After a surprising 44-win season that saw the Portland Trail Blazers advance to the second round of the playoffs, the team now heads into this offseason a year or two ahead of schedule -- many experts predicted them to be among the cellar dwellers in the Western Conference.
Indeed, the group of players that President of Basketball Operations and GM Neil Olshey assembled around Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe -- the only significant holdovers from the 2014-15 season -- exceeded expectations and now fans are asking how the team will continue improving its nucleus of talent.
Yesterday Blazer's Edge managing editor Dave Deckard outlined Olshey's record in free agency and trades as GM of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Blazers, and earlier in the week staff writer Eric Griffith explained why signing Damian Lillard to his mega extension last summer may have been a huge mistake. Today, Griffith and Blazer's Edge features editor Chris Lucia go over how they think Olshey should be graded at this point in his tenure.
Chris Lucia: Ya know, I think Olshey gets a bit of an undeserved bad rap with some fans in Portland and people who follow the team. As Dave pointed out yesterday, he's had some rather milquetoast signings over the years -- his free agency track record, going back to his time with the Clips, isn't perfect.
But I will say this, too: PER isn't a fair way to grade bench players, which is mostly who Olshey has signed. Reserves are often limited skillset guys or specialists, so a catch-all stat like PER, even if it's pace-adjusted, doesn't tell the whole story. Dave did a great job of pointing out the flaws of PER, but I want to provide a little added context.
Only Dame, CJ, Ed Davis and Mase were above the average PER of 15 this year for the Blazers (keep in mind how much it favors rebounding) -- does this mean everyone else Olshey populated the bench with was a below average player? I'm not sure I can follow the logic entirely, but I get the overall point that he has some proving to do this offseason. Olshey's value signings have been solid, now he just needs to score a legit big-name free agent so fans will give him a break and we can ditch the tropes we repeatedly hear about Olshey and signing impact players in Portland.
Eric Griffith: I don't disagree about PER, and I think it is unfair to say that his acquisitions have been milquetoast. One of the defining features of the Olshey/Stotts era in Portland has been finding guys who will outperform expectations in Stotts' system. He has done a great job of doing that - trading for Robin Lopez perhaps being the prime example.
He also built contending teams in Portland and in Los Angeles so he definitely deserves all kinds of credit for being the architect of two elite squads. His draft record and trade to acquire Chris Paul for the Clippers have been phenomenal. Overall that's been a great track record.
But I think the bigger point is that his free agency record when he needs to make a team-transforming acquisition has been, let's say, unproven. All of his free agent signings have been in that "undervalued role player" mold that Dave discussed in his article yesterday, while all of the max salary type of players he's had on his team have come via draft, trade, or were already with the team.
As has been already covered, Portland probably needs to acquire at least two starting frontcourt players and at least one of them needs to be at or near All-Star level. Can Olshey sign that guy? We don't know - he has not signed that type of player outright in the past. So, yeah, PER isn't great - but the bigger point is that he has no track record in this scenario (e.g. oodles of cap space and needing to sign a transformative player at a specific position).
The discussion of NBA Executive of the Year interested me because, to be blunt, I wasn't too shocked Olshey didn't win. He did a serviceable job this summer rebuilding the team once Aldridge left, but the bottom line is that every successful decision he made was a value move. Signing Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu, trading for Moe Harkless - that's all great stuff! But it's not the type of move that builds the cornerstones of a contending team's foundation. It seemed like he basically punted on major acquisitions last year when Monroe and Kanter didn't work out and decided that he'd make all the major decisions this summer. That's not a bad thing, per se, but giving EotY to a guy who's smartest move was probably rolling over cap space seems like a bit of a stretch. And that ignores the fact that he lost five of his top six players for very little and struck out on his top free agent acquisition (Monroe).
It's also interesting to consider how much credit for the team's success Olshey deserves. Every single team Stotts has coached, except last year's injury-ravaged squad, has overachieved. It's possible to view last season's success as a pleasant surprise because Stotts coached his butt off - it seems unlikely that Olshey actually expected them to win 44 games and make the playoffs. And that's some of the messiness of the EotY award. Olshey did stumble across some surprising talent, but the team is still incredibly incomplete, and has tons of fatal flaws. Great coaching from Stotts, and great leadership from Lillard facilitated an impressive overachievement. Does Stotts deserve the bulk of the credit for coaxing maximum production out of his players, or does Olshey deserve EotY-level credit for finding a team that was capable of overachieving?
CL: Terry Stotts does deserve a huge amount of credit for the success of this team -- like you said, he's coached his butt off, maximized the specific talents of the limited players he's had to work with and has exceeded expectations. But who brought Stotts in? That was a hire done by Olshey when, it seemed, coaches with proven records weren't exactly lining up for their shot in Portland.
As I recall, the hiring came down to Stotts and Caleb Kanales, who was a great young assistant at the time but not ready to be a head coach. Olshey didn't have the deepest pool to draw from when he hired Stotts, and that's turned out to be one of his most valuable "acquisitions" as GM of the Blazers. Throw in that very team-friendly extension Stotts just signed -- I don't personally care about saving Paul Allen money but again, it shows how strong of a negotiator Olshey is, and how strong the culture Portland now has -- and it's somewhat reassuring to know that he didn't have to bend over backwards to keep one of the best coaches in the league in town.
Speaking of culture, that's something for which we probably don't credit Olshey and his front office staff enough. Since his arrival, the Blazers have upgraded their practice facilities, signed only high-character guys and have created a player-friendly atmosphere where players can go and know they'll be taken care of and valued not just on the court but off of it, as well.
Portland doesn't offer a ton in the way of nightlife or the cultural diversity that some players tend to value, but Olshey has maximized his pitch on what the city and team can offer -- a great place to raise a family, a supportive fanbase and facilities that rival those of any other team in the league. Most players' first priority is going to be money -- understandable when you have such a short shelf-life to capitalize on your full earning potential -- but fit is incredibly important, too. And with the culture that Olshey has helped established -- both on the court with Stotts and off the court with all the ancillary perks the Blazers can offer -- will be a massively important piece to upgrading the roster this summer.
EG: Great point about culture. That has obviously been a huge improvement in Portland that seems to have permeated throughout the organization. The days of fired GMs drafting Luke Babbitt feel like a thousand years ago.
On the topic of culture, I also would have liked to have seen at least a discussion of re-signing the guy who fit in Portland more naturally than any other Blazer since Channing Frye: Robin Lopez. He's proven himself to be a decent defensive center who can fit into Stotts' system very well, and even has a passable offensive game. He was only 27 at the time, so his timeline was not that outside of Portland's. For $13 million/year that's pretty decent - and here's the thing, Olshey could have signed him for that price, chosen not to extend Lillard last summer, and been in the exact same cap situation as he is now. At that price, Lopez could have been retained if the team struck out on other free agents or traded for a pick to a team that needs a reasonably priced, serviceable starter at center (Boston?).
CL: Would Lopez fit this system like a glove? Probably -- he already flourished in it. But he's at his ceiling as a player, and I can see why Olshey rolled the dice letting him go. With Lopez in tow for $13 million, the Blazers would have even less cap space to swing for the fences this summer, which is what they've shown they need and want to do. They need a third impact player, and keeping Lopez at his market value would've hampered the ability to obtain one this offseason.
We'll have to wait and see if Olshey can capitalize on all that cap space he's been touting, but let's give him the opportunity to do so with a full deck -- the convergence of cap space, a player-friendly culture and proven results on the court -- from which to draw. You also have to keep in mind that this last year was intended to be a rebuilding effort in which Stotts played a rotation full of unproven guys -- Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard in the frontcourt come to mind -- and having Lopez suck up 30 minutes a game may have prevented us from seeing Plumlee blossom into the versatile big man that he did.
EG: Just to clarify - Portland could have signed Lopez, not extended Lillard and been in an identical cap situation right now. Lopez would NOT have affected the team's ability to acquire new players, necessarily. I say this, because it illustrates the point that the decision about Lillard's extension may have cost Portland a valuable asset either last summer or this summer. I promised the readers earlier this week that we'd discuss the Lillard extension and the emotional side of that decision in more detail, so let's do it!
Personally, I think the Portland fans are smart enough to believe Olshey and Lillard if they presented a united front and said Lillard was 100% staying in Portland while holding off the extension. Part of the problem with believing LMA was that he never seemed committed to the team to the same degree that Lillard has been (which is fine) - even if the extension weren't signed, if Lillard 100% bought in and did the preseason trip to San Diego, was attending Thorns games, wore the letter O, rapped about loving the city, etc., I trust that the fans would have understood it.
Detroit, who was similarly spurned by Greg Monroe, bought in when Pistons President of Basketball Operations and GM Stan Van Gundy put off Andre Drummond's max extension last offseason, and he hasn't done nearly as much as Lillard has to endear himself to the fans. Also Olshey's job is to be a salesman - he needs to sell fans on the move, but not let fans dictate the move. It would be problematic if the GM is making PR decisions rather than basketball decisions, and that's what this smells like. Similarly, he needed to sell Dame on the benefits this could have had for the team so that the franchise's marquee player would.
Lastly, allowing fear about an Aldridge-esque departure to cost the team $13 million in cap space allows Aldridge to have a very real impact on this year's finances. Why would fans and Olshey want to do that after he already disappointed many of us?
CL: From a pragmatic point of view, I can see why extending Lillard when Olshey did was a mistake. But a GM's job isn't just to make personnel decisions in a vacuum. If Lillard and his agent wanted to sign that extension last summer and really put the pressure on to do so, what options did Olshey really have? A GM shouldn't operate out of fear for a player leaving, but Aldridge's departure showed that you can roll out the red carpet for a guy, and they'll still leave if they see greener pastures elsewhere.
Olshey's job is also to keep season-ticket holders placated and willing to invest long-term, and the loss of Aldridge was a public relations disaster. The Blazers absolutely needed to make a statement to their fanbase that they could feel comfortable long-term knowing their young, All-Star point guard would be around for the long haul. In a vacuum, extending Lillard in 2015 was a horrible cap move, but again, a GM doesn't always make decisions in a vacuum and I think given the context, extending Lillard last offseason was a move made to show that fans could have full confidence in the team going forward and that a nightmare like Aldridge leaving wouldn't be allowed to happen. Also, would Lillard have negotiated zero player options in his deal if it had been done this offseason? I'm not sure, but in 2020 we could be looking back, grateful that Lillard is for sure in Portland when he could otherwise be opting out and asking for even more long-term money.
EG: Let's look at the bigger picture: If Olshey had successfully signed Greg Monroe or Enes Kanter last summer 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 this year. Further, as we've reviewed extensively, Olshey could have waited to sign Lillard to his maximum extension, 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. What does this say about Olshey's confidence in luring a marquee free agent to Portland? Is that a serious possibility, or do Olshey's actions thus far point toward a blockbuster trade in the near future?
CL: I think the Lillard extension was, all things considered, less of a choice than it's painted out to be -- what if Blazers owner Paul Allen called for it? What if Lillard and his agent were applying pressure? I don't think it'd be worth it to potentially prevent your franchise cornerstone from feeling fully secure moving forward. And now potential free agent acquisitions can see that the team's priority is taking care of its players -- a very real aspect of the player-friendly culture Olshey, Stotts and the rest of their respective staffs have cultivated in Portland.
They can make the cap numbers work this summer via trades -- teams almost always somehow manage to find a way to bring in a targeted max-level player, and Olshey's demonstrated enough cap knowledge in his time here to show that he's capable -- and I think the Blazers can spin Lillard's early extension as a good thing. Their star player wants to be here, and the lack of team and player options in his contract indicates to free agents that the team and its personnel are on the same page long-term and have a cohesive vision for the future. Lillard also finally has the opportunity to be the main recruiter for this franchise, which could be huge given how well-respected he appears to be among his fellow NBA players.
EG: So, here's the big question, can Olshey build a contender in Portland?
At this point if I were grading, I'd give him an incomplete in regards to ability to build a contender - we simply don't know. His major final move to build a true contender last year (Arron Afflalo) was sabotaged by injury, but before that he had done a great job building a starting lineup, and a mixed job at building a bench. Now he has done a great job at rebounding and raising the team back into the ranks of mediocrity, but it's unclear whether or not he can create the magic of the CP3/Blake/DeAndre combo in Clipperland and bring the team into the upper echelon of the west.
Certainly he has set himself up to possibly be able to do that, and deserves credit for that, but it's hard to say if he's done a truly elite job until we see something more than the middle form of the roster. CERTAINLY, I'm not unhappy with him, and in the short term I'm DEFINITELY happy with how the team has gone. But there's still way too much potential for it to stall out, or even drop out of the playoffs next year, to give a final assessment.
CL: This feels like a cop-out, but we'll have to take a wait-and-see approach to appropriately grade Olshey. I don't bemoan him for what went down with Aldridge, and I genuinely think that he's done as well in Portland in his four years of service as any other GM could've done considering the circumstances. His value signings have all been effective when needed -- Mo Williams, Chris Kaman, Aminu and Davis, among others -- and now we get to see if Portland can finally lure that big-name free agent fans have been clamoring for.
He got Roy Hibbert to buy in back when his value was at its peak, and same for Kanter. The only thing preventing Olshey from bringing those guys on board was their restricted free agency status. With what Olshey's bringing to the table this summer -- everything we just talked about -- I have confidence that he'll be able to convince an impact player that they can grow in Portland just like Aminu, Plumlee, Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe and others did this past season.
If they punt on their cap space this summer and bring back mostly the same roster with a handful of "value" signings again, it's time to start legitimately criticizing Olshey and questioning his ability to sign free agents. Until then, though, let's allow him the opportunity to prove that fans should buy into what he's trying to sell them.