The Portland Trail Blazers won't have a selection in Thursday's draft unless they trade in. Unlike years past, previous trades and regular-season performance have taken Portland out of the festivities for the first time since 1999. Without a pressing need to acquire additional young talent, perhaps the Blazers' absence has signaled their readiness to compete on a veteran level.
In 2012-13, the Trail Blazers finished with a record of 33-49, good enough to earn them the 10th spot in the 2013 Draft, where GM Neil Olshey took CJ McCollum in the first round. In Damian Lillard's rookie year, the team was set up to contend not for a playoff spot, but for a lottery ball. There was no better indicator than Sasha Pavlovic's inclusion on the final roster after the 2012-13 preseason, where the simple fact that Boston was paying his salary bumped the much more deserving Adam Morrison off the end of the bench.
Under first-year head coach Terry Stotts, Lillard completed a Rookie of the Year campaign as Portland made a strong case for the final spot in the West, a move which would have thrown off all of Olshey's hard work. Thankfully, the Blazers were saved by a tremendous 13-game losing streak to close the season. The slide secured a lottery pick and Portland geared up for a run at the playoffs in 2014.
The rest we all know. Olshey helped facilitate the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade, stealing Robin Lopez in the process. He signed Mo Williams, snatched up Thomas Robinson as the Rockets looked to clear cap space for Dwight Howard and inked shooter Dorell Wright. The result was that the Blazers not only made the playoffs, but found their way to the second round for the first time in 14 years.
Each move made by Olshey has felt calculated, measured and dedicated to the core in place. It's fair to say that every move the Blazers have made over the last year has at least been groan-free, and at best been downright savvy. That's why, without a pick in this draft, Portland's absence isn't any cause for concern. We've reached a point where Portland is no longer looking to add an Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Hell, they aren't even trying to add a Nik Stauskas or Elfrid Payton.
What they need now is another Lopez.
You see, it's not just about who may be available, it's about who may be available due to who else is being targeted. Olshey nabbed a starting center and rotation big man last summer simply by looking at the moves other teams were reportedly trying to make. A phone call here, an offer there and suddenly Olshey was playing the role of facilitator as he added to the foundation below his core. Repeating that same success in 2014 will prove difficult, given the assets and cap space Portland cashed in last summer, but this management group has inspired trust from fans in Rip City.
After their dismantling against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, Portland has been left to ponder what pieces of the puzzle they're missing. The Blazers now have to scour the free-agent pool and projected moves by teams looking to make a big splash.
That's the beauty of what Olshey has built in the Rose City. Instead of having to press for production from his rookies, Stotts has been afforded the comfort of looking for the final piece or pieces to his team's puzzle with his front office. The great teams tinker, experiment and search for the last, binding player or players for a championship run. That's where the Blazers find themselves on Thursday.
So, maybe it's not such a bad thing that Portland is missing out on the most hyped draft class in over a decade. They, like several other playoff teams, are instead trying to find a defined player, rather than finding a player to define them. Now, the question is if Olshey can find the same magic he did last summer.