The job of an NBA General Manager is not a stable one. League history is replete with GMs who have failed to build successful teams and been unceremoniously dismissed from their post, as David Kahn, Isiah Thomas, Rob Babcock, Wes Unseld, Billy King, etc., can all attest.
Portland Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey finds himself in a predicament known to many failed GMs: the dreaded rebuild. Thus far, Olshey has gotten off to a good start by deflecting blame away from himself for LaMarcus Aldridge's departure, and apparently receiving permission from team owner Paul Allen to reform the team from the bottom up. Now comes the hard part: Transforming a roster of prospects, castoffs, contract bargains, and Damian Lillard into a winner.
Last week Blazer's Edge Contributor Evans Clinchy reviewed recent rebuilds and showed that the amount of time it takes a team to rebound from the high lottery to the playoffs can vary significantly. The follow-up question that many Blazers fans have is: How much time has Olshey been given to get the Blazers back to the playoffs? Will he see the end of the rebuild, or will he join the long list of discarded NBA executives? To answer these questions we need to examine the expectations of Damian Lillard and the Blazers' fans.
First, to understand Lillard's expectations consider the 5-year maximum contract he signed this summer; Lillard is only entering his fourth season in the league, but unlike many superstars he spent a full four years in college so he is "already" in his mid-20s. The 5-year maximum contract will expire on July 1, 2021 - two weeks before Lillard's 31st birthday. By offering that contract to Lillard, with no team or player option, Olshey made it clear that Lillard is the marquee player of the franchise and that rebuilding efforts will center around him.
Thus far, Lillard has voiced complete confidence in the franchise, and a love for the city and its fans, but if Portland is a non-contender in 2021 his attitude may change. Lillard is a media darling, but if the team has no postseason victories between now and 2021, the buzz around Portland's star will shift; 0.9 will be seen as a lucky fluke, and a lack of playoff success will lead to him being compared to other talented, but ultimately unsuccessful, all-stars. Think Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
Playing for a perennial loser would also negatively impact Lillard's ability to make all-star or All-NBA teams. With only one playoff moment on his resume he will be seen as a "good stats on a bad team" type of player, a la Kevin Love in Minnesota or Tracy McGrady in Orlando. Under those circumstances, it is hard to imagine Lillard staying in Portland despite his professed love for the city and its fans. Historic precedent also works against the Blazers in this scenario - no matter how loyal superstars have been to their teams, they tend not to stick around into their 30s if they are not happy with the construction of the roster . Past examples include Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Lebron James, and Clyde Drexler.
With Lillard's future in mind, it is safe to assume that three years of missing the playoffs is permissible. But by 2019 the Blazers must make the playoffs and by 2020 they need to have advanced to the second round. Lillard will turn 30 at the end of that season and have completed his 8th year; his career at an all-star level will be half over. If the Blazers do not achieve those goals it may be difficult in July 2021 to convince a 31-year-old Lillard to re-up with the team. In short, the Blazers need to make a playoff appearance by 2019 and win at least one playoff series in 2020 or Olshey risks losing Lillard and his job.
In addition to appeasing Lillard, Olshey must also satisfy the Blazers' fans. Team Owner Paul Allen made it clear at the end of the Jail Blazer era that keeping Portlanders happy with the franchise was a high priority. Ticket and merchandise sales from local supporters also drive the financial success of franchises. If Olshey cannot keep the Portland fans engaged then the reputation and finances of the team will suffer; there is no way he keeps his job under those circumstances.
Fortunately for Olshey, fans seem receptive to the idea of a rebuild in the short term. For example, consider the comments section of this article from Blazer's Edge last week, in which commenters stated that they were happy with the direction that the team is going and many preferred a rebuild to keeping last season's team intact.
From a long-term perspective, however, Portland fans have little experience with true rebuilding. Blazers fans have not experienced the same level of success as the San Antonio Spurs, who have seen only one losing season since the 1980s, but Blazers fans also have not endured repeated seasons of abysmal on-court performance like Sacramento Kings or Minnesota Timberwolves fans.
Since 2008 the Blazers have made the playoffs in five of seven seasons and Blazers fans have not gone more than a few months without hope of success since prior to a 13-game winning streak in November and December of 2007. Even the wretched 2012 lockout shortened season started with promise; Charles Barkley anointed the team as potential contenders in January on the heels of a hot start before they imploded in February 2012 amid locker room strife. The team was partially overhauled that summer by dumping Raymond Felton and other malcontents and drafting Lillard and Meyers Leonard. The Blazers also retained quality NBA starters Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews. By January 2013 the team was 20-16 and Lillard had already emerged as a future star - fans had reason to be hopeful less than 6 months after Felton's departure.
Unlike the 2012 team, the current Blazers certainly do not have three proven NBA starters to reload around and do not have another team's high first-round pick; it will take more than one off-season to build a roster capable of starting a season 20-16. 2012 is not evidence that Blazers fans will be tolerant of a long-term rebuild.
The only rebuild in the Blazers' history comparable to the one the team is currently undergoing was the transition from the Jail Blazers to the Brandon Roy era in the mid-2000s. After many years of regular season success, two terrible seasons in 2005 and 2006 saw the Blazers win a combined 48 games, while attendance plummeted in the wake of atrocious off-court misbehavior. The team was rebuilt virtually overnight on draft day 2006 when former GM Kevin Pritchard acquired high character future stars Brandon Roy and Aldridge. The Blazers only won 32 games in 2007, but when Roy asked that Zach Randolph, the last player on the team with a criminal record, be dealt that summer the team had finished rebuilding its reputation. And when they won 13 consecutive games to close out the 2007 calendar year it was apparent that future on-court success was imminent. Fans returned to the Rose Garden in droves to celebrate the new integrity and success of the franchise.
The mid-2000s rebuild took place over three sub-.500 seasons: 2004-2005, 2005-2006, and 2006-2007. By 2007-2008 fans had tangible reasons to be very optimistic. By NBA standards, completing a rebuild with only three losing seasons would be considered a success. The Timberwolves, Kings, and 76ers, among others, are all mired in rebuilds that will take longer than that.
Going further back, since the 1977 championship to the beginning of the 2004 rebuild the team only missed the playoffs once. They spent many seasons in the "NBA purgatory" of 42-48 wins accompanied by first-round exits, but were never outright terrible.
In summary, since 1977 Blazers fans have experienced more than two consecutive losing seasons only once and have never seen a team with high character players regularly lose games. The one rebuild they did experience lasted only three seasons and was aided by dumping players with criminal records to show the city that the team was serious about improving its reputation, which earned good will with the community.
Olshey will not have the PR carrot of trading criminals, and has a history of regular season success and quick turnarounds to live up to. With that in mind, how will modern fans respond if the majority of the prospects on the current team do not pan out and the rebuild is reset in two seasons? How long will ticket buyers be satisfied with potential and time biding? Will fans who have only experienced one complete rebuild in nearly 40 years be willing to wait more than a couple years for success? Similar to Lillard's contract, if Olshey wants to keep the fans engaged he probably has a maximum of three years of non-playoffs, the length of the Blazers' only true rebuild since 1977, before fan frustration begins to boil over or apathy sets in.
Taken together, the actions of Lillard and fans suggest that the attitude around Olshey and the rebuild of the franchise is patience...for now. But there is a ticking clock with Damian Lillard's contract, and a fanbase that is not accustomed to multiple seasons of little or no hope. If Olshey has the pulse of his superstar and the city, he has May 2019 circled on his calendar. If he doesn't, he may join Kahn, Thomas, King, and many others as a GM who failed to rebuild quickly enough.