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The Portland Trail Blazers "Master Plan" Reveals Plenty of Holes

Over the long term, the Blazers haven't accomplished what they set out to do.

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Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Those waiting to see an analysis of the Portland Trail Blazers' leap into the future in this space will need to wait a day or two longer. Before we can talk about the young talent the Blazers now field and where this team might be headed, we need to clear away some of the smoke swirling around the implosion of the past two weeks. To understand where the franchise is going, what's true and trustworthy about that direction, we need to take a hard look at how we got here.

Two years ago, in the Summer of 2013, this franchise reached a critical decision point.

The team had won 33 games the season prior, the after-effect of a much-needed house-cleaning administered by General Manager Neil Olshey. Franchise star LaMarcus Aldridge was reportedly disgruntled. With 7 years under his belt with the Blazers and 2 years remaining on his current contract, facing  the prospect of a rebuild was unappealing. Olshey had to stretch his charm to the limits of its capacity to keep Aldridge on board happily.

At that point, on this website, we declared that the Blazers were on a 2-year clock. I went farther, personally opining that Aldridge would be traded in the next 2 seasons. The thought process behind the assertion was simple. Unless the Blazers got very good, very fast Aldridge would not be content to remain with the franchise beyond his current contract. The chances of them doing that were small.

Without Aldridge the Blazers would be in a rebuild. If they were going to start that cycle, sooner would be better than later. The proceeds from an Aldridge trade plus any high draft picks from poor records in the early rebuilding struggle would provide a good foundation.

There was one other reason to predict a move so boldly. Above all, no matter what else happened, the Blazers could not let a star play walk away in his prime for nothing. I couldn't foresee any scenario in which they would risk doing so. Since Aldridge was already unhappy and the distance between the Blazers and a deep playoff run was great, positing a move was fairly easy.

Except it didn't work out that way.

In 2013 the Blazers had a clear-cut decision in front of them: rebuild by trading Aldridge or build around him solidly enough to keep him. They ended up doing neither and it cost them.

From the beginning of his Portland tour Olshey made no secret about his game plan, as demonstrated in these quotes from a Portland Tribune interview in October, 2012:

We're not going to make any moves that will take away long-term flexibility, unless it's absolutely a player to add to our core. We're not going to make incremental moves that don't move the needle.... We took a lot of discipline to put ourselves in position where we could have a max (salary) cap slot next summer. We could be aggressive in free agency. We want to have that flexibility. We want to make big moves. We don't want to make marginal moves.

In December, 2012, Olshey said this in an interview with the Oregonian:

[Olshey] senses the league might still perceive the Blazers to be a team willing to give up talent to gain assets, much like it did last March when the previous regime traded Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby for picks and cap relief.

That is no longer the method of operation. Olshey has identified a core: Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard and Matthews.

These statements would lead one to believe that Olshey was choosing the "build around" option. His aggression in free agency would place players around the core to buoy the team and cement Aldridge's future in Portland.

But if that was Olshey's intent, he had a curious way of showing it. Not once in the three summers between 2012-2014 did Olshey sign a free agent to a substantial deal. Nor did he acquire any free agent that could properly be termed a "needle mover". Here is the list:

Olshey Free Agents

Those 9 players comprise the totality of the Olshey free agent canon, the most tangible results of the "max" salary slot he worked to build.

Dalliances with others have been rumored. Restricted free agent Roy Hibbert effectively used the Blazers to bid up his contract value in 2012 before re-signing with Indiana. Spencer Hawes reportedly rejected Portland's max-length MLE offer in 2014 in favor of the same deal from the Los Angeles Clippers. Portland chased Greg Monroe this summer; he spurned them to sign with Milwaukee. For a General Manager hired on his reputation for working with and attracting players, Olshey has demonstrated little to no effectiveness in drawing them to Portland.

Olshey has been more effective on the trade front. Here's the list of players he's acquired:

Olshey Trades2

Out of this bunch, Olshey's great coup was Robin Lopez, who averaged 10.5 points and 7.8 rebounds for the Blazers over 2 seasons as a well-fitting sidekick to Aldridge. Other than Lopez, Portland's acquisitions have been temporary and largely ineffective.

Olshey's greatest success has come through the draft, particularly with lottery picks. Here are his selections that stuck with the Blazers:

Olshey Draft Picks

Though the draft has been the most productive fountain for talent, not once during Olshey's talent have the Blazers traded for a draft pick.

These charts in aggregate don't read like a team that's "not going to make incremental moves that don't move the needle", let alone a team looking to be "aggressive in free agency" or a team whose General Manager lives by the credo, "We want to make big moves. We don't want to make marginal moves."

If the plan was to make big moves, the plan has not developed. If the goal was to build a team secure and talented enough to convince LaMarcus Aldridge to stay with the Blazers, the moves fell far short. Olshey managed to trade for a center whose fit made his game tell more than his stats did. Other than a middling--and far too late in the process--swing at Afflalo, that was it for effective veteran help. Every other major player was a draftee whose talent was evident, but whose maturity would come far too late for Aldridge to make use of.

In reality, these charts read more like a team that's been rebuilding all along than a team that's trying to move into contention with its superstar. Inability to convince free agents, unwillingness to commit money to long-term deals, building through the draft and not free-agency...whatever one thinks of the choices, the Aldridge-eye view of these moves cannot have been impressive.

This is fine if you then switch the goal to rebuilding, translating current assets into future opportunities. But the Blazers did not do that either.

Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding Aldridge's exit from Portland. The ideal narrative from the team's point of view is that Olshey had no idea that Aldridge was considering leaving, that Aldridge's flip-flop personality and self-seeking character masked his true intentions, and that Olshey was caught unawares at the moment of truth.

Almost everything in that narrative is debatable, but even if some of it holds up, we need to distinguish between risk and certainty here. Even if Olshey was not 100% certain that Aldridge would leave in free agency, a reasonable doubt would be enough to warrant a different approach than he took. A franchise cannot let its star player depart in his prime without compensation. The question isn't when Olshey knew for sure, but at what point he should have detected a probable risk that Aldridge could leave and acted accordingly.

Here's what we know:

1. As mentioned above, Olshey had to do a fair amount of convincing to get Aldridge on board originally, meaning that Aldridge's natural inclination was to leave. The onus was on Olshey to change Aldridge's mind.

2. The moves above, taken as a whole, don't read as strong enough to change the mind of a veteran looking for championships. This is true even if we presume they were the best Olshey could do at the time.

3. Aldridge did give an interview to Kerry Eggers in January of 2014 saying he'd like to stay and break franchise records.

4. But the Blazers were aware of ongoing, periodic discontent, perhaps friction, with the direction of the franchise and Aldridge's role in it.

5. Aldridge gave another interview to Joe Freeman in July of 2014 similar to the Eggers interview but it appears that Olshey himself encouraged him to do so. At that point Olshey had no way of knowing whether those sentiments were true since they were spoken at his behest. Except, of course, the obvious way...

6. Aldridge didn't sign an extension. No matter what else happened, this should have been a red flag. At this point the risk was implicit. Olshey was gambling with the franchise's future by retaining Aldridge instead of looking to move him.

These half-dozen points would indicate to a reasonable person that Aldridge's situation in Portland was not secure. Olshey should have seen it coming...if not with certainty, at least with a clear view of the risk involved. When you're asking a player to make statements to the media that are positive towards you (Point #5) but he's actually acting lukewarm or negatively towards you (Points #4 and #6), you have an issue.

Other strains of argument have permeated the question.

Some would argue that Aldridge is a liar who scuttled the future of the franchise by deceiving Olshey until it was too late to move him. Reading the above, there's no way Olshey could have not known Aldridge had issues unless he was completely detached from his star player and most important free agent. But even if you discount that, Olshey himself has been known to lie to players as he pursued his professional aims. However betrayed the player feels in that situation, he is supposed to know that this is a business and that each person should be expected to do what is best for themselves regardless of what they've said.

This is also true of General Managers when players make claims. Even if you discount the warning signs and say Olshey swallowed whatever line LaMarcus Aldridge was laying out, for an NBA General Manager--who has operated the same way in reverse--to base his franchise's future on that kind of assurance is astonishing.

Others debate the role of Wesley Matthews' injury in these proceedings. This point will likely be taken up by both the Blazers' front office and LaMarcus Aldridge's camp, as it gets them into the clear. If Aldridge's change of heart didn't come until after March 5th then Olshey couldn't have done anything about it. If Aldridge wasn't basing his decision on any existing discontent but on the snap of an Achilles tendon, we can blame fate, not him or his prior comments.

Matthews' injury didn't help matters, but this decision was in the offing for 2 years, not 2 months. There's no guarantee that the Blazers would have fared any better in the playoffs with Matthews on board either. Memphis beat Portland 4-0 in the regular season, 3 times with Matthews playing. Had they avoided Memphis in the bracket the Blazers could have faced the Spurs or Clippers. Even had they gotten a relatively easy first-round matchup the second round carried no weak teams. Losing again in that round wouldn't have been progress, but a stall...likely not enough to redeem Aldridge's view of Portland compared with the Spurs' impressive track record.

Neil Olshey had plenty of reasons to believe that Aldridge could depart via free agency. Those reasons existed independent of prior claims by Aldridge or injuries to shooting guards.

Failing to act on those warning signs, Olshey missed a golden opportunity to hasten the de facto rebuild that his moves had already choreographed. In the Summer of 2014 Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, and Anthony Bennett were traded to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. That move had everything the now-rebuilding Blazers are purportedly looking for: high-level young lottery talent plus short-term veteran contracts. Imagine where the Blazers would be right now had Aldridge replaced Love in that deal.

Failing that, how many draft picks could Olshey have acquired for Aldridge--or Wesley Matthews or a pre-slump Nicolas Batum--last summer?

The opportunity was there. The Blazers did not take it.

Two years ago, in the Summer of 2013, this franchise reached a critical decision point.

Over the course of the following two years, that decision was never fully made until finally, it was too late. The decision was made for them as they watched, helpless to affect it, flailing about with unworkable "Plan A" designs and Damian Lillard visits that never materialized fully.

For two years the Blazers claimed they were doing one thing (trying to build a winner around Aldridge) and acted like they were doing another (developing through the draft, making modest trades, and striking out or going for cheap, short-term value moves in free agency). All the while they touted "flexibility" as a magic talisman, filling up the gap between the two approaches.

As it turned out, this was the flexibility of a man pulling off the freeway, a lane on one side continuing down the expressway and an off-ramp on the other side. Either direction would have sufficed.  Instead of turning the wheel one way or the other, the driver split the middle, committing to neither. He ended up driving the car full speed into the barrier dividing the two.

Read the quote from the Oregonian interview again:

[Olshey] senses the league might still perceive the Blazers to be a team willing to give up talent to gain assets, much like it did last March when the previous regime traded Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby for picks and cap relief.

That is no longer the method of operation. Olshey has identified a core: Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard and Matthews.

This week 3/4 of that core (and 4/5 of Portland's starting lineup) walked away for Gerald HendersonNoah Vonleh, and cap picks.

For Marcus Camby the "previous regime" got Johnny Flynn, Hasheem Thabeet, and the 2nd round draft pick that became Will Barton. For Wallace they got Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams, and the draft pick that became Damian Lillard.

That, from players with far less value at that stage of their careers than Aldridge, Matthews, and Batum would have had last summer.

No matter which way you turn this situation around, it's hard to defend. If the core starters were on their way to something special, the front office didn't end up giving them enough help and those special players walked away for little or no return. If the core starters weren't on their way to something special the front office missed their chance to covert them into future assets who could.

The Portland Trail Blazers are now embarking on a rebuilding project....starting over, this time with Damian Lillard as the focal point. Their young players have potential: Vonleh, Ed Davis, CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard. Maybe that potential will blossom. Maybe the Blazers will be able to capitalize on it. But if they do, it won't be because of elegant speeches about flexibility and master plans. The plan hasn't been that masterful, nor masterfully executed. So far flexibility has led only to more talk about the benefits of flexibility. The cloud has been broken only once, by a miraculous Game 6 shot and a brief taste of success...surrounded by two years of Gentlemen's Sweeps in the playoffs and a superstar saying goodbye.

If Neil Olshey is going to be considered a good GM, the Blazers need more: more than we've seen in the past 2 years, much more than we've seen in the past 2 weeks. Improvement might come through player development over the next few seasons. It might come through an imbalanced trade over the next few months. However it manifests, no amount of sturm und drang, no amount of castigating media who dare to ask questions about the process (you should really, really click through to that one), will substitute, nor cover up the lack of results from here on out.

Let's see what happens.