Kiki Vandeweghe: More Than Just a Scoring Machine, 1986

[After 10 seasons in Portland, Jack Ramsay wanted out. His Trail Blazers finished off the 1985-86 regular season in disastrous fashion, dropping twelve-straight contests. The talk radio stations blamed Ramsay, and he blamed the front office for succumbing to the marketing department and statistical hokum. “There were people working for us who were doing statistical analysis and trying to tell me which players to use,” said Ramsay of his introduction to the analytics revolution to come.  “I didn’t like that.”

By May 1986, the Legend had stepped down with a year left on his contract. His replacement: Mike Schuler, a former assistant to Don Nelson and his Milwaukee Bucks. “Having the opportunity to coach the Portland Trail Blazers is the biggest and greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” the 45-year-old Schuler declared. “No team in the NBA will be better prepared than our team, and no team in the NBA will play harder than our team.” Schuler expected most of the hard play from the defensive end, and that had many wondering whether the team’s offensive-minded acquisition Kiki Vandeweghe wouldn’t last long in a Blazer uniform.

This article, from Al Crombie of the Vancouver (WA) Columbian, questioned that logic, and rightfully so. During the 1986-87 season, Vandeweghe would thrive, topping Portland in scoring (26.9 ppg) and minutes played (38.3 per game). Unlike the year before, the Blazers would finish strong, compiling a 49-33 record and claiming second place in the Pacific Division. Though the Blazers would fall to Houston in the first round of the playoffs, morale would remain high. To quote the team’s other superstar Clyde Drexler, “We had transformed ourselves from a team that had no identity to one on the verge of great things.” This article appeared in Hoop Magazine in late 1986.]

During the summer, it appeared the Portland Trail Blazers were intent on bringing together the NBA’s “Odd Couple” for the 1986-87 season.

With a cry of “Defense!” they hired Milwaukee Bucks assistant Mike Schuler as head coach. 

And then they signed Kiki Vandeweghe, who personifies offense, to a new six-year contract. 

But instead of an Odd Couple, the Blazers think they’ve found basketball harmony. After watching tapes of the Blazers’ 1985-86 season, Schuler made this admiring appraisal of Vandeweghe: “A scoring machine.”

Although claiming to take the Portland job with no preconceptions, Schuler admitted, “I only knew that people kept telling me he was not a good defensive player.” Schuler has confirmed his initial impression regarding Kiki’s offense, but takes exception to the analysis by Vandeweghe’s critics concerning his defense. 

“Since the first day of Fall camp, I have not seen him not play well,” Schuler says. “He was the most improved player in our camp. I think my system of defense helps him, and we know who our scorers are. They’ll get their opportunities.”

Vandeweghe, in his seventh NBA season, likes his role in Schuler’s scheme of basketball. “I guess you’d have to say defense may be the weakest part of my game,” he acknowledges, “but it was never criticized until I got to the Denver Nuggets. At UCLA, I earned my playing time with defense and rebounding. 

“But at Denver we scored so many points—and so did the other guys—that people started saying I couldn’t play defense. I’m not going to make the NBA’s All-Defensive team, but I don’t think my defense is that bad, either.”

He thinks that once the “no defense” label was applied because of Denver’s emphasis on free-wheeling offense, the evolution of the NBA heightened that impression. “It seems like every team in the NBA has at least one outstanding scorer, and most of them happen to be playing small forward. I seemed to be matched up against one every time we went out on the court.

“I don’t think anyone in this league can stop a scorer one-on-one. I know I don’t think one defender can stop me from scoring.”

Although the Trail Blazers made the playoffs, last season was a disappointing one for Vandeweghe. “When Sam Bowie was lost for the season with his leg injury, and Kenny Carr’s knees hobbled him, we really lost the inside defensive strength of the team,” he says. 

“I worked hard on my defense and rebounding, and Coach Jack Ramsay complimented me on my progress at the end of the season. But we had so many injuries, we really never were the team we might have been. Again, this year I’ll put the emphasis on improving my defensive play.” 

“We don’t expect miracles,” Bucky Buckwalter, the chief of Blazer basketball operations warned. “With a new coach, a new system, and a lot of new players, it will take time for everything to fit into place.”

But Vandeweghe began to enjoy his role in Schuler’s system even before the preseason schedule was completed. Against the Sacramento Kings, he was the familiar scoring machine—31 points on 13-for-16 shooting and 5-for-5 from the free-throw line in 26 minutes, at one time hitting 11 consecutive shots from the floor. In that time, he also had four rebounds and two steals, as he helped frustrate the Kings’ offensive schemes. 

The Blazer defense will trigger the offense, Vandeweghe says, and his points will come out of the flow of the game. He won’t have to look for shots. 

Vandeweghe feels comfortable in the new system, playing for his third coach in the NBA. He’s seen both his own role and the NBA change during his six seasons in the league. “I think any team now needs two big guys, two swingmen, and a big guard to compete successfully. Small forwards in the NBA now are guys 6-foot-8 to 6-foot-11, who can shoot the outside shot, are quick, and can run the floor. I’m really becoming a third guard rather than a forward. 

“I like the defense we’re playing now. You know where people are going to be, and you can count on some backup,” he says. “I love a pressure defense. Everybody plays hard, and the defense creates a lot of scoring opportunities. 

“Our offense now has some similarities to Doug Moe’s game at Denver. If you have an open shot early down the floor, you take it. You don’t have to get into a pattern offensive situation first, and it doesn’t have to be a layup.”

He’s been among the NBA’s top scorers every year in the league and twice been selected for the All-Star Game, but is far from satisfied. “When you come off the floor after a game and can tell yourself, ‘That was my perfect game, that’s the best basketball I can play,’ it’s time to quit,” Vandeweghe said. “The reason to play is to improve your game, and I try to do that every time I go on the court.”

Vandeweghe elected to continue, and perhaps finish his career with the Blazers, accepting a six-year pact that will bring him an estimated $4.8 million rather than shopping around the NBA.

The discomfort that troubled him his first season in Portland has disappeared. No longer is he tagged as the Denver player for whom the Blazers traded away popular Calvin Natt, Lafayette Lever, and Wayne Cooper, plus a couple of first-round draft choices. 

That was two years ago, but Vandeweghe has not forgotten the pressure he felt. “It was a struggle the first year, but the fans never gave up on me,” he says. “In a way, I felt I owed a little bit to the fans. I wanted to come back here and play well for them. 

“When you get into the NBA, travel around and find out what a city is like and what the people and fans are like, you can’t find a better situation than the one in Portland. I told the Trail Blazers I wanted to play here. The whole environment is excellent for basketball. 

“The money isn’t really important to me. I don’t need a lot for myself, but I like the security that it will provide for my family somewhere down the line. I don’t really have expensive tastes. I don’t have any desire to own a big car or a lot of expensive clothes. Those things don’t make me happy. The nice thing about having money is what you can do for others.”

His sister Tauna, on the Trail Blazer broadcasting team, says, “You have to understand that money really doesn’t have any meaning to Kiki . . . because he never spends any!” Although, she says with a laugh, he insists that she pay half the rent for the Portland apartment they now share. 

There was speculation that the coaching change from Jack Ramsay to Schuler, with his emphasis on defense, might have made Vandeweghe reluctant to return. “It wasn’t a factor,” Vandeweghe says. “The Trail Blazers offered to negotiate a contract during last season, but I said ‘no thanks, I’m here to play basketball now.’ Contracts are for the offseason, not a distraction when you’re playing. 

“The change in coaches was not a factor in my decision. Mike was hired early, before we even got into contract negotiations, and I had the opportunity to meet and talk with him in Los Angeles. 

“I liked what he had to say, the way he wanted the team to play basketball. I liked the way the Blazers have gone about getting the players to fit his style. I think I’m just very lucky to be playing basketball, lucky to be paid to play basketball, and even luckier to be paid very, very well.”

With Schuler’s approach to the game, the intensity on defense is physically demanding. His solution is to play the starters fewer minutes and have backup players in action for 18  to 20 minutes a game. 

Does that threaten Vandeweghe’s offensive stature?

“That would give me 30 minutes. I think that’s about the playing time I averaged last year,” Vandeweghe said. “Besides, the coach is talking about an ideal situation. In that case, it would mean we were way ahead in a lot of the games and that would be great. 

“But it isn’t going to happen. We’re talking about averages over the season, not each game. Anyway, if you’re a good player, you’re going to get playing time. You’ll play the number of minutes the coach thinks are necessary to win. 

“If it were so simple, think how strong Boston would be if they had to play Larry Bird only 30 minutes a night. He’d never get tired.”

Basketball remains the focus for Vandeweghe’s future. His new contract will carry him to age 34, and if he still wants to play at that time, the Blazers are sure to grant an extension. 

For now, there are no plans for marriage or a family. “The NBA life is awfully tough on marriage,” he says. “You’re away from home a lot, and when you’re home you still have practice and games to play. 

“The tough part is coming home from a road trip, returning to an empty apartment and having to turn on all the lights, turn up the heat, and see what’s in the refrigerator. Now that my sister Tauna’s sharing the apartment, it isn’t as bad as it used to be. Besides, you get used to it.”

And of all the road trips, Dallas remains special. There the crowds boo every time he touches the ball. Drafted by Dallas in 1980, Vandeweghe declined to play there and sat out the early part of the season until the Mavericks traded him to Denver. Among the Maverick faithful, this slight is not forgotten nor forgiven. 

“It’s become a tradition there. It’s good-natured and I enjoy the spirit in which it’s given. I have 5-year-old kids booing me, and they don’t have any idea what it’s all about. I have Dallas fans come up after every game and say they don’t really mean it,” Vandeweghe said. 

Any season of the year, for Vandeweghe, is basketball season. He loves the game, whether it’s NBA action or practicing shots in a deserted gymnasium. “The only time I don’t play basketball is when people aren’t playing hard,” he says. 

Schuler promises that won’t be a problem for Vandeweghe—or any of the Trail Blazers—this season or in years to come. 

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