Last night before the game, General Manager Neil Olshey and President / CEO Chris McGowan addressed a gathering of Season Ticketholders in what has been dubbed "The State of the United". They both spoke candidly about issues surrounding a franchise they have helped to instill with vibrancy and a world class atmosphere, and, best of all - wins.
For 45 minutes they held court, mostly fielding pre-selected questions from those in attendance (mine was not chosen…I forgot what it was, but trust me, it was awesome), while opening the floor to a couple other questions at the end.
Olshey was the star of the show, getting the bulk of the attention – and rightfully so, as architect of the Blazers’ renaissance on court – while McGowan managed to look artful while slogging through some thornier questions from budget-conscious consumers.
In his opening remarks, Olshey was quick to acknowledge the importance of the commitment of Blazer fans in building something special. "We’ve become very used to the impact that the fans have…but you bring in someone like Arron Afflalo, and Arron sees the reception he got when he entered the game for the first time the other night….he never had that at UCLA -- it was a little bit apathetic in Los Angeles -- he didn’t have that where he just came from…Seeing it through his eyes, the passion that you guys bring…[it’s why we] consider ourselves to have the best homecourt advantage in the NBA."
Compliment fans, check. Bring up game-changing trade that you just made, check. This guy knows how to warm up a room.
Of course the trade was a big topic of conversation. Olshey gave us a look through his wide-view lens on his choice of target.
"Once we saw what [our core] group was capable of, and how important the role of chemistry plays in our success, we were very reluctant to bring in anyone from the outside who might interfere with [our] chemistry."
"I have a relationship with Arron. I’ve known Arron since he was a high school player at Centennial Compton, I knew him through his years at UCLA, I worked him out when he was playing for the Denver Nuggets back when I was coaching [Olshey was an assistant coach for the Clippers in 04-05], so I was very comfortable bringing him into our culture. And that was as important for us as his skill set."
"We have a [specific] paradigm that we look at [and] everyone had to meet a certain six point criteria to bring them in…it limited the scope of players we looked at, but when we brought Arron in, we knew he would assimilate immediately, and he has."
Olshey went on to note that he expects one of the knock-on benefits of Aflalo’s presence will be to take some defensive pressure off Wes Matthews so he can focus more on the offensive side of the ball.
He also made a pretty strong endorsement of the other new Blazer: "I think Alonzo [Gee] is a little bit unsung…but he’s probably one of our best on-ball defenders…he replace[s] a little of the energy lost with having to include Will Barton in the deal to make the math work."
At this point, someone in the crowd yelled "Good Trade!"…prompting applause from the whole room.
He was then asked which players he considered priorities to resign, which he very nearly reduced to a non-question:
"We have been very consistent in that once we realized that this core was capable of competing at a high level, we would keep this core together… When you have an owner like Paul Allen, it completely eliminates economics as an obstacle in keeping a team together – we will have every possible ability to keep this group together, and not only keep this group together, but add to it." This statement was again met with rousing applause.
A question regarding the tools the team uses to determine player acquistions further prompted meditations on both process and philosophy.
"We’re looking at talent, chemistry, character. Players have to hit on all three…It’s a multi-pronged evaluation process. We use intel, analytics, live scouting, tape, how they fit on the court, what their background is… All of this goes into every decision we make, because you can’t survive bad decisions in this league…When you’re losing you can take risks, and we probably took more risks as a 33 win team than we will now as we’re not looking to jeopardize a 54 or 55 win team over what may or may not be an incremental offering."
"It all comes down to cost-benefit. When we add a player, we want to know as certain as possible that this guy is going to be an upgrade, not just in terms of his play on the court, but what he does for the overall organization. And that’s why I think we’ve been very judicious."
As far as his decision-making style, he proclaimed himself "a big collaborator. I don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room; I rarely am, so I take everyone’s opinion into consideration."
He also emphasized that the most important moves are not necessarily the splashiest: "At the end of the day you start winning in the margins, making good decisions involving smaller deals – [with] the big deals…you know exactly who you want to sign."
Olshey then expounded on the kaleidoscopic view necessary to his job, which makes the Aflalo deal sound like a work of art years in the making:
"That deal would not have come had Will Barton had not become a player, had Thomas Robinson’s contract option been picked up… which I know some people in this room were vilifying me for not picking it up and instead picking up Meyers Leonard’s option. So it’s the GM’s job to look around and see potential issues that may come up, and one of those was knowing we were going to need to use Thomas at some point in a deal."
[Just to check those that are asking themselves, "Will Barton became a player?" – he has scored 22 in each of his last two outings. Yes it’s for Denver. Just sayin’. Fascinating stuff about the machinations behind T-Rob’s option though.]
Olshey acknowledged the shift in mindset that this recent deal signals, an approach that has been slowly evolving over the past two years. For example, the decision to hold onto his 2013 draft picks instead of dealing them at the time for immediate help was key to the retooling thought process – "knowing we were going to need one more year before we were going to be able to compete at the highest level. So those macro decisions we make are what goes on behind the scenes, but I can assure you that we were working to improve the team every day."
Well, the results speak for themselves.
Speaking of results, Olshey did not spare praise for the tireless work of the coaches in the development of Meyers Leonard, as well as the hard work the young man himself has put in – while reminding us that Meyers is youngest guy on the roster.
He went on to discuss philosophy in regards to player development: "As an organization, you are always in the development phase with someone on your roster – the difference with us is we are not doing it at the expense of winning. We’re not willing to play our young guys just for the sake of playing them."
"Myself, Terry – we’re big believers that you learn more from sitting and winning than playing and losing. And we want guys to understand what it takes to win in this league, to play meaningful games…So while you may not see Allen Crabbe, C.J. McCollum, and Meyers Leonard on a nightly basis, they are all ready to contribute in a winning environment now…and look, I hope they don’t get an opportunity because it means that we’re 100% healthy."
He also addressed the small market complex we Portlanders seem to have, embodied by the question "What do we have to do in order to prove that we’re elite to the rest of the country?" Olshey feels we already have – as shown by two ESPN games this week against top teams…who also happen to be small market.
"If you look at the playoff seedings, 4 of the top 8 teams in the [Western Conference] are 4 of the smallest markets in the league, and that’s a byproduct of where the collective bargaining agreement is going, giving teams in every kind of market the chance to win a championship. Today what fans of basketball want to see on television is quality basketball…and I think that’s why you see us on national television two times this week."
He went on to boldly cast off the cloak of small market financial constraints: "We may be a small market team in terms of population, but again when you have an owner like Paul Allen and a fanbase like we have, we operate as a big market franchise. Again, economics are not an issue in our decision making matrix…The difference between small and big markets are commitment to the expenditures on your player payroll, which I can’t reinforce this enough, is never going to be an issue as long as we’re here, as long as those players are players that give us the best chance to win a championship."
Chris McGowan, meanwhile, had some interesting revelations of his own – he believes printed game tickets will be completely obsolete within a couple of years; ticket price changes are determined after studying ’50 or 60 different variables’, including area rates of employment; and the Rose Quarter Campus is in preliminary discussions to go completely ‘smoke-free’ (a statement met with clear approval).
As far as arena improvements goes, new additional speakers have recently been installed in the ‘end zone’ on each side of the court to upgrade sound, and more food carts and points of sale will be added to both the lower and upper concourse to alleviate long lines for popular concession items. He also addressed a fan’s concern that ‘there is too much going on’ during timeouts and such that take away from the game.
"We have scaled back [in-game entertainment], and we continue to scale back – we want the game to be the focal point. For example, when we are on offense, no music is playing. That’s rare in the NBA these days."
He also foresees more public charity events which would allow fans to interact with players.
McGowan didn’t dodge the tough questions, either: like, why are there no physical coupons for French fries when the Blazers score 100?
"We were thinking of bringing the Chalupa back," McGowan said facetiously, and was met with some scattered ‘Cha-lu-pa’ chants. But as it turns out, there was a coupon counterfeiting issue (?!) – so if you want fries, download the McDonald’s app…or find a friend who will. Anyone in Oregon or Southwest Washington can claim the fries after a 100 point performance.
When asked about the process in place to get the All-Star game in Portland, he seemed hopeful but realistic. "We are in the mix more than we’ve ever been but it’s still going to be tough. There are many new hotel projects that should improve our chances…there’s 5, 6, 7 big hotel projects on the horizon."
As the event wound down, a ticket holder upset about pricing changes was invited by McGowan to speak afterwards. I grabbed some food, a drink, and about 30 minutes later, not long before tipoff when the room was clearing out – I finally remembered the question I wanted to ask. And a good thing too – since McGowan was still around, casually talking to any fan who strolled up to him.
He introduced himself to me, like we were just meeting at a party, with a real easy and friendly manner. For a guy who started in ticket sales and worked his way all the way up, he certainly still has an 'everyman' touch about him. I complimented him on the great job he and his team were doing – "I think everyone sees it," I said. After buttering him up, I moved on to tightening the screws – are there any plans to bring back streaming games online?
The answer was no – not in its past guise anyway, where there were many complaints about the quality of the product. He assured me there was a plan in the works to get Blazers games available to anyone who wanted them, and that CSNNW would soon be joining the "TV Everywhere" revolution, so that cord-cutters would be able to watch without a TV. That’s good to hear, because that’s more than I got out of Comcast the last several times I’ve asked them.
So it seems everyone in this organization is ready to give a little bit extra. Keep it coming!