I wanted to pick one of the best competitors, he’d be one of them. He’s the best athlete, he’s one of the best competitors, he’s one of the most skilled players, and that to me makes him the best basketball player I’ve ever seen play.”

Coach Bob Knight

When Bobby Knight says something like that about a player, and he’s on the board, you select that player in a heartbeat. The Blazers weren’t convinced, so they reached out to Knight and shared their positional concern with him. They needed a center, and Bob Knight made his position very clear.

“Play him [Jordan] at center, and he will be the best center in the league.”

Coach Bob Knight

One more thing we need to address. Portland gets all the criticism for missing out on Jordan, but there’s another team that should get at least equal grief for it – that would be the Pacers of Indiana. They traded the no.2 to Portland. Who did they want so much that hey gave away the chance to get MJ? Tom Owens, yet another center. Owens was so dominant in Indiana, averaging 10.5 points and 5 rebounds, that the Pacers traded him the very next summer for a secondround pick.

We could say wing players are treated the same way these days. Every wing player “has 3-and-D potential” these days, and significantly more talented big men are dropping in demand because of the modern era trend. That’s how you get Nikola Jokic at 41.