No, This Isn't Another Kevin Durant Tome
One of the local sports radio shows (sorry, don’t remember which one) was talking recently about the worst draft picks in Blazers history.
Obviously, they mentioned Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. And they wondered about Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. And they had a few others in there. But one of the picks they brought up was Mychal Thompson over Larry Bird. And other than drafting Jordan (well, and maybe Durant) it’s possible that selecting Bird would have been the most franchise-transforming move in NBA history.
In 1978, the Blazers had the No. 1 pick, and they selected Thompson over Bird. On the surface, that pick seems absurd; but there were extenuating circumstances. Bird was eligible for the draft because he had sat out a year after transferring from Indiana to Indiana State. His class was graduating, which made him draftable under the rules of the time, but he had a year of eligibility left.
By taking him with the sixth pick, the Celtics secured his rights until the 1979 Draft, when he would become eligible to be drafted again. There’s the catch. If the Blazers had drafted Bird, could they have signed him within a year? Or would they have gotten nothing out of the No. 1 pick?
In June 1978, the Blazers were one year removed from an NBA title, and they were three months removed from having a 50-10 record and being hailed as one of the great teams of all-time. But then Bill Walton got hurt, they collapsed in the playoffs, and Walton demanded to be traded while complaining about shoddy medical treatment. Walton sat out the 1978-79 season, and then signed with the Clippers as a free agent.
What would have happened if the Blazers had drafted Bird and had signed him? Would Walton still have demanded a trade? Would he have been able to play in 1978-79? If he didn’t sit out a season, would he have been able to play more than 14 games over the next four years?
Probably not; but it’s intriguing to think about a healthy Walton in his prime playing with a young Bird. You would have two of the absolute best passers at their positions in NBA history, together on one team.
In truth, Bird probably still would have returned to Indiana State for his senior year. And he then would have re-entered the draft to be the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, along with Magic Johnson, rather than sign with the Blazers. By 1979, Walton had sat out a year and was on his way out the door. Why would Bird want to join that circus?
But the possibilities are fascinating. And because of that, you could say that Mychal Thompson — and excellent NBA player — was a worse draft pick than LaRue Martin. Er, then again, maybe you couldn’t.