Portland Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey to talk about the team's success over the first 52 games of the season heading into the All Star Break.
Neil, thanks for the time. I appreciate you taking the time to catch up with us and I know the fans love hearing from you, too.
Great! What's going on, guys?
Character win last night [at Houston on 2/8/2015]. You know, during rough stretches, rough patches, chemistry is tested for teams and I know chemistry is something you pay very close attention to. What were your thoughts on the bounce-back victory after the real tough loss to swallow against Dallas [on 2/7/2015]?
Terry [Stotts] and I were talking this morning. I mean, I had trouble getting out of bed Sunday morning. I was so depressed after Saturday night, and I can't imagine what it was like -- the coaches get on the plane, work through the night coming up with a new game prep, going to a lunch meeting, and then not only play a back-to-back against a high-level opponent on a quick turnaround on the road, and to come out and give that kind of effort consistently through the four quarters. To have Houston come back, put a little bit of a scare back into us, and have the guys show the resiliency that they did, it really does show to the character and the commitment that the guys have to this team. We have a lot of guys that are still playing hurt and they're playing through injuries and they're fighting through it, and I think they all knew just how critical getting a split on that trip was. We gave one away Saturday night to Dallas and it showed a lot of intestinal fortitude to get it right back.
How important, looking at back-to-back games like that, where your starters, in overtime, had to play a lot of minutes in that Dallas game -- how important is the bench for a playoff team and what do you think of the Blazer bench so far this year?
I think the bench gets a pretty bad rep and I think people need to dig a little bit deeper. I think it's interesting. Last year at this point, we were 36-16 after 52 and this year we're 35-17. Last year, we didn't have a starter miss a game up until the All Star Break. At this point this year, we've already had 35 games missed by our starters, so somebody is stepping into that void and it's got to be the guys coming off that bench because we're only a game behind where we were last year in what's probably proving to be an even tougher Western Conference. I have one stat for you because I want to be prepared for this bench question because too many people look at the bench in a vacuum. When you look at some of the lower-scoring, and just scoring -- some of the lower-scoring benches in the league along with us are the Clippers, Memphis, Houston, and Cleveland, and last time I checked, they were pretty good teams. When you play your starters and you try and keep your starters healthy and they're the focal point of your team, the bench isn't going to get as big an opportunity. Last year, our bench ranked 13th in the league in real plus-minus. They were a -64 on the season. This year, we're ranked seventh and we're +253. Nobody tell me the guys aren't getting it done when they get an opportunity. The goal is for them not to get too big an opportunity because we want our starters on the floor, so that's what makes us a unique team in this league. We think we have, if not the, one of the best starting lineups in the NBA, so we want those guys on the court, and then we're getting contributions -- it's not always in raw numbers; it's not always raw scoring; it's how they play, how they interact with the starters they share the floor with, what their match-ups are for a given night. I think we've seen the emergence of CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard lately. Dorell [Wright]'s had big nights off the bench, Allen Crabbe stepped up when he needed to to replace Nicolas [Batum]. Everyone forgets we're still without Joel Freeland, who's one of, if not our best, defensive big. Our defensive rating is at our best when he's on the floor. We're still battling through some stuff right here, and we said it when it happened with [Robin Lopez]: it's going to make us a better team down the road and I think to this point, it really has.
Talk about Meyers specifically. The cliche we throw out there is "the light has come on" or "the game has slowed down for him." All of a sudden, and I mean last night, and I said this in the first segment -- I think the most impressive stretch for him in his young Blazers career in a key moment against a playoff team on the road in a back-to-back, when maybe some dead legs were starting to get to the starters and the guys who played heavy minutes. Meyers comes in and goes 4-4; rest of the team combined to go 0-4; he outscores the Rockets 9-5 until the 7:15 mark of the fourth [quarter]. I know that that's great to see. I know you love to see that from Meyers and he's feeling that confidence now, and we're seeing that development in leaps and bounds now at this point in the season.
It's easy to forget, because Meyers is so talented and there's so much raw potential there, that he's not only the youngest guy on our roster, but he's young for a big guy in our league. When we drafted Meyers, you didn't hear one word out of my mouth or Terry's when we hired him, that Meyers was a day-one guy the way that Damian Lillard was; that it was going to be a two or three year project, that we're going to need to develop, and we just felt like he had the most talent available at that point in the draft. He's morphed into a different player -- I think the initial goal that everyone was hoping because of the body and because of the physicality, he was going to be a true back-to-the-basket center and I think now we're finding a much more comfortable niche for him, playing more of a [power forward] facing the hoop. More than anything, what Terry's done, and I'm really happy about it, is we're starting to embrace what Meyers is and not vilifying him for what he isn't. We're embracing the fact that he's an elite jump shooter that can stretch the floor, run the floor, he rebounds against the four-man, he's getting better defensively, and I think more than anything -- we've always believed in him as a front office -- I think Terry has embraced Meyers' potential, but gaining the trust and confidence of his teammates that he shares the floor with was probably the biggest challenge for Meyers, and I think he's starting to win them over, and I think that is breeding more and more confidence with Meyers. I know he's on on the next segment and I think if you asked him that, that would be the most rewarding thing of the last month and a half or so, is that the veteran guys on our roster that know how hard it is to win in this league are starting to embrace what he can contribute.
When you draft a big guy like Meyers, what is your philosophy on development? Do you have a picture of how long it might take for someone like that to develop like Meyers has?
Like I said, when we drafted Meyers, he barely played as a freshman, he had a good run as a sophomore, he was young in his draft class. We knew it was going to be a couple years and I don't think anybody should be surprised. We were trying to win immediately, so we went and traded for Robin Lopez. We didn't make Meyers the starter the way we did with Damian. We didn't hedge our bets with Damian. We handed Dame the ball day one and it was his show. Once we got Robin Lopez, we were in a win-now mode. This year: same thing. We knew we needed to take another step forward; we went out and got a former All Star in Chris Kaman to come in. Nobody is developing Meyers at the expense of winning, so the minutes that he's getting now are not being given to him. He's earned them and hopefully continues to earn more and more minutes. But at the end of the day, we've got six quality bigs and whoever has the ability to contribute the most along side [Lopez] and LaMarcus [Aldridge], those are the guys that are going to get on the floor, be it Meyers -- he's going to have to continue to play at this level when Joel Freeland comes back. Thomas Robinson has contributed when he's gotten an opportunity. I'm pleased with Meyers. We didn't want to put a tangible number on a coach; what we wanted to do was just make he was getting better every year and that when he did get opportunities to produce, he was being embraced for what he did do, not what he didn't do.
Speaking of bigs -- we didn't need reminding of it -- certainly Mr. Robin Lopez -- his effect on the game. We talk so much and get caught up in it talking about his defense all the time. What he gives this team offensively in terms of screen-setting and rolling to the hoop, his effect on Nic Batum -- it just jumps out at you when you watch a ballgame, the way those guys play together. It's so nice to have him back. Robin's another one of those moves -- you talked about bringing in [Chris] Kaman, and also [Steve] Blake with him -- moves that maybe didn't move the needle nationally, at least on the East Coast. Robin was one of those moves. How vitally important is he to this team?
I'll give you guys a trivia question that Terry Stotts came up with over the weekend. He must've been bored or he must not have been able to sleep after the Dallas game, but here's the question for you: in the history of the Trail Blazers, there are two current players that rank in the top ten in offensive efficiency all-time. Who are they? One is #1 and one is #10. The Trail Blazers score the most points per 100 possessions when they are on the court.
Because you set it up with Robin, I assume he's one.
Robin is #1. Meyers Leonard is #10. And that's along with greats like Kiki Vandeweghe and Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler and Danny Ainge and Buck Williams and Dale Davis. The list goes on. So you're right. The irony is when [Lopez] went out, we were ranked second in the league defensively and we're basically third right now -- third hanging around fourth. But the falloff has been on the offensive end. [Lopez] changes the geometry of the floor, he's an incredible screener, he's a roller, he can catch and finish, he makes the game easier for Nicolas [Batum] in those secondary pick-and-rolls. And a big part of our offense last year and our efficiency was our offensive rebounding and second-chance points, which kind of went away because we just weren't rebounding on the offensive end at the same level. Those are the things [Lopez]'s contributed and that's why we're probably one bad two-minute stretch from being undefeated since he's returned.
You hear Ray Allen, every day we hear in the paper the Clippers are after him and this team is after him. What's your thoughts on mid-year trades to bring people in or free agents that are out there or the buyout with Amar'e [Stoudemire]? What do you feel like mid-year?
I mean, look. There's things I can discuss and there's things I can't. I can't talk about specific players but what I can tell you is we've got a unique situation. I think when you look at a lot of the trades that have happened to this point that brought in impact players, with the exception of probably one situation, all of those players went into the receiving teams as starters. They conveyed significant assets but they ended up with a starter. We're not trading anybody on our starting lineup. That is our starting lineup. It's one of the best starting lineups in the league. It's our core. We're committed to not only having them this year but in the future, so we're not touching that. We're in a little bit of a different situation because were we to do something, we need to find an impact player that not only fits contractually, not only fits culturally, and skill-wise, but is somebody that's going to come in and play a role that we don't believe the guys that are here currently are capable of fulfilling. That's a unique situation because, like I said, we've seen everybody was clamoring to go out and sign a big and we had guys like Meyers Leonard ready to step in and we knew he was capable of helping us. You've seen what CJ McCollum is capable of and most of the guys you're talking about bringing in, the role players -- here's a guy like CJ: in the games he's played more than 15 minutes, he's averaging 10 [points] a game and shooting 59 [percent] from the floor. CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard and [Thomas] Robinson and the guys -- we've got a very unique situation because we're looking at right in the middle. It's not a guy that already replicates or duplicates what we have in terms of our rotation guys. It's not going to be a starter, so we've got to find the right fit if we are going to make a move. We're open to it; we want to get better; we're always looking for ways to improve the roster, but we need to be judicious in these things not just because of the assets we may or may not convey, but because of the short- and long-term effects it can have on our chemistry on our roster now. That was a gut-check win [Sunday] night, and as talented and as gifted as guys like Damian and LaMarcus are, that win, after our starters played 42 minutes apiece the night before and came back on 18 hours rest, that was about character and guts and it was about our chemistry. In order for us to mess around with that, we're going to have to find a guy that everybody -- the current roster players, the coaching staff, the front office, and his future teammates -- are all comfortable with.
Alright Neil. We appreciate the time, as always. Thanks for jumping on and catching up, and congratulations on the new contract, by the way. We haven't talked to you on the year since then.
I appreciate it. Just tell Meyers -- just keep reminding him -- shooters shoot.
We try to. We've told a lot of guys that lately.
As a matter of fact, when you have a roster full of shooters, we should all be shooting.
Thanks Neil. We appreciate it.
Alright guys, you got it.