Time for another edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag, covering your Portland Trail Blazers queries. If you have Blazers-related questions end them along to email@example.com!
Today is Neil Olshey Day at the Mailbag. Enjoy!
How important are these unexpected playoffs for Neil Olshey's evaluation of how to shape this team moving forward? What has he learned that he may not have known otherwise?
At the heart of this question is another: "How surprising is this year's playoff run?"
If you took an NBA prognosticator, made them forecast team performance at the start of the year, then shut them in a closet with no feedback until they emerged on May 9th, 2016 to find the Blazers down 2-1 to the Warriors in the second round, they'd be shocked for sure. Portland's performance this season tends to the right edge of the bell curve. If the Blazers take one more step that direction the map's going to read, "Here There Be Monsters". (Or, you know...Spurs.) This doesn't usually happen. It's surprising.
The Blazers didn't just show up randomly in the post-season though. They have reached this point due to several factors:
1. Their guards have produced phenomenally.
2. They rebound well.
3. They've gelled with each other and the coach's system quicker than is normal. Deviations have been minor.
4-8. Several teams in the West experienced significant injuries or imploded while the Blazers remained healthy and intact. They might not have missed the playoffs had this not happened but they likely would not have been the 5th seed and would have faced a different first-round opponent.
9. After taking a 2-1 lead over Portland the Clippers lost Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the first round.
10. Golden State has been playing without Stephen Curry the entire second round so far.
The first three factors are in Portland's control. Factors 4-10 are external, completely unrelated to anything the Blazers did or failed to do. This does not diminish Portland's accomplishments. They put themselves in position to reap the benefits of their talent, chemistry, and health. Because of those external factors, the rewards of being in that position have been greater than normal. Those rewards are the crux of the surprise.
Take that same pre-season prognosticator and say, "The Blazers will make the second round and win at least one game against Golden State. Also the Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz, and Suns will experience major, chronic injury problems. Houston will morph from conference finalist to dumpster fire. The Clippers will lose Paul and Griffin in the playoffs and the Warriors won't have Curry. Plus the conference elite will hover around 70 wins while the Blazers win 44." He will then say, "Ahhh...I get it. The run is still cool for them but it's not quite as surprising."
Understanding this, we can get to the heart of your question: How many new things have we really learned about the Blazers during this playoff run? Damian Lillard is good. CJ McCollum is as well but the two don't always produce in tandem. Al-Farouq Aminu produces but only intermittently. Mason Plumlee can save with his passing or destroy with his turnovers and his offense lacks confidence. Ed Davis gives everything he has in limited minutes. Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson are hit and miss, with "hit" being worth 12-14 points. Moe Harkless is probably the best starting power forward the Blazers have right now but that may be a reflection on the team as constructed rather than Harkless' talent and qualities. Portland needs serious defensive help in the backcourt and serious offensive help in the frontcourt. They're also going to fight for every game and when their shots start falling, watch out.
This pretty much describes Portland's post-season. It pretty much described the regular season as well. We're seeing the Blazers on full display but we're not really learning that much new about them.
If anything the Clippers series may have confirmed that the Blazers cannot depend on the guards alone...that it's possible to pressure the backcourt into ineffectiveness when they have no dependable forward-center scoring outlets. The Warriors series is showing that Portland's invincible rebounding prowess may be more vincible than thought. Both of these argue for a change in the frontcourt. I suspect we all suspected that already.
I'm guessing that Neil Olshey knew, and knows, all this as well. The 2016-17 Blazers will not look like the 2015-16 version. Unless something as-yet-inconceivable happens (finishing off the Warriors, presumably without Curry, and then beating a healthy Spurs or Thunder team) this playoff run will end up as candy...the reward for playing hard and sticking together. It's a nice bonus, but you can't live on candy.
This playoff run will not, and should not, end up as the deciding factor in off-season moves. Internal quality and rewards aren't always linked 100%. Sometimes you're in the right place at the right time and get rewarded more than expected. It makes up for all the times when you had it made but a twist of fate robbed you of the full fruits of your labors.
The Wild One tweeted that the Blazers get instant free agent cred by beating Golden State! Do you agree they have a shot at the big names now?
Here's the tweet Janelle references:
The win last night gave blazers instent credibility with national fans & next yrs F.A.--playing with dame & with blazer fans is attractive— Mike Rice (@mikerice6) May 8, 2016
Mad respect to Mike, a notoriously crafty thinker. Far be it from me to argue with him. But yeah, this may be a bit overstated...homer-esque, even. No, not that kind of homer, this kind:
When free agency starts, other teams won't be sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying, "Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo." They'll be charging hard after available stars too. And there are only, like, four stars total. Even if you grant that Portland's second-round appearance and loud fans (louder than Oklahoma City?) gives the Blazers an edge over 22 other teams, they're not really competing with those 22 other teams for the tip-top free agents. They're competing with the Spurs and Warriors. A second-round appearance and a few decibels can't compare with cap space and legit championship status.
Nor do I think those factors weigh as much as Rice suggests. Players aren't neophytes or fans; they're experts. They're aware of every factor that's led to Portland's success, internal and external. They won't confuse the two. Paul and Griffin getting injured in Round 1 won't make them more inclined to join the Blazers.
As far as fan noise: a great player will assume that people are going to cheer for him wherever he goes. Nobody's going to sit on their hands when Kevin Durant wears their uniform...not even in Atlanta. He makes other people cheer and come to the building; their cheers don't make him come. Players are going to cite fan support as a reason to love a town because it's the right thing to say and because it's always nice to hear people support you. That doesn't mean they're sitting around with measuring devices deciding that Town A is the better destination because it's 12 decibels louder than Town B.
I do think the Blazers have a chance to chase significant free agents this summer. I'll be surprised if they can get in with the pure cream of the crop, but I'd also be surprised if they couldn't get a look from Al Horford and anybody south of him. But that'll be because of the roster and future winning potential, not because they won a game or two against a Curry-free Golden State squad instead of being swept. I doubt any potential free agent who woke up on Saturday morning saying, "I'm never going to Portland!" changed his mind based on Saturday night's result or Saturday night's volume.
RC BUFORD FOR EOTY? What did he do compared to Olshey? ANOTHER RIP CITY RIPOFF!
You can digest some great evaluation from Blazer's Edge readers in our thread on the subject. I'll just reiterate my long-standing opinion on the matter. This was the year for Terry Stotts to win Coach of the Year. Next season is Neil Olshey's chance for Executive of the Year. It'll depend on the quality of free agent he's able to lure during the summer and/or the trades he's able to make.
If the roster doesn't improve then in retrospect Olshey's moves kept the Blazers from being potentially awful, making them reasonably respectable instead. That's a nice achievement but not necessarily EOTY material. If the Blazers do make the next step Olshey will get plenty of credit for not only the final moves, but the set-up season that preceded them. His award will cover everything he's done.
Until Portland's story plays out, though, you have to give Buford and company credit for what San Antonio has actually done over giving Olshey credit for what the Blazers might do.
Don't forget to send your Mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org!