Legends profile: Clyde Drexler
One of the game’s all-time great guards, Clyde “The Glide” Drexler was known for his high-flying yet seemingly effortless swoops to the basket.
After almost a dozen seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Drexler left Portland with his name all over the franchise’s record books. A perennial All-Star and a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, Drexler twice led the Blazers to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t until he joined the Houston Rockets midway through his 12th campaign, however, that he finally earned a championship ring.
It was fitting that Drexler achieved the ultimate NBA success while in Houston. A native of the city, he attended the University of Houston and starred on the “Phi Slamma Jamma” teams of the early 1980s. A forward in college, Drexler teamed with Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Micheaux to form a front line that took the team on two straight trips to the NCAA Final Four. In his junior season Drexler averaged 15.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting .536 from the floor.
The Blazers selected Drexler with the 14th overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft. Looking back, it seems a mystery how such a great player slipped so low in the draft, especially in light of the careers of many of the players chosen ahead of him.
But as a rookie, Drexler did not have an immediate impact. He did not make the NBA All-Rookie Team and averaged just 7.7 ppg. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he only averaged a little over 17 minutes per game playing behind veteran guards and forwards like John Paxson, Calvin Natt and the year’s prior No. 1 selection, Lafayette Lever.
However, after that inaugural season, Drexler reeled off 10 straight seasons as one of the top scorers in the league. In his second season, Drexler’s scoring jumped to 17.2 ppg. And by his third year, 1985-86, he had become an All-Star, averaging 18.5 points and ranking third in the NBA in steals (2.63 per game) and 10th in assists (8.0 apg).
However, during that era, If a player wanted to be considered among the NBA’s elite, there was no mystery about what he had to achieve — the same things achieved by Los Angeles Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird. Indeed, each was considered to rank among the most complete players of all time. In 1986-87, Drexler began to find himself in that rarefied air. He joined Johnson and Bird as the only players in the league to average more than 21 points (21.7 ppg), 6 rebounds (6.3 rpg), and 6 assists (6.9 apg). He also finished fifth in the NBA with an average of 2.49 steals per game.
In the postseason, Drexler increased his production to 24.0 ppg, but the Blazers lost a four-game first-round series to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
His next season was one of his best. In 1987-88, he placed fifth in the balloting for the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, after averaging 27.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.51 steals. He also claimed a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. In his second NBA All-Star Game, that season, he totaled 12 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes.
For the third straight season, however, Portland lost in the first-round of the NBA Playoffs. Drexler shot only .386 from the field during the postseason, averaging 22.0 points as the Blazers were upset by the Utah Jazz in four games. The following season, Drexler averaged 27.2 ppg (career best), 7.9 rpg and 5.8 apg, but for the fourth consecutive season, the Blazers failed to advance past the first-round after dropping a three-game series to the Lakers.
Thus, as a quiet star in a city removed from intense media attention on team that faltered in the postseason, Drexler didn’t always receive the acclaim that his stellar statistics should have earned him. But as Portland developed into a contender, however, recognition of Drexler’s exploits followed. Behind Drexler, the explosive Blazers went to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992 and reached the Western Conference finals in 1991.
That three-year run began in 1989-90 after a trade in the offseason for veteran power forward Buck Williams, an acquisition that excited Drexler. “I think we have a championship-caliber team, and we’re going to get there,” Drexler predicted before the season.
That season, Drexler averaged 23.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 5.9 apg, made a third straight appearance in the NBA All-Star Game and made the All-NBA Third Team. More importantly, he was a vital cog in the Trail Blazers’ run to the NBA Finals, in which they faced the Detroit Pistons. In 21 playoff games that season he averaged 21.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. Drexler scored 33 points in Game 2 of the Finals, including the winning free throws in the final seconds of overtime. However, that was the only game Portland won in the series, as the “Bad Boys” of Detroit led by Isiah Thomas copped its second straight NBA championship. Drexler averaged 26.4 points and 7.8 rebounds and shot .543 from the floor in the Finals.
In 1990-91 he earned All-NBA Second Team honors on a Blazers team with a record of 63-19 record, setting a franchise record for most wins in a season. But the Blazers were upset in the Western Conference Finals in six games by the Lakers in the last act of “Showtime” as Magic Johnson retired following that season.
The following season was one of Drexler’s most memorable. He averaged 25.0 points (fourth in the league), became the second player in Portland history to make the All-NBA First Team, finished second to Michael Jordan in MVP balloting and took the Blazers to the NBA Finals against Jordan and the Bulls.
Unfortunately, Jordan was unbelievably hot in Game 1, scoring 35 points in the first half on an array of shots including deep 3-pointers en route to a 122- 89 rout. The Blazers bounced back and seemed ready to force a Game 7, but they lost Game 6 after building a 79-64 lead going into the fourth quarter. Later that summer, Drexler earned a gold medal with the 1992 Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics.
Hampered by injuries, Drexler’s production fell in the next two seasons (to 19.9 and 19.2 points per game, respectively) and by 1994-95 he was indicating that he was ready to leave Portland. At midseason, the Blazers obliged by trading him to the Houston Rockets for Otis Thorpe. Drexler left Portland as the team’s all-time leader in scoring, games, minutes, field goals, free throws, rebounds and steals.
The Houston trade reunited him with college teammate Olajuwon, and the two powered the Rockets from the sixth seed in the playoffs to the 1995 NBA Championship. In 35 regular season games with the Rockets that first season, Drexler averaged 21.4 ppg on .506 shooting with 7.0 rebounds.
His valued soared in the postseason. In that 22 playoff game run, he was the teams’ second leading scorer behind Olajuwon with 20.5 ppg while also grabbing 7.0 rpg and dishing out 5.0 apg. In the Finals sweep over the Orlando Magic, his production even increased to 21.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 6.8 apg. In the conference finals, he and Olajuwon became the third set of teammates to score 40 points in a playoff game as Drexler hit for 41 in Game 4 against the Jazz.
In 1995-96, Drexler averaged 19.3 points for the Rockets in a season that was limited to 52 games due to shin and knee injuries. On Nov. 24, 1995, he became the 24th player to register 20,000 career points. And that same season he was honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
1996-97, he missed 19 games due to a stained hamstring (and one because of a suspension), and with the arrival of Charles Barkley his scoring average dipped to 18.0 ppg, his lowest since 1984-85. Midway through the 1997-98 season, Drexler announced plans to retire from the NBA effective at the end of the season so that he could take over the head coaching duties at his alma mater, the University of Houston. He went on to finish the season leading the Rockets in scoring (18.4 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg).
He ended his illustrious NBA career joining Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek as the only players in NBA history to top 20,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 3,000 assists.