Revisiting the 1984 Draft: Was Bowie Really the Right Choice at the Time?

In 1984, with what would be the most criticized pick in NBA history, the Portland Trailblazers chose Sam Bowie second overall. The third overall pick, of course, was Michael Jordan, who would go on to be perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. But many will remind us that hindsight is 20/20. When we consider the the circumstances at the time, they argue, Bowie was the right pick. Proponents of this idea will even supply a few facts to convince us:

  • The Blazers had only one year earlier drafted Clyde Drexler (who would go on to be the second best shooting guard of all time)
  • They already had Jim Paxson, a very solid two guard
  • They had just weeks before the draft acquired Kiki Vandeweghe (a high scoring small forward)

Yes, the Blazers were pretty well equipped with shooting guard/small forward types. In addition, the notion that a dominant big is necessary to compete for a title was universally accepted (it’s still true to some extent). Though the Blazers had a decent center in Mychal Thompson, he hadn’t turned out to be as great as expected, and he could easily be moved to power forward so that 7-1 Bowie could hold down the paint.

These arguments, though, don’t tell the whole story. First, Bowie-was-the-right-pick proponents tend to ignore that the Blazers could have drafted someone besides Jordan. Yes, passing up Michael Jordan was a bad move but was reasonable because the Blazers had great options at his position. But what about the other positions? Second, everyone assumes that Bowie was a great player in college and only faltered in the NBA because of injury issues (which many argue the Blazers should have known about because Bowie broke his leg in college). But is this really true? Was Bowie so great in college? I’ll start by looking at the Blazers’ needs in 1984, then take a look at whether Bowie was a productive college player.

The Blazers in 1984

In 1981, the Blazers traded big man Tom Owens to Indiana for a future first round pick. That pick turned out to be #2 overall in 1984. So the Blazers weren’t picking second because they were bad. On the contrary, they made the playoffs in ’83-’84. But in the ’84 offseason the organization’s front office made some franchise altering moves: first, it traded productive small forward Calvin Natt, a couple of draft picks, and the oft-forgotten Fat Lever, who went on to have a six year span that was among the most productive ever before retiring early due to injury (watch him almost get a quadruple double here). In return, the team got the very efficient scorer, forward Kiki Vandeweghe. Second, the team drafted Sam Bowie. But before we decide whether that was the right choice, let’s back up for a minute and see what the team looked like heading into the draft based on the previous season’s numbers:

The following table represents Portland’s roster just before the 1984 draft. EWP48 is an estimation of each player’s Wins Produced per 48 minutes using Win Score.

POS Starter eWP48 Backup eWP48
PG Darnell Valentine 0.086    
SG Jim Paxson 0.194 Clyde Drexler 0.089
SF Kiki Vandeweghe 0.205 Jeff Lamp 0.020
PF Kenny Carr 0.147 Pete Verhoeven 0.011
C Mychal Thompson 0.149 Audie Norris -0.072

If Portland was truly drafting for its needs, it would have drafted a point guard. And if it had looked at the point guards of the class closely, Portland could have selected a guy from Gonzaga named John Stockton, whose college numbers were very good, and substantially better than the other point guards selected in the first round (Jay Humphries, Lancaster Gordon, Vern Fleming, Alvin Robertson, and Leon Wood). In particular, Stockton’s field goal percentage (58%) and steals (4.1 per 40 minutes) numbers were unparalleled. (Editor’s note: Crazy how the comment was also true of his NBA numbers)

But Portland didn’t want a point guard because, remember? You need a great big to win the championship. And while Portland’s bigs were above average, they weren’t exactly top bigs in the league. So was Bowie the right big to take at #2? (I want to note quickly that Portland drafted a fantastic point guard – Terry Porter – with NBA champion Boston’s first round pick the next season, which probably still would have happened had they drafted another big instead of Bowie)

Portland’s Choice Teaches Us an Important Lesson About How Size and Potential Don’t Always Trump Productivity

Now we come to the ultimate question: was Bowie actually productive in college like everyone assumes/claims/argues/believes? The short answer is no. He wasn’t very productive before he broke his shin and he wasn’t very productive after either. So why was he drafted so high? Well, the same reason Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes will be drafted top 5: size and potential and because he looked the part of a basketball player. Watch the video of Bowie getting drafted. The way the announcer comments on how well Bowie runs the floor struck me as alarmingly familiar. Then I remembered – that’s exactly how Chad Ford talks about Perry Jones. He “runs the floor like a deer.” Again, I don’t care if a guy runs the floor like a rhinoceros if he helps the team win. But were other bigs in 1984 any better than Bowie? Well, Olajuwon was historically good in college, but he was off the board before Portland could pick him. Let’s look at what Portland should have considered in ’84:

1984 PF/C Draft Prospect Win Scores

  • Charles Barkley 12.5
  • Michael Cage – 12.4
  • Sam Perkins – 11.8
  • Otis Thorpe – 9.0
  • Melvin Turpin – 7.6
  • Sam Bowie – 7.5
  • Tim McCormick 5.6
  • Kevin Willis – 3.6
And here’s a full breakdown of all their stats.

The following table compares Sam Bowie to the other bigs taken in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft excluding Akeem Olajuwon. All stats are adjusted to per 40 minutes.

Player Sam Bowie Charles Barkley Michael Cage Tim McCormick Sam Perkins Otis Thorpe Melvin Turpin Kevin Willis
Effective Field Goal % 0.516 0.638 0.562 0.580 0.589 0.580 0.593 0.492
True Shooting % 0.569 0.666 0.618 0.627 0.664 0.624 0.618 0.517
Free Throw % 0.722 0.683 0.741 0.667 0.856 0.653 0.745 0.661
Rebounds 12.78 13.35 12.98 7.88 11.58 11.42 8.10 10.41
Assists 2.69 2.92 0.44 1.29 1.98 1.37 1.12 0.38
Steals 0.90 1.56 1.29 0.54 1.09 1.10 0.90 0.54
Blocks 2.65 2.47 1.73 0.63 2.33 1.64 1.98 1.30
Personal Fouls 3.76 4.48 2.29 3.63 2.72 3.50 3.17 4.77
Turnovers 4.04 3.27 1.92 2.17 2.37 2.55 2.17 2.71
Points! 14.57 21.31 25.29 16.08 21.19 18.88 19.35 14.91
Win Score 7.49 12.54 12.35 5.54 11.84 8.98 7.62 3.60

Bowie was comparatively underwhelming in college in shooting efficiently and forcing turnovers. He was the worst first round post prospect at scoring and turning the ball over. When we review the numbers, one prospect really stands out – a guy that bested the remaining prospects in efficient scoring, rebounding, passing, and creating turnovers. The guy’s name? Charles Barkley. In fact, Barkley was the most productive player besides Olajuwon in the draft (at least, if you exclude MJ’s sophomore season). But Barkley was overweight, only stood at 6-6, and ran the floor like a rhino. A simple exercise in numbers vs. size and potential. Portland took size and potential, and numbers went on to be one of the best players in NBA history. If they really didn’t want Barkley, Michael Cage, Sam Perkins, and Otis Thorpe were all more productive than Bowie in college, and all went on to have very productive NBA careers.

So despite what people say, Sam Bowie was not the right pick for Portland. It may have been reasonable to pass on Jordan because of Portland’s roster, but the fact of the matter is that Bowie was a size and potential guy who wasn’t very good in college. And the reality is that these guys rarely pan out. I’ll leave you with a quote from Bulls general manager Rod Thorn after he drafted Michael Jordan:

I only wish he were 7-1. The fans will enjoy watching him play and we expect we’ll have an easier time signing him than we have had in signing other draft choices.

-James

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