Blazer Blunders of Yore: Moses Malone

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Blazer Blunders of Yore: Moses Malone

Postby rlee » Wed Jun 27, 2007 6:13 am

Blazer Blunders of Yore
Posted by Matt Love
Powells.com

Bowie over Jordan the worst decision in Trail Blazer history? No.

Virtually every Oregon sports fan of a certain age can remember the awful moment when they heard the news of the Portland Trail Blazers' decision to choose Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft and thus change the fortunes of the city, state and the league forever.

On Thursday the Blazers will select the number one pick in the 2007 NBA draft. A city and state await the decision and the tension is palpable, even for many who don't give a damn about pro basketball. But something huge is about to happen in Oregon and, well, something that doesn't happen very often.

Back in 1984 I was riding a bus to Portland State University and I heard some teenager scream, "NO!" He ripped his transistor radio's headphones from his ears and looked at me with a seething disgust. "They took Bowie! Over Jordan! Can you believe that?"

No, I could not. Twenty-three years later, I still can't. The decision constituted a colossal blunder that pro basketball fans still discuss with passion. In Oregon, if you watch a Blazer game in a drinking joint, which I occasionally do at the Sportsman Tavern in Pacific City, the Bowie-over-Jordan mistake topic invariably comes up and the drunken consensus is always the same: this was the franchise's biggest blunder. Nothing else comes remotely close.

These fans are flat wrong. The number one blunder in Portland Trail Blazer history was dealing Moses Malone prior to the 1976-77 season.

Once upon a time, the fall of 1976 to be exact, a twenty-two year old, nearly indestructible, rebounding machine named Moses Malone wore the uniform of the Portland Trail Blazers.

How Malone came not to wear Blazer red and black and not help Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and company win three or four consecutive NBA championships warrants a recounting. Why? If, in a few days Portland's front office screws up the pick, we can all find consolation that the front office screwed up worse before, even worse than not selecting Jordan.

In the summer of 1976, Portland traded Geoff Petrie and Steve Hawes to the Atlanta Hawks for their second overall pick in the ABA dispersal draft. The Blazers took Maurice Lucas with the choice and then used their pick, fifth overall, to draft Moses Malone, who had played two somewhat inconsistent seasons in the ABA after becoming the first player in the history of professional basketball to jump from high school to the pros.

Here's what Blazer Head Coach Jack Ramsay in his 1978 autobiography The Coach's Art wrote about Malone: "The Blazer front office had it made it clear to me from the beginning that the combination of Malone's $350,000 purchase price and his high-salary contract would make it impossible for the Blazers to keep him... After I saw what he could do in the exhibition season, I really wanted Malone to stay with us. It was unfortunate that we just couldn't afford to keep him."

Now consider what Portland General Manager Harry Glickman wrote in his 1978 autobiography Promoter Ain't a Dirty Word: "We drafted Malone with no intention of keeping him for the Trail Blazers; we intended to involve him in a trade... Ramsay didn't want any part of Malone, even in training camp, so all summer long we tried to make other deals for him."

According to Glickman, he contacted Boston Celtics General Manager Red Auerbach and offered Malone and malcontent forward Sidney Wicks for All-Star guard Jo Jo White. Auerbach turned Glickman down.

More Glickman: "Finally, we brought Malone to camp and he looked terrible... He started improving through the exhibition season, and in the last pre-season game he turned in an outstanding performance. But by that time (Blazer owner) Larry Weinberg had given John Y. Brown of Buffalo an option on a deal to Buffalo for cash and a first round draft choice."

And there is this titillating passage from David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, his 1981 bestselling history of the Blazers in the Bill Walton era: "On the following Monday they [the team] held a meeting, voting unanimously (my emphasis) to do so (keep Malone). But even as they were talking, Harry Glickman, the General Manager, came into the room and told them it was too late, that Buffalo had just picked up the option.

Later that day Ramsay appeared at a practice session. The players were subdued; Moses had already packed and gone. "We just traded Moses to Buffalo," Ramsay said.

"What did you get for him?" Walton asked.

"We got a first," Ramsay answered.

"You didn't trade him away," Walton said, "you gave him away."

Two weeks after Portland traded Malone to Buffalo for its number one pick, Buffalo traded Malone to Houston for two number one picks. The Blazers never did acquire a guard the caliber of Jo Jo White (who surely must have drawn a salary commensurate with Malone) and later signed Herm Gilliam.

Imagine the possible frontline combinations with Malone as a Blazer! Walton could have played twenty-five minutes a game, taken weeks off for foot rest if necessary, and the team still would have won sixty games a year. Thus, he would have been healthy and available for longer minutes in the playoffs and nothing in professional sports matters more than successful postseason results. Look at the mediocre teams who won NBA Titles in the late 1970s. A Blazer team that included Malone would have blown the likes of the Bullets, Sonics and even the Lakers with a young Magic Johnson, off the floor with ease.

More evidentiary points: During the 1976-77 season with the Houston Rockets, Malone averaged thirteen points and thirteen rebounds a game and helped his team earn a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the 76ers. Malone progressed from this solid NBA debut to become the third leading rebounder and sixth leading scorer in ABA/NBA history. In his Hall of Fame career, Malone averaged better than twenty points, more than twelve rebounds, won three league MVPs, and captured the 1983 NBA Title as a Philadelphia 76er (with assistance from his teammate Dr. J!). The league honored him as one of the fifty greatest players of all time in 1996.

One last fact for consideration: Moses Malone played twenty-one years of professional basketball and hardly ever missed a game. Bowie over Jordan as opposed to trading away Moses Malone as the worst blunder in Blazer franchise history? It's not even close.

And if the Blazers blunder again on Thursday, which I sense they will, well, it still won't even be close to parting with Moses.
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Postby otismalibu » Wed Jun 27, 2007 5:34 pm

At least he was a Blazer on the tall boy cards that year. :D

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Postby Gabe Farkas » Thu Jun 28, 2007 12:18 am

Can someone give me the back story here? I don't recall him ever playing for the Blazers...
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Postby rlee » Thu Jun 28, 2007 12:39 am

Portland took him in the ABA dispersal draft but traded him to Buffalo for a 1st round pick before the season started.
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Postby Gabe Farkas » Thu Jun 28, 2007 1:23 pm

Wow. I had no idea.

Looking up the trade, does this go down as one of the all-time one-sided trades in the NBA?

Moses for Rick Robey? There's a very good chance I'm just really behind the times here and everyone else is over it, but I'm in shock for the moment.
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Postby Mike Goodman » Thu Jun 28, 2007 2:07 pm

That's a nice site, Gabe. Hadn't known of it.

Notice, the draft was a year and a half later. The Braves were dismantling their McAdoo-centered team, and were almost certainly going to have a high pick. Maybe the Blazers didn't know that draft would be so weak (Mychal Thompson, Phil Ford, Robey, ...).

What they didn't want was another superCenter, especially one that's the polar opposite of Walton. Moses wasn't yet great, but he had certainly established himself as a non-passer. In fact they had a deep squad, and maybe they'd shore up whatever was lacking, with a top pick.

In the ABA, rookie Moses had started alongside Jim Eakins (C) and Gerald Govan (F-C); Randy Denton (C) got major minutes, too. This Utah team went 38-46.

And in '76 he split time (StL) with Marvin Barnes (F-C), Caldwell Jones (C-F), Maurice Lucas (F-C), and Denton again. Another non-contender.
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Postby MCT » Tue Jul 17, 2007 5:14 pm

Interesting article. I've long thought that this trade is seriously underrated as one of the worst trades ever -- not so much because of what Portland got in return, but in terms of how useful it would have been to have kept Moses around. The dominant theme in the history of the Blazers franchise over the next several years was the quest to obtain a center to replace Walton. As the article alludes to, things could have been very different if Moses had been able to step in for Walton after the latter got hurt, or perhaps platooned with him to keep him healthier in the first place.

Of course, this is all easy to say in hindsight. As Mike noted, it just didn't seem like they really needed Moses at the time, and they apparently felt they couldn't afford to take on his contract (which carried over from the ABA via the dispersal draft). And one knew how good he would turn out to be in the NBA.

Mike Goodman wrote:That's a nice site, Gabe. Hadn't known of it.

That site is run by APBR member Frank Marousek.

Looking through Portland's transactions in the 1976 preseason, it appears that the trade (which happened a few days before the regular season started, although Portland didn't actually play their first game until the third day into the season) left them with only 11 men. So it doesn't seem like Portland was carrying an extra man, knowing that they were going to trade Moses anyway; there would have been room for him on their roster had they chosen not to trade him. To fill the spot opened by the trade, the Blazers signed Corky Calhoun, who had been cut by the Lakers a few days earlier.

Mike Goodman wrote:Notice, the draft was a year and a half later. The Braves were dismantling their McAdoo-centered team, and were almost certainly going to have a high pick.

I was thinking the opposite. At the time the trade happened, was it already known that the Braves were going to dismantle their team? The previous season, the Braves had been tied for the 5th best record in the league, and their pick was #13 (due to trades, they ended up picking in someone else's slot). Unless it was already recognized that the Braves were falling apart, if I were Portland I would have expected a mid-round pick.

Incidentally, Portland took that #3 pick in 1978 and packaged it with Johnny Davis to trade up to #1 to draft Mychal Thompson (this trade happened right before the draft, when the final positions of the picks involved had already been determined). Why did they do that? Because they desperately needed a center. Rather than looking at this as Malone-for-Robey, it might be more accurate to say that Portland effectively traded Malone and Davis for Thompson. If they had held onto Moses in the first place, none of this would have been necessary.

Mike Goodman wrote:In the ABA, rookie Moses had started alongside Jim Eakins (C) and Gerald Govan (F-C); Randy Denton (C) got major minutes, too. This Utah team went 38-46.

And in '76 he split time (StL) with Marvin Barnes (F-C), Caldwell Jones (C-F), Maurice Lucas (F-C), and Denton again. Another non-contender.

At the time, there has to have been some question around how good Moses really was. He had put up big numbers as a rookie, but was injured for much of his second season, and had spent his entire ABA career playing for mediocre teams. He had turned pro right out of high school, and the two high school players who had signed with the senior circuit for the 1975-76 season hadn't made a big impact in the NBA. NBA teams had to be wondering if Moses would turn out to be another John Brisker or Jim McDaniels.

On the other hand, within a week of Moses being traded to Buffalo, the Braves turned around and traded him to Houston for *two* first round picks (in typical Braves fashion, they did not hold on to eiither pick, but they ended up as #18 in '77 and #4 in '78 ). How did his value double in just a matter of days? Why wasn't Portland able to get two first-rounders for him the previous week? Kind of a sped-up reverse version of the Jiri Welsch situation mentioned in one of the articles that Ray recently posted (Boston traded Welsch to Cleveland during the 2004-05 season for a 1st round pick, then at the end of the season, about four months later, the Cavs sent Welsch to Milwaukee for a 2nd round pick).
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More on the Moses trade to Buffalo

Postby rlee » Mon Jul 23, 2007 5:03 am

From Brian Meehan, Portland Oregonian:

As painful as it is to recall the O'Neal trade, it pales beside the worst deal in Blazers history -- the 1976 debacle that sent Moses Malone to Buffalo for a first-round draft pick and $232,000.
"I agree with that," Blazers assistant Maurice Lucas said. The former All-Star should know -- he lobbied the front office to keep Malone as Bill Walton's backup.
"I knew what Moses could do because I played with him and against him in the ABA," Lucas said. "Given Bill's history, with a young Moses behind him we could have reduced his minutes and gotten a lot more out of Bill, extended his career."
Malone, whom the Blazers got in the American Basketball Association dispersal draft, had 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 129-114 win over Seattle. It was the last exhibition game of 1976 and Malone's last as a Blazer.
A few days later, the cash-conscious Blazers shipped the future Hall of Famer. The euphoria of the 1976-77 championship season erased the memory of Portland's worst trade
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Postby Mike Goodman » Mon Jul 23, 2007 11:29 am

According to Halberstam's 'Breaks of the Game', Moses refused to come off the bench for any team.
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Dr. Jack on the trade

Postby rlee » Mon Jul 23, 2007 1:22 pm

In his 1978 book, "The Coach's Art", Dr. Jack says:

"We still had our fifth pick to exercise in that dispersal draft. Moses malone, a fine rebounder, who played nconsistently in the ABA, was our choice. We had initially hoped to deal Malone and Wicks to Boston for Jo Jo White, but the deal never materialized. The Blazer front office made it clear to me from the beginning that the combination of Malone's $350,000 purchase price and his high-salary contract would make it impossible for the Blazers to keep him. So Moses was traded instead to Buffalo for a first-round pick in the regular NBA draft. Bufalo then traded Malone to Houston for two first-round draft picks even though they could have had him for one first round pick from Portland. Trades are often strange. Malone played well for the Rockets, setting a league record for offensive rebounds. After I saw what he could do in the exhibition season, I really wanted Malone to stay with us. It was unfortunate that we just couldn't afford to keep him"
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