As we approach the halfway point of the 2017-18 NBA season the Portland Trail Blazers have won roughly half their games, precariously teetering on the fringe of could-be playoff teams in the Western Conference. Currently seeded No. 7, they share a 17-16 record with the 8-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, three games ahead of the injury-plagued Utah Jazz. Things could be worse for Portland, but in the basketball world, sometimes worse is better. Better is better too. The worst is the halfway point—and we’re not talking about games left on the schedule anymore.
The team skipped that point in 2014, dramatically leaping from the shallows and into the pool of contenders after an unprecedented 21-win increase from the year before. They swam in that pool until the core dissolved with LaMarcus Aldridge, leaving President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey to build a raft in the summer of 2015. Now the team is floating. Just floating; on pace for their third-straight season of having things halfway. The roster appears incomplete, its function a tug-of-war between an accomplished offense or an accomplished defense as the team sputters toward its third consecutive record of about .500.
Fans of the team are growing louder in their calls for the head of Neil Olshey or Head Coach Terry Stotts, displeasure trending up as development flatlines, but The Oregonian’s John Canzano has a fresh take—or rather, an old take that may not yet be stale. Perhaps the problem is higher up.
In his Wednesday morning column entitled “Isn't Paul Allen what's wrong with Paul Allen's Trail Blazers franchise?” Canzano writes that Allen is beginning to extend feelers to assign blame.
The lieutenants who work at owner Paul Allen's Vulcan, Inc. mothership have been analyzing data and asking important questions. Two NBA front-office sources said they were contacted in the last 10 days by the Vulcans and asked whether they thought Trail Blazers struggles were due to a broken roster or poor coaching.
"Paul is getting antsy," one of the league sources said, "he thinks they should be winning more."
Feels like another "Honk Once" or "Honk Twice" billboard opportunity for the Blazers. But what about the biggest honk? Because even as Allen is apparently growing restless, and has enlisted his team of advisors to help figure out what is wrong with his basketball franchise, I'm not optimistic they'll come up with the best answer. Because you can't fire the owner, can you?
Subsequent to Bob Whitsitt’s 2003 resignation, the Trail Blazers have had seven general managers: John Nash, Steve Patterson, Tod Leiweke (interim), Kevin Prichard, Rich Cho, Chad Buchanan (interim), and now Neil Olshey. Possibly resulting from extended success, Olshey has been extended the most patience. He is the longest tenured GM on that list but will he outlast the team’s struggles before aforementioned success is recaptured? Canzano notes that “the one constant in all the decades of Blazers futility is the over-involved owner,” then stating:
I once asked one of those former Blazers GMs what it was like to work for Allen. The poor guy told me that he felt like he went to work every day with a clock dangling from his neck, ticking down the seconds, minutes, hours and days until he was going to get fired. The same guy was in daily text message contact with Allen over personnel moves and draft preparation.
We pretty much know how this ends for Olshey. Whenever. However. It ends badly. Still, give him credit for longevity. He's an actor by trade and has been deft at selling the public, and apparently his owner, on the long game. He's branded himself "a draft guy," and has spent an inordinate amount of energy peddling hope. But if we're judging the GM by the roster (and that would be my No. 1 criteria) Olshey's trajectory here isn't favorable.
Regardless of what the problem is and where it lies, the Trail Blazers may be in need of sink-or-swim change. Franchises that tread water are rarely thrown roster (or front office) reshaping life preservers. Something has to look different by season’s end, whether that means finding their stroke together or seeking fresh legs to kick.
You can read Canzano’s full column, here.