Sam Bowie Exemption: Too Productive (NBA)

WHY SAM BOWIE CAN REJECT THE CLAIM THAT HE WAS A BUST

Synopsis: As discussed in a previous post, Sam Bowie is often highlighted as the biggest bust in NBA history simply because he was drafted ahead of Michael Jordan. While it’s clear that the Trail Blazers made a really bad decision regarding their 2nd overall pick in the 1984 Draft (especially given that Portland also passed up on Hall of Famer Charles Barkley), Bowie was not an all-time bust. In particular, he averaged approximately 11 points and eight rebounds per game during his career. On behalf of all players who achieved at least a minimum threshold of production during their careers and in honor of the most inappropriately maligned player in NBA history, I have created the Sam Bowie Exemption.


SAM BOWIE EXEMPTION

Any conversation about the 1984 NBA Draft usually begins and ends with the comment that the Portland Trailblazers selected Sam Bowie with their 2nd overall pick instead of Michael Jordan. In between, the discussion may digress with a comment that the draft was the greatest ever with four Hall of Famers (#1 – Hakeem Olajuwon, #3 – Michael Jordan, #5 – Charles Barkley, and #16 – John Stockton), or a mention of the coin flip that gave Houston the top pick instead of Portland. However, the elephant in the room is always the Bowie pick. It may be hard to convince you otherwise, but I contend that Bowie wasn’t a bust because he was productive enough to escape the label.

In order to avoid this label being applied inappropriately to Bowie or any other sufficiently productive player, I have created the following criterion.

Criterion #2:  Players who meet a minimum threshold of production are exempt from being declared all-time busts. Those minimum thresholds are: 16 win shares for a #1 overall pick; 9 win shares for picks 2-5; and 4 win shares for picks 6-10.  

Given Jordan’s achievements, no one can seem to remember why Sam Bowie might have even deserved consideration to be drafted ahead of the NBA’s G.O.A.T. To start, you’ll need to realize that NBA Championships were won almost exclusively by teams with dominant big men up to that point. From 1952 to 1979, all but two NBA Championships were won by teams which included the following all-time great big men: George Mikan; Dolph Schayes; Neil Johnston; Bob Pettit; Bill Russell; Wilt Chamberlain; Willis Reed; Dave Cowens; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Wes Unseld; and Bill Walton. Even as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were starting to collect their own rings, the Lakers had Kareem and the Celtics had Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Also, Julius Erving didn’t win a title until he joined up with Moses Malone in 1983. When these players are added to the prior list, 35 out of 37 NBA Champions included a big man who was named one of the Greatest 50 Players in NBA History. As such, it wasn’t unreasonable for the Trailer Blazers to want a big man, especially since the team already had future Dream Team member Clyde Drexler at shooting guard.

Even though Olajawon won his only two championships while Jordan was “playing” baseball, I’ve never heard anyone fault the Rockets for taking Olajuwon over Jordan. As such, the Trail Blazers must be questioned specifically for taking Bowie and not for preferring a big man instead of a very talented shooting guard. Unfortunately, most people remember the top instead of the bottom picture of Bowie.

SAM BOWIE BEING CARRIED OFF WITH HIS THIRD SEASON-ENDING INJURY IN FOUR NBA SEASONS
Sam Bowie carried off court

This happened during a preseason shootaround.

Sam Bowie showing his athleticism while at Kentucky
Sam Bowie at Kentucky

Seriously, look at those hops!

In case Bowie’s height and athleticism are not readily apparent from the picture, take a look at the following clip of him while at Kentucky. Perhaps somewhat misleadingly, both the picture and the clip came from before Bowie suffered a serious leg injury that kept him out for two years while still in college. As the following table shows, Bowie was not quite the same player before and after the injury.

SAM BOWIE – COLLEGE STATS (KENTUCKY)
Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Games 2P FT Rebounds Assists Blocks

Points

1979-80

34 .531 .764 8.1 0.8 2.1

12.9

1980-81 28 .520 .720 9.1 1.4 2.9

17.4

1981-82

Injured
1982-83

Injured

1983-84

34 .516 .722 9.2 1.9 1.9 10.5
Career 96 .522 .735 8.8 1.4 2.3

13.4

As a rebounder and a shooter, Bowie didn’t fall off much pre and post-injury but he wasn’t the same scorer or shot blocker. While Bowie sat out for the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons, Mel Turpin filled in at center and helped guide Kentucky to consecutive SEC Championships.

MEL TURPIN – COLLEGE STATS (KENTUCKY)
Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Games 2P FT Rebounds Assists Blocks

Points

1980-81

28 .526 .705 3.8 NA 0.8 4.7
1981-82 30 .582 .679 7.1 NA 2.2

13.1

1982-83

31 .617 .672 6.3 NA 2.7 15.1
1983-84 34 .593 .745 6.4 NA 1.6

15.2

Career

123 .591 .696 5.9 NA 1.8

12.3

Whereas Bowie was a force for Kentucky from the start, Turpin progressed more gradually. Playing together again for the 1983-84 season, they had similar production with Turpin scoring a few more points and Bowie grabbing a few more rebounds per game. Known collectively at the “Twin Towers” (a year before Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon usurped the nickname while with the Houston Rockets), Bowie and Turpin led the Wildcats to an SEC title (Turpin’s third in a row) and a #1-seed in the Midwest Region of the 1984 NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky’s Twin Towers performed well in leading the Wildcats to three straight victories. In those games, Bowie averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds while Turpin averaged 14 points and five rebounds. Due to a 1st round bye, Kentucky only needed three wins to meet up against Georgetown in the Final Four. In that semi-final match-up, Bowie (10 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks) outplayed Ewing (eight points, nine rebounds, and zero blocks), but Turpin had an off-night (five points on 2-11 shooting, five rebounds, and one blocked shot). In the end, the Hoyas’ supporting cast of David Wingate (11 points and three rebounds) and Michael Jackson (12 points and 10 rebounds) proved to be too much in Georgetown’s 53-40 victory. Two days later, Georgetown won the Championship with a 84-75 victory over Olajuwon and the Houston Cougars. In case it wasn’t obvious, three of the four teams at the Final Four had at least one dominant big man.

With the worst records in the Eastern and Western Conferences, the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets were in position to get the #1 overall pick of the 1984 Draft. Due to a trade, however, the Trail Blazers held the Pacers’ pick so they were part of “Olajuwon Sweepstakes” instead. As explained in a previous post, the Rockets got the first pick after winning a coin flip and used it to take center from the Houston Cougars. After unsuccessfully trying to lure Ewing out of college, the Trail Blazers used their pick on Bowie. While Portland’s strategy to select a big man can be justified, its decision to use the pick on an injury-prone player can be questioned. I only wonder if the team was so committed to a big man that it even would have taken Sam Perkins over Jordan.

As shown in the previous table, Bowie averaged approximately 11 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game after suffering a serious leg injury that kept him out for two years in college. Interestingly, he produced similar numbers (i.e. 11 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks per game) during his NBA career.

SAM BOWIE – NBA STATS
         

Per Game Averages

Season Team Games Win Shares 2P% Rebounds Assists Blocks

Points

1984-85

POR 76 5.7 .537 8.6 2.8 2.7 10.0
1985-86 POR 38 2.4 .484 8.6 2.6 2.5

11.8

1986-87

POR 5 0.1 .455 6.6 1.8 2.0 16.0
1987-88 POR

Injured

1988-89

POR 20 0.5 .438 5.3 1.8 1.7 8.6
1989-90 NJN 68 4.1 .420 10.1 1.3 1.8

14.7

1990-91

NJN 62 2.6 .442 7.7 2.4 1.5 12.9
1991-92 NJN 71 4.6 .448 8.1 2.6 1.7

15.0

1992-93

NJN 79 4.3 .451 7.0 1.6 1.6 9.1
1993-94

LAL

25

0.8

.440

5.2

1.9

1.1

8.9

1994-95

LAL

67

1.1

.453

4.3

1.8

1.2

4.6

Career

  511 26.9 .456 7.5 2.1 1.8

10.9

Bowie’s NBA career started out auspiciously with averages of 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks per game during his rookie year. Interestingly, the First Team All-Rookie team that year included each of the top five overall picks (Olajuwon, Bowie, Jordan, Perkins, and Barkley) for the only time in the 52-year history of the recognition. Clearly, Bowie wasn’t a bust up to that point; however, the injuries started soon thereafter. Bowie only played 38 games in his second season before breaking his left leg, and then five games in his third season before breaking his right leg. He missed his entire fourth season after fracturing his right leg while warming up for a preseason game (remember the picture from earlier in this post). Perhaps, Bowie was M. Night’s inspiration for S. Leroy’s (sorry, Samuel L.’s) character in Unbreakable.

SAM BOWIE: ON-SCREEN PERSONA?
bowie unbreakable

In some future version of this site, M. Night Shyamalan might be named as a Top 10 Bust director/screen writer given his success with The Sixth Sense but subsequent failures.

After Bowie’s productive rookie season, he only played in 63 out of a possible 328 games during his final four years in Portland. Before the 1989-90 season, Bowie was traded along with a 1st-round pick (which was used to take Mookie Blaylock) to the New Jersey Nets for Buck Williams. The trade was good for both teams and especially good for Bowie considering that he was able to stay relatively healthy and missed only 48 out of the next 328 games.

Bowie had his most productive seasons with the Nets by averaging approximately 13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game. He even averaged a double-double (15 ppg and 10 rpg) for the 1989-90 season. Simply based on those four years, Bowie would escape Top 10 Bust status based on his accumulated win shares. Specifically, he had 16 win shares and only needed 9.

In 1993, Bowie was traded by the Nets along with a second round pick (which was used to take Toby Bailey, who had a whopping 241 career points) to the Lakers for Benoit Benjamin (the #3 overall pick from the 1985 Draft). Both of the former first round picks lasted only two years with their new teams. Of note, Bowie retired while Benjamin was picked up by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1995 Expansion Draft. Regardless, New Jersey got the better end of the trade given Benjamin’s 10 ppg and seven rpg averages over 138 games for the Nets versus Bowie’s six ppg and four rpg averages over 92 games for the Clippers. Bowie said he retired to spend more time with his family, but perhaps the years of injuries finally became too much. Additionally, he probably didn’t want to deal with more comparisons to Jordan, who had just returned from his suspension baseball experiment. No matter how far away he runs, Bowie cannot be delinked from Jordan or the other superstars from the 1984 Draft.

SAM BOWIE AND OTHER NOTABLE PLAYERS FROM THE 1984 DRAFT
Draft Pick Team Player Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG

Win Shares

#1 HOU Hakeem Olajuwon  1,238 26,946 13,748 3,058 21.8 11.1 2.5

162.8

#2

POR Sam Bowie     511 5,564 3,845 1,075 10.9 7.5 2.1 26.9
#3 CHI Michael Jordan  1,072 32,292 6,672 5,633 30.1 6.2 5.3

214.0

#4

DAL Sam Perkins  1,286 15,324 7,666 1,975 11.9 6.0 1.5 105.4
#5 PHI Charles Barkley  1,073 23,757 12,546 4,215 22.1 11.7 3.9

177.2

#6

WAS Melvin Turpin 361 3,071 1,655 183 8.5 4.6 0.5 13.7
#7 SAS Alvin Robertson     779 10,882 4,066 3,929 14.0 5.2 5.0

52.1

#8

LAC Lancaster Gordon     201 1,125 259 294 5.6 1.3 1.5 -2.7
#9 KCK Otis Thorpe  1,257 17,600 10,370 2,730 14.0 8.2 2.2

106.4

#11

ATL Kevin Willis  1,424 17,253 11,901 1,328 12.1 8.4 0.9 81.8
#16 UTA John Stockton  1,504 19,711 4,051 15,806 13.1 2.7 10.5

207.7

The previous table should leave you with at least four observations:

  1. The 1984 Draft was stacked. In addition to the four Hall of Famers, there were:
    • two other players who scored over 17,000 points and gathered over 10,000 rebounds (Otis Thorpe and Kevin Willis);
    • one player with over 15,000 points and 7,500 rebounds (Sam Perkins); and
    • one player with approximately 11,000 points, 4,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists (Alvin Robertson).
    • Interestingly, two of the four players who have ever achieved a quadruple double come from this class (Olajuwon and Robertson)
  2. Sam Bowie may not have been a bust based on his overall production, but he was a really bad pick for the Trail Blazers.
    • This chart is what convinced me to have Bowie as the #1 Worst Draft Pick ever. In essence, a bad draft pick falls on the team while a bust falls on the player.
    • Bowie recently admitted that he lied to Portand’s doctors about not feeling any pain in his legs during a pre-draft examination, but the team still should have known better. If the team absolutely wanted to go big, it could have traded down and taken Perkins, Thorpe or Willis.
  3. Selected as the 6th overall pick, Mel Turpin was a lot less productive than his former Wildcat teammate and fellow “Twin Tower.”
    • While Bowie had injury problems, “Dinner Bell” Mel (who was also called “The Mealman” while playing alongside Karl Malone in Utah) had problems staying in shape.
    • Generally, Turpin seems to get a pass with respect to being called an all-time bust (probably because he was drafted after Jordan, Perkins, and Barkley).
    • With 13 win shares, Turpin was productive enough to get the Sam Bowie Exemption so he won’t be a Top 10 Bust. However, he does qualify for an Honorable Mention
  4. Lancaster Gordon, who was taken at #8 by the Clippers, makes Bowie look like a superstar.
    • Gordon was a top 10 overall pick with fewer than four win shares so he qualifies as a potential Top 10 Bust. In the end, however, there are too many other worse players so he’s only an Honorable Mention.

While my post won’t change everyone’s opinion, it makes you question the misconception that Bowie deserves to be remembered as an all-time bust.

SAM BOWIE EXEMPTION
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