Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
THE MATCHUP: Clyde Drexler vs. Dominique Wilkins
Clyde Drexler’s prime is malleable. He broke out following an underwhelming rookie season for the Portland Trail Blazers and came off the bench for a quarter of his first All-Star campaign in 1985-86. Three years before calling it a career, Drexler set 1998 as his retirement date, “because I’d like to get out of the game while I can still play at a high level,” and while he was clearly in decline in his last few seasons with the Houston Rockets, he remained a productive All-Star for playoff teams into his mid-30s despite injuries.
For these purposes, we’ll stretch Drexler’s prime to the 13-year window from his sophomore season to his penultimate campaign, even if he was at his very best for something closer to half that. From 1984-97, Drexler averaged 21.7 points (55.0 true shooting percentage), 6.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 36 minutes per game. In addition to his 10 All-Star appearances and five All-NBA teams, he placed top six in MVP voting three times, including a second-place finish in 1992.
Drexler never missed the playoffs in his entire career. During his prime, he averaged 21.1 points (53.6 true shooting percentage), 7.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.8 combined blocks and steals in 39.3 minutes over 135 playoff games. He played in five conference finals, three Finals and won the championship in 1995.
Dominique Wilkins was productive from the start for the Atlanta Hawks and at age 37 still led a 1997 San Antonio Spurs team that was tanking for Tim Duncan in scoring. He tore his Achilles and spent a season abroad in between, but his prime can be trimmed to an 11-year run of scoring 20 points per game or more.
From 1983-94, Wilkins averaged 27.4 points (54.0 true shooting percentage), 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.0 combined blocks and steals in 37.3 minutes a game. A nine-time All-Star and seven-time All-NBA selection, he too peaked with a second-place MVP finish in 1986, placing in the top six four times.
In his prime, the Hawks missed the playoffs three times. (He was also traded from the 57-win Hawks to the 27-win Los Angeles Clippers in February 1994.) During that 11-year stretch, Wilkins averaged 26.4 points (50.7 true shooting percentage), 6.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 combined blocks and steals in 39.6 minutes over 51 playoff games. Atlanta never got past the second round in an Eastern Conference dominated by the title-winning Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
There is a debate to be had about the road Wilkins faced in the ‘80s East compared to Drexler’s in the ‘90s West, between the end of Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers dominance and the emergence of Duncan’s Spurs. But the latter played in nearly three times as many playoff games over a slightly longer stretch of impact basketball, making our choice fairly easy despite comparable statistical résumés.
Drexler averaged a career-high 27 points per game for a 53-win Blazers team in 1988 and won a ring as the secondary star on a Rockets team defending its 1994 title, but his apex as a player undoubtedly came during the 1991-92 campaign. At age 29, he averaged 25.0 points (56.0 TS%), 6.7 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks/steals in 36.2 minutes per game, winning 57 games and coasting to the Finals. He finished second to Michael Jordan in the MVP race, receiving 12 of the 96 possible first-place votes.
Drexler averaged 26.3 points (55.3 TS%), 7.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 2.5 blocks/steals in 40.3 minutes per game in the playoffs. Despite registering a 25-8-5 on 41/15/89 shooting splits in the Finals, he drew Jordan’s ire as a threat to the throne, and the greatest player in the history of the game spent six games and the ensuing summer (when the two met again in Dream Team scrimmages) dismantling Drexler. He underwent knee surgery in September 1992 and made just one more All-NBA team three years later.
You can pick between 1985-86 and 1987-88 as Wilkins’ pinnacle. He led the league in scoring (30.3 points per game) and finished second to Larry Bird in the MVP race in 1986, when he earned five of 78 first-place votes to third-place Magic’s zero. In 1988, a 28-year-old Wilkins averaged 30.7 points (53.4 TS%), 6.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 steals/blocks in 37.8 minutes a game for a 50-win Hawks team.
Wilkins never came closer to a conference finals than 1988, when Atlanta pushed Bird’s Celtics to the limit in the second round. He averaged a 31-6-3 on 46/22/77 shooting splits in those playoffs, including a 47-point effort in a 118-116 Game 7 loss that featured the legendary Bird-Wilkins fourth-quarter duel.
Again, we can argue over whether Wilkins pushing the last vestige of Bird’s Celtics to a one-possession Game 7 in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals is as impressive as Drexler rolling through the post-Magic Lakers, pre-Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns and Stockton-Malone Utah Jazz in the West playoffs.
Is going toe-to-toe with a past-his-peak Bird the equivalent of Drexler getting worked by apex Jordan? Maybe. But at his pinnacle Drexler was a slightly more efficient (if less prolific) scorer, superior playmaker and the No. 1 option on a team that entered a Finals Game 5 tied with one of Jordan’s best Bulls teams.
Neither Drexler nor Wilkins is remembered for their clutch contributions to the NBA. Both Hall of Famers had their playoff ups and downs, and both were ultimately overshadowed by the megastars of their era.
During his prime, Wilkins’ teammates enjoyed just three All-Star seasons. Doc Rivers and Kevin Willis each made their lone appearances with the Hawks, and a 33-year-old Moses Malone played in the last of his 12 straight All-Star Games with Atlanta in 1989. Their Hawks were not often playoff favorites. Even the 57-win team in 1987 that lost in the second round fell to a Detroit Pistons that went on to win two titles.
Wilkins played in five advance-or-go-home games in the prime of his playoff career, losing four of them. The 47-point explosion in Game 7 against the 1988 Celtics would be remembered as one of the great clutch performances in NBA history had the Hawks not lost by a bucket, and he posted a 33-10-4 in the deciding game of a best-of-five first-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks in the previous round.
But Wilkins also had some clunkers in big games. His 10 points and no assists on 18 shots in a 32-point loss to the Pistons in Game 5 of their 1991 first-round series stands out as the worst, but pushing Detroit’s historic defense to a do-or-die game was an achievement in itself. In total, he averaged 24.8 points (48.6 TS%), 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.2 blocks/steals in those five win-or-go-home games.
Drexler had a lengthier playoff career from which to draw clutch conclusions. He played in three Finals, averaging 24.5 points (55.7 TS%), 8.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.9 blocks/steals over 15 games. He was far more productive against the Pistons in the 1990 Finals, albeit in a 4-1 series loss that saw him score a series-low 20 points in the close-out Game 5 loss. Drexler’s numbers against the Bulls in 1992 were better than remembered, his 8-for-24 shooting night in the close-out Game 6 loss withstanding. And his solid stat line in a sweep of the Orlando Magic in 1995 was lost in Hakeem Olajuwon’s brilliance.
Drexler also played in only five advance-or-go-home games in his prime playoff career, finishing 5-0. He averaged 25.6 points (58.9 TS%), 9.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.2 blocks/steals in those games.
There were plenty of playoff upsets. Drexler’s Blazers lost series as a higher seed in 1987, 1988, 1991 and 1993, a string of 50-win seasons sandwiched around an underwhelming 39-win 1989 campaign. This despite teammates Steve Johnson, Kevin Duckworth, Terry Porter and Clifford Robinson combining for six All-Star appearances on that run. Both Duckworth and Porter were All-Stars in addition to Drexler in 1991, when their 63-win Blazers suffered a six-game conference finals upset to Magic’s last Finals team. Drexler dumped the ball off to Porter for the errant game-winning attempt in the 91-90 Game 6 loss.
Despite those playoff wounds, the fact remains Drexler was more productive in three Finals appearances than Wilkins was in his entire playoff career, and that is enough to overcome one brilliant 47-point night.
• Drexler: 1995 NBA champion; five-time All-NBA selection (1x First Team, 2x Second team); 10-time All-Star; 1992 Olympic gold medalist; 2004 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
• Wilkins: Seven-time All-NBA selection (1x First Team, 4x Second Team); nine-time All-Star; 1986 scoring champion; two-time slam dunk champion; 1996 EuroLeague champion (Final Four MVP); 1994 FIBA World Championship gold medalist; 2006 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee
This is closer than the three previous sections would indicate. Two extra Second Team All-NBA selections, a scoring title and a pair of dunk contest victories are no small advantages on Wilkins’ résumé, and a EuroLeague championship as a Final Four MVP for Greek League powerhouse Panathinaikos is still a championship, even if European basketball was not then what it is today.
But I still think you want Drexler’s NBA ring and a gold medal with the Dream Team in the end. Had Wilkins not ruptured his Achilles in January 1992, he may well have received the final Dream Team invite over Drexler, which would have made this decision even tougher, but there are no ifs in the trophy case.
For the culture
Drexler has taken a hit since Jordan “took offense” to being compared to his erstwhile rival, although “The Last Dance” documentary has given less biased observers a chance to appreciate how good “The Glide” was — the speed, athleticism and grace with which he played — even if it was not up to Jordan’s standard. What a nickname, too, almost as good as the “Phi Slama Jama” fraternity he formed with Olajuwon and Larry Micheaux during back-to-back NCAA title-game runs at the University of Houston.
Yet, for a member of so many of basketball’s greatest institutions, including the Dream Team and the official list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, he’s floated further from basketball consciousness than someone like, say, Reggie Miller — or Wilkins, for that matter. For all his skill and thrilling style of play, Drexler often takes a backseat in the NBA’s most memorable montages. There are few signature moments to which another generation can directly connect, because the ones he made were often overshadowed by Jordan, Olajuwon and the more vociferous stars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
And it is not as though he left the game behind in retirement. Drexler had the head coaching job at his alma mater waiting when he retired from the NBA in 1998. He compiled an underwhelming 19-39 record before stepping down. Since then, he has professionally traded on his NBA stardom, operating Drexler’s World Famous BBQ restaurants in the Houston area and appearing on reality television series “Pros vs. Joes,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” He currently works as a color commentator for home Rockets broadcasts and serves as commissioner of Ice Cube’s BIG3 basketball league.
Maybe it is the quiet class with which he has carried himself on and off the court throughout his life as a public figure, but there should probably be a lot more respect on Drexler’s name than there seems to be.
Meanwhile, despite his team’s lack of playoff success, Wilkins seared himself into more memories. He is “The Human Highlight Film,” a nickname as good as any in NBA history. One of the game’s greatest dunkers, if not the greatest, synonymous with the windmill, Wilkins won two dunk contests five years apart and competed in three others, including the 1988 duel with Jordan in Chicago. Even MJ conceded, “I probably would’ve given it to him, but being that it was on my home turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”
For the record, Drexler went winless in five dunk contests. Nobody appeared in more than those two.
Like Drexler, Wilkins serves a color analyst for the Hawks. He has also been the organization’s vice president of basketball since 2004, serving an advisory role in addition to his community relations work.
His is a famous NBA family. Dominique’s brother Gerald enjoyed a lengthy NBA career, as has his nephew Damien. Born in Paris, Nique brought his show to Greece and Italy between stints with the Celtics, Spurs and Magic. He played until 1999, and his 29.9 points per game as a 33-year-old one season after rupturing his Achilles is a beacon of hope for players like Kevin Durant with the same injury.
Save for a few celebrity appearances over the years and a line of fine wines, Wilkins has largely been removed from the NBA limelight outside Atlanta, and yet he is closer to the tip of the basketball tongue. It is not easy to capture why Wilkins has enjoyed a greater cultural impact on the game, but this oddly approaches it: I definitely bought Reebok Pumps as a kid because of Wilkins. I could not have told you if Drexler ever had a signature shoe without looking it up, and as it turns out he did: Kangaroos Skywalker.
Roos. Drexler wore Roos. Weirdly perfect.
Also, Wilkins apparently introduced Drexler to his current wife. In a matchup where victories have come few and far between against one of his few athletic peers, Wilkins can count that as a win in his favor.
THE DAGGER: Clyde Drexler had the better career.
Previously on “Whose NBA career is better?”:
• Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki
• Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter
• Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan
• Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas
• Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili
• Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson
• Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
• Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
• Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
• Jason Kidd vs. Steve Nash
• Ray Allen vs. Reggie Miller
• Charles Barkley vs. Karl Malone
• Grant Hill vs. Tracy McGrady
• Dwight Howard vs. Rajon Rondo
• Gary Payton vs. John Stockton
• Kevin Garnett vs. Moses Malone
• Kevin McHale vs. James Worthy
• Walt Frazier vs. Scottie Pippen
• Horace Grant vs. Draymond Green
• Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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