After an offseason of upheaval the only certainty for the Portland Trail Blazers is that more changes are imminent as GM Neil Olshey continues to rebuild the franchise. Fortunately for Blazers fans, this will not be the first roster that Olshey has constructed nearly from scratch.
Before joining the Blazers in 2012, Olshey acted as the assistant GM for the Los Angeles Clippers for just over a season before becoming their GM. When the Clippers promoted Olshey to assistant GM in 2008 the team was a perpetual laughingstock, with only one playoff series victory since arriving in Southern California in 1979.
By the time Olshey left four years later the Clippers had an elite core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and veteran role players Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, and were coming off the most successful regular season in team history. The unprecedented success (for the Clippers) of 2012 came despite the fact that none of those essential players were on the team that Olshey inherited in 2008.
Fast forward three years to September 2015, and the pressing question on the mind of Blazers fans is whether or not Olshey will be able to replicate his success in LA, and turn Portland's incomplete roster into an on-court success.
To begin to address this issue, it is important to consider Portland's most crucial roster needs. In contrast to the 2008 Clippers, when Olshey signed with the Blazers in 2012 he was handed a completed core of Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Olshey finds himself between those two roster extremes with the 2015 Blazers; he has an all-star in Damian Lillard, and will hopefully see one or two players from the Noah Vonleh/Meyers Leonard/CJ McCollum triumvirate develop into a foundational starter. But under those circumstances the Blazers will still need at least one more all-star to complete the core of their roster. How will Olshey go about filling that roster hole?
It is tempting to answer this question by using the data available to the general public (i.e. salary cap numbers, future free agents, trade rumors, etc.) to extrapolate Olshey's future plans. But as Blazer's Edge Writer Willy Raedy pointed out last week, the level of separation between fans and the front office makes it difficult to construct educated guesses about any of its intentions. Throw in Olshey's intentional obfuscation of the team's agenda and the consciously designed salary cap/player flexibility of the current roster, and it becomes impossible to accurately guess Portland's next move.
Thus, rather than focusing on possible future moves, a more informative analysis can be had by focusing on Olshey's personnel decisions from the Clippers rebuild to evaluate whether or not he will be able to use similar strategies to rebuild the Lillard-era Blazers.
For reference, here are the key moves from the Clippers 2008-2012 rebuild:
- 2008 Draft: Eric Gordon (7th overall), DeAndreJordan (35th overall)
- Summer 2008: Acquired Zach Randolph and Mardy Collins for Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley
- 2009 Draft: Blake Griffin (1st overall)
- Summer 2009: Acquired Quentin Richardson for Zach Randolph (saved $24 million in salary)
- 2010 Draft: Al-Farouq Aminu (8th overall), Eric Bledsoe (18th overall)
- Summer 2010: Signed Randy Foye (2 years/$8.5 million)
- February 2011: Acquired Mo Williams and Jamario Moon for Baron Davis and 1st round pick. Note: The Clippers saved $20 million in salary, but the pick became Kyrie Irving.
- December 2011:
- Matched on DeAndre Jordan's 4 year/$43 million offer sheet
- Signed Caron Butler (3 years/$24 million)
- Picked up Chauncey Billups on waivers ($2 million bid)
- Acquired Chris Paul, a 2nd rd pick, and cash for Eric Gordon, Aminu, Chris Kaman, and a Minnesota 2012 first round pick
- February 2012: Signed Kenyon Martin (1 year/$2.5 million) and acquired Nick Young for Brian Cook and 2 second round picks.
Looking back at Olshey's Clipper transactions, it is clear that the defining move of his career, and the LA rebuild, was acquiring Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets. If Olshey could complete a similar move for the Blazers, a player of Paul's caliber would certainly round out the core of Portland's roster. But could the Blazers, in their current state, match the price the Clippers paid for Paul? To review, LA parted with: 1) Gordon, at the time a presumptive rising all star, 2) Kaman, a solid rotation center with a massive expiring contract (those still mattered in 2011), and 3) a high first round pick.
In comparison, Portland's most tradeable players are McCollum and Leonard. Unfortunately, both players pale in comparison to 2011 Eric Gordon, the headliner of the Paul trade, who, at the time of the trade, was 22 years old and coming off a season with averages of 37.4 minutes, 22.3 points, and 4.4 assists per game. McCollum and Leonard, on the other hand, are both 23 years old and have only shown flashes of even becoming reliable players. Certainly, neither players' track record matches the output and promise of Gordon in 2011.
Beyond Leonard and McCollum, Portland's other tradeable assets are either totally unproven prospects, or were acquired for below market value. Neither type of player will garner much in return. The Clippers also had an extra high first round draft pick from Minnesota to dangle during the Paul trade negotiations. The Blazers have no extra first round picks and given their lack of blue chip prospects and Olshey's superb draft history (see below), they cannot afford to offer their own lottery pick in a trade.
To put it bluntly, no combination of Leonard or McCollum, a heavily protected first round pick, plus Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, Aminu, Moe Harkless, or Mason Plumlee is going to match the offer that acquired Paul. That's going to match an offer for Arron Afflalo. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that Olshey will be able to orchestrate a marquee trade for the Blazers in the immediate future.
With all that being said, the Paul trade was one of the final moves of the Clippers rebuild, and the Blazers are only just beginning to restructure their team. It is possible that the stock of Leonard, McCollum, and the other Blazer prospects will rise significantly and a trade for a superstar may become possible. But it's not going to happen for at least a couple seasons.
Similarly, Blazers fans are not going to find hope of completing the team's core by signing an All-Star free agent to a maximum contract from Olshey's track record with the Clippers. His highest profile signings for the Clippers were veteran players on bargain deals to fill roster holes around Griffin and Paul. Examples include Billups, Butler, and Kenyon Martin. Olshey continued that pattern in Portland when he signed Williams, Steve Blake, and Kaman to cheap, short-term deals.
In a departure from his Clipper strategies, Olshey did focus his free agency efforts this summer on more expensive younger players with potential to grow into offensive studs (e.g. Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe), and the Blazers could have maximum salary space next season to target a marquee free agent in 2016. But if Olshey had successfully signed Monroe or Kanter either of those players would have taken about $17.1 million of that cap space in 2016 and Portland would not be able to sign a max free agent next year. Further, Olshey could have waited to sign Lillard to his maximum extension until next summer, reducing Lillard's impact on the cap in 2016 significantly. When considered together, the Lillard contract extension, attempted Monroe/Kanter signings, and Olshey's history of using free agency to pick up veterans and bargain basement prospects imply that it is unlikely that Olshey plans to pursue a free agent worthy of a maximum contract next Summer. The Blazers will have to look elsewhere to complete the core of their roster.
Even though the Blazers probably won't acquire an All-Star via trade or free agency, fans can be optimistic about drafting a foundational player. Since 2008 Olshey has been involved in picking three All-Star level players (Lillard, Griffin, Jordan), two potential rotation players (McCollum and Leonard), and players that became key pieces in trades for Paul, JJ Reddick, Robin Lopez, and Arron Afflalo. The only potential bust on his résumé was Aminu in 2010. A track record of 90%+ in the draft is unprecedented success for an NBA GM. Assuming the Blazers do win fewer than 30 games this season and pick within the top 7 or 8, history strongly suggests that Olshey and his staff will find a player that can be a difference maker for this team going forward.
If Olshey does find the elusive core player in the draft, then his past transactions bode well for finishing the roster. In addition to the Paul transactions, Olshey has also used trades to make marginal upgrades to his teams by acquiring Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, and others for bench players and second round picks. He also cleared salary for the Clippers on multiple occasions with imbalanced trades, leading to the signings of Jordan, Butler, and Billups. Those types of trades and signings for low-cost veterans could be difference makers that complete a contender if Olshey can establish a core similar to Aldridge/Lillard/Batum/Matthews, or Paul/Blake/Jordan.
In summary, Portland does not have the assets to trade for a superstar player and it is unlikely that the Blazers will be able to recruit a top-flight free agent next summer. But Olshey seems to be aware of these limitations and will likely rely heavily on the draft and internal development to complete the Blazers' core. Fortunately for fans, through his first seven years Olshey has one of the best draft records in NBA history. And the future success of the team will hinge upon his continued success in June.