Is Sam Bowie a tragic figure? Traditional lore paints him either as: (a) they guy who was taken over Michael Jordan and who crapped out or (b) the guy who overcome crippling injuries to become a pretty good center. With the recent Bowie article and documentary on ESPN, the focus has returned to Bowie. I haven’t seen the documentary but the article lets out a revelation that Bowie knew of potential leg problems in his pre-draft physical with the Blazers but did not disclose the pain he felt. Aside from Bowie’s physical with Portland and some details of his childhood, the article provide much in the way of some the other details of his career. Let’s go a little deeper and see if we can find a few more interesting factoids and fill in a few holes:
Bowie was an old draft pick and his rookie numbers were only okay
While many more players lasted all four years back in the early 1980s, Bowie, was already 23 his rookie season (and turned 24 in March of his rookie year) because he redshirted two years with a broken leg. Bowie missed one year with a cast and when that didn’t work, he had a bone graft from his hip to help fix the leg, causing him to miss yet another season. Injuries aside, one would expect a 23-year old to be pretty close to fully formed as a player. Both Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson were also 23-year old rookies but they looked like much more promising prospects as rookies. Take a look at rookie stats of all three:
-Bowie: 29.2 mpg, 10.0 ppg, .537 FG%, 8.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.3 topg, 2.7 bpg, 15.7 PER
-Ewing: 35.4 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .474 FG%, 9.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.1 bpg, 3.5 topg, 17.4 PER
-Sampson: 32.8 mpg, 21.0 ppg, .523 FG%, 11.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.4 bpg, 3.6 topg, 20.1 PER
Bowie’s circumstances were totally different than those of Ewing and Sampson. Unlike the other two rookies, Bowie’s 1984-85 Blazers were a decent team (42-40) and already had some scorers: Kiki Vandeweghe (22.4 ppg), Mychal Thompson (18.4 ppg), Jim Paxson (17.9 ppg), and Clyde Drexler (17.2 ppg). Even so, I can’t really find another rookie center who played so much who was unable to make an impact scoring. Bowie blocked and passed better than both Ewing and Sampson and rebounded better than Ewing but the numbers showed that we were not looking at a blossoming offensive force.
Rather, Bowie had a minuscule 14.8 usage rate and 3.7 free throws per 36 minutes compared to a 26.5 usage for Ewing and 6.2 free throws per game and a 27.1 usage and 5.8 free throws per game for Sampson. Assuming health for Bowie going forward as a rookie, he looked more likely to be a Dikembe Mutombo-lite player: a high percentage offensive/lowish usage player who could board and block a bit. This is quite a good player but is not superstar big.
Bowie’s NCAA numbers portended some problems
Yes, if given another shot, Portland probably would’ve taken the best player ever over an injured center but the decision was perfectly rational at the time. The Blazers had tons of perimeter players and no one could reasonably have predicted MJ would be as good as he was but Bowie’s college numbers did reveal some issues. Bowie was not the same player in college before and after the broken leg. Here are his numbers from 1980-81 and after his return in 1983-84 after two years off:
1980-81: 32.0 mpg, 17.4 ppg, .520 FG%, 5.9 fta/pg, 9.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.8 topg, 2.9 bpg,
1983-84: 28.8 mpg, 10.5 ppg, .516 FG%, 3.7 fta/pg, 9.2 rpg, 1.9 apg, 2.9 topg, 1.9 bpg
The 1983-84 Bowie was way down in scoring and getting to the basket. Even if healthy, this had to raise a red flag to the Blazers that he wasn’t quite the same player. The Blazers seemed to realize this. In Filip Bondy’s interesting book on the 1984 Draft, “Tip Off,” he detailed the Blazers giving Bowie a seven-hour physical and him passing with flying colors but did not have expectations that Bowie would be a star scorer. Blazers’ GM Stu Inman didn’t talk about the decline in scoring but noted that “I wouldn’t rate him as an exceptional shooter….[but he is] a kid who will pay more harmoniously in structure than away from structure and [coach] Jack Ramsay runs a structured system.” Ramsay also was unconcerned with a star and said that the Blazers had a good team and were hyper focused on adding a center between Bowie, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Patrick Ewing (who had a chance of leaving school early that year), noting that “[a]ll our talks centered around those three guys.”
Finally, Bondy noted that Bowie’s, at the time of the 1984 Draft, shared an agent with Jim Paxson, the agent had a great relationship with Portland. This allowed Portland to re-sign Paxson and get Bowie into camp quickly in one fell swoop.
Could we have known how good MJ was?
No. Just for fun, here are Jordan’s final college season numbers versus other guards drafted in that pre-historic era (remember the shot clock and three-point shot weren’t introduced in the NCAA until 1985 and 1986 respectively):
-Michael Jordan (1983-84): 29.5 mpg, 19.6 ppg, .551 FG%, 4.7 fta/pg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.2 topg, 1.1 bpg, 1.6 spg
-Alvin Robertson (1983-84): 34.7 mpg, 15.5 ppg, .499 FG%, 5.7 fta/pg, 5.5 rpg, 6.0 apg, 4.3 topg, 0.4 bpg, 2.9 spg
-Byron Scott (1982-83): 36.5 mpg, 21.6 ppg, .513 FG%, 5.7 fta/pg, 5.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 3.3 topg, 0.3 bpg, 1.8 spg
-Dale Ellis (1982-83): 36.8 mpg, 22.6 ppg, .601 FG%, 6.9 fta/pg, 6.5 rpg, 1.0 apg, 2.3 topg, 0.1 bpg, 1.6 spg
-Jeff Malone (1982-83): 36.9 mpg, 26.8 ppg, .531 FG%, 5.5 fta/pg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.7 topg, 0.1 bpg, 0.9 spg
-Darrell Walker (1982-83): 36.8 mpg, 18.2 ppg, .527 FG%, 7.9 fta/pg, 5.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, 3.9 topg, 0.4 bpg, 2.8 spg
-Clyde Drexler (1982-83): 34.9 mg, 15.9 ppg, .536 FG%, 2.8 fta/pg, 8.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.7 topg, 0.5 bpg, 3.3 spg
It’s hard to see, without weighing the relative strength of conferences, any compelling statistical evidence that MJ was, head and shoulders, the best of the group. He does standout as efficient in terms of shooting and turnovers but the one area that he excels is in blocks. None of the other guards is even close to him in that category (also note that the second best guard of the group in the NBA, Clyde was second in blocks). The short answer is that Jordan had some statistical indicators of being special (in addition to his storied career at UNC) but nothing incredibly glaring. Recognizing and Jordan’s greatness had to come more from the scouting department than the stats department (assuming one existed then).
Should Bowie have lied about his leg to the Blazers?
As noted above, Bowie was thoroughly examined by Portland including x-rays, and the old-fashioned reflex test which hurt but he did not disclose this fact (Bowie told ESPN recently he didn’t remember getting an MRI). According to the recent ESPN article, Bowie said that “I went through that physical, my leg was killing me that day. It really was.” Should Bowie have been more forthright? I’m sure the ethicist at the New York Times would draw distinctions between lack of disclosure and affirmative lying but let’s be real…no one would disclose the pain with millions on the line. Bowie let them take scans and was sufficient disclosure over Bowie’s subjective complaints of pain under the circumstances. If Portland misread the scans or took the wrong type of scan that is its own fault.
Was Bowie’s injury in college exacerbated by the wrong treatment?
Interesting question…According to the recent ESPN article, Bowie had “brittle bones” but didn’t explain too much more and Bondy called the fracture one that needed surgery and not rest. Interestingly, Sports Illustrated had an extensive write up on Bowie’s leg in 1987, interviewing the doctor at Kentucky who treated Bowie and Portland’s team physician at the time. Kentucky’s physician, Dr. George Gumbert said that rest was prudent because “[i]n a pro athlete, where his bread-and-butter depends on his ability to play, I would operate sooner. In a college athlete, I’d be less inclined to operate since the complications of surgery aren’t insignificant. In a way I’m sorry I didn’t operate sooner in Bowie’s case….If we operate sooner and we’re successful, then everything’s great. If we operate and there are complications, then we may have ruined this lad.”
Portland’s physician, Dr. Bob Cook, noted that surgery made sense for Bowie in retrospect because “I would try to avoid the prolonged cast time. It’s hard to overcome the atrophy.” The article also goes on to note several other players who suffered from too much surgery (particularly Bill Walton). Bowie’s feeling: “I never thought for one minute that I would miss two years of basketball in college. For a little hairline crack to heal? I missed one year to try the natural healing process. I missed another year after the surgery. Hindsight’s 20/20, but I got nothing out of that year in the cast.”
Bowie the pro
After his rookie year, Bowie was never healthy again for Portland, playing only 63 games over the next four seasons. In 1989, the Blazers traded Bowie and a first-round pick (who ended up being Mookie Blaylock) to the Nets for Buck Williams. Bowie then went on to have four straight healthy years with the Nets, playing at least 62 games every year and playing about 30 mpg those years. He peaked at 15.0 pph and 8.1 ppg in 30.7 mpg in 1991-92 and a 16.4 PER. Essentially, he was a solid above average center that he had been that rookie year in Portland.
My favorite personal memory of Bowie is not particularly well-remembered. In his final season, 1994-95, he played backup center for the Lakers when they came to Jersey early in the year. I was one of the few Nets fans at the times and hustled out to NJ and saw a great double overtime thriller. All game, Derrick Coleman tried dog Bowie and out-athleticize his older former teammate with some taunting thrown in for good measure. Bowie, though, did not stop working and ended up getting several key points, including a tip in that helped clinch the game (he had 10 pts, 8 rebs in 26 minutes). At the end, Bowie gingerly left the court without talking any trash at all as DC remained collapsed in an literal and emotional heap on the floor. I couldn’t help but feel good for Bowie at that moment.
Bowie, biggest miss?
Maybe. Here’s a list of the second picks overall since 1980 and the player the second pick should’ve been:
-1980, actual: Darrell Griffith, best: Kevin McHale
-1981, actual: Isiah Thomas, best: Isiah Thomas
-1982, actual: Terry Cummings, best: Dominique Wilkins
-1983, actual: Steve Stipanovich, best: Clyde Drexler
-1984, actual: Sam Bowie, best: Michael Jordan
-1985, actual: Wayman Tisdale, best: Karl Malone
-1986, actual: Len Bias, best: Jeff Hornacek
-1987, actual: Armen Gilliam, best: Scottie Pippen
-1988, actual: Rik Smits, best: Mitch Richmond
-1989, actual: Danny Ferry, best: Shawn Kemp
-1990, actual: Gary Payton, best: Gary Payton
-1991, actual: Kenny Anderson, best: Dikembe Mutombo
-1992, actual: Alonzo Mourning, best: Alonzo Mourning
-1993, actual: Shawn Bradley, best: Sam Cassell
-1994, actual: Jason Kidd, best: Jason Kidd
-1995, actual: Antonio McDyess, best: Kevin Garnett
-1996, actual: Marcus Camby, best: Kobe Bryant
-1997, actual: Keith Van Horn, best: Chauncey Billups
-1998, actual: Mike Bibby, best: Dirk Nowitzki
-1999, actual: Steve Francis, best: Shawn Marion
-2000, actual: Stromile Swift, best: Michael Redd
-2001, actual: Tyson Chandler, best: Pau Gasol
-2002, actual: Jay Williams, best: Amare Stoudemire
-2003, actual: Darko Milicic, best: Dwyane Wade
-2004, actual: Emeka Okafor, best: Andre Iguodala
-2005, actual: Marvin Williams, best: Chris Paul
-2006, actual: LaMarcus Aldridge, best: LaMarcus Aldridge
-2007, actual: Kevin Durant, best: Kevin Durant
-2008, actual: Michael Beasley, best: Kevin Love
-2009, actual: Hasheem Thabeet, best: James Harden
-2010, actual: Evan Turner, best: TBD but currently Greg Monroe
-2011, actual: Derrick Williams, best: TBD but currently Klay Thompson or Kenneth Faried
-2011, actual: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, best: TBD but maybe Kidd-Gilchrist or Damian Lillard
Quite a few misses here besides Bowie, including a similar situation where the Pacers took big man with injury issues in Stipanovich over a slasher in Drexler. Some of the misses weren’t realistically foreseeable either (who knew Marion would be better than Francis?). Of cases where a team should’ve known better at the time, arguably Darko over Wade (or Bosh or Anthony) and Marvin Williams over Chris Paul are less defensible than even Bowie/Jordan. A sleeper bad pick is Beasley over Love (and Thabeet over Harden will look uglier with time).
No one could’ve known how good MJ was but Portland did have the tools to know that: (a) Bowie might be an injury risk and (b) his post-fracture numbers showed some serious decline. While Bowie fit neatly into the team they had, such short term goals are often forgotten over the long term goal of having the most possible talent. Moral of the story: do not draft for need, take the best available and you almost always come out ahead.