After the Portland Trail Blazers traded Noah Vonleh to the Chicago Bulls at the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey gave an interview to Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest. In the interview, Olshey detailed Portland’s reasoning, alluded to other trade options, discussed the Damian Lillard / CJ McCollum backcourt pairing, and expressed hope for the team’s future.
We’re providing you a transcript of the interview. A deeper analysis of Olshey’s statements and claims follows.
Dwight Jaynes: Let’s start off with how did today go for you.
Neil Olshey: We went into the trade deadline I mean everybody goes to today. It’s not like the draft. It’s not it just -- you jump off and that’s it.
This has been weeks of planning and there were big deals done a couple weeks ago. We had three models- we were going to do a temporary rental to help us initially and not affect long term flexibility. We were willing to put significant assets in play If it returned an impact player. By impact it had to be a guy that very obviously moves well into the rotation or into the starting line up. Or we were going to alleviate some future cap flexibility that’s what we did.
The rental market as you can tell completely dried up. There were a lot of names on the market all over the internet, who were going to get moved and didn’t get moved. And then the impact guys teams that held onto it because people are questioning the depth of the free agent class. How much money will be spent this summer.
So people that had good players under contract are impacting winning. Hold onto them last night...it was something like 12 or 13 of the current 16 playoff teams didn’t make a significant transaction. So across the board it was a sellers market. The sellers were asking ridiculous prices. Everybody moved on and will compete as they are. I feel good about the western conference didn’t change. The guys we’re competing against have the same roster today they did yesterday.
Jaynes: I do talk radio, I get a lot of questions. As you might imagine the most today is it doesn’t seem like they have a plan long term we don’t know what the plan is just because you don’t know what it is doesn’t mean there’s one can you tell us about what the long term deal is.
Olshey: Well I tell you what, the plan has been to make the playoffs of four straight years, two trips to the second round. With one of the youngest rosters in the NBA second or third best back court in the league. Young players that are developing. We have the draft picks. We still have an aggressive owner. We’ve got Two trade exceptions now. Any of those listeners that watch poker on TV that play hold ’em just because the button gets to you doesn’t mean you have to play a hand. We saw that today. A lot the of the teams that value their players realize player retention was going to be more impactful than a little bit of flexibility this summer or playing the futures game on another project.
Jaynes: Speak of player retention what I heard from the outside is a lot of people are interested in Zach Collins.
Olshey: They were. It’s interesting when you view your players through the eyes of other people. We don’t have rose-colored glasses with Zach, but we think he’ll be a big time player. It’s interesting you canvas 30 teams. Our goal is come up with one substantive approach or proposal per team we don’t just make the general checking in calls. Every conversation somehow circled back to Collins and it was amazing how aggressive teams would have been if we put him in play. Which wasn’t going to happen.
Jaynes: Is there a time when the back court will be broken up?
Olshey: No. Come on. This is the false narrative. That is created by media types that don’t know anything about our team. First of all our backcourt has nothing to do with the defensive rating, they’re one of the most explosive backcourts in the league, they’re both high character guys they play off each other well. They’re best friends off the floor. They’re in their prime or entering their prime everybody creates this...we don’t have to do anything. We’re continuing to build and another starting caliber future player with Collins.
We have another draft coming up. Everyone forgets ,this is year three of what was supposed to be a three to five year rebuild. I think everybody got carried away because year one of the rebuild resulted in a conference semi-final appearance. Last year we made the playoffs again and got Jusuf Nurkic. So you never know where the next transaction will move you guys ahead. The back court there are 27 other teams in the league would kill to have the back court. And we have them.
Jaynes: Without mentioning names, can anybody change teams today that you wanted?
Olshey: No. No.
Jaynes: That’s what I thought.
Olshey: Interestingly, that’s the thing. You come out of the trade deadline sometimes and you say you have abstinence remorse: “If we knew he had been in play”. Some of the players we had interest in, based on our intel and maybe the rumor mill weren’t actually available and so like I said once we exhausted guys that could really help the roster, we just looked and felt like the most judicious thing to do is get under the luxury tax. Make sure we don’t start the clock on the repeater. We have future salary going forward; that will impactful and we could be in the tax. And along with that we give Vonleh a chance. He had a chance here and performed well at times. He’s been beaten out this is the young guy we care about that will be a free agent. And you don’t want to watch a guy die on a vine on the roster and enter a really tough market. Having not played for the last five months.
Jaynes: Yeah. All in all you don’t expect the player you got in return for Vonleh to be here? Is that correct?
Olshey: I hope to visit him in Switzerland. You have to convey something as the other team. Teams have gotten away from wanting to encumber a pick nowadays even if it’s Top-55 protected. It seemed silly for them to send us cash when we’re sending them cash. They sent a draft guy who’s still playing over in Switzerland...
Jaynes: 32 years old.
Olshey: I don’t think we’ll see him in a Portland uniform.
Reflections on the Interview
This was actually cleaner and more grounded than many of Olshey’s post-event interviews, in part because the stimulus was small and the reasoning straightforward, perhaps? The issues:
...we were going to alleviate some future cap flexibility that’s what we did.
Absent other deals, trading away Vonleh did not clear up any cap space. The Blazers were at $122.2 million before the deal. They’ll be at $118.7 after. The cap is $99.1 million. In July they’ll owe $110.5 million against a cap projected at $101 million, and that’s without a dime allotted to free agents Jusuf Nurkic, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, and Ed Davis. The Blazers would have to offload two other major contracts—or a starting guard—for nothing and forego signing any of those four free agents in order to create usable cap space. If that was the plan, Vonleh’s cap hold would have been a small factor, at best.
This move was about getting under the luxury tax threshold this season. Olshey references not starting the clock on the repeater tax, and that was smart. The Vonleh trade may not have knocked everyone’s socks off, but personally I’m glad to see the front office doing something that makes good, basic sense.
We were willing to put significant assets in play If it returned an impact player.
A little later in the interview Olshey avows that there’s no chance the Lillard-McCollum backcourt will be broken up and that Zach Collins was untouchable to everyone who called. What major players are left? Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless, and Meyers Leonard don’t seem to fit that designation and all have albatross contracts. Al-Farouq Aminu is on a good deal, but is he “major”? I guess Jusuf Nurkic should be looking over his shoulder at Olshey. He’s the only guy who fits the puzzle as described. Still, it says something that Nurkic and Aminu are considered Portland’s “big offers”.
The other possibility would be Portland’s first-round pick, but they’d also have to send out salary because they’re over the cap, which loops back to the question above: if you protect Lillard, McCollum, and Collins is your new Golden Boy, then who’s left to throw in as enticement?
The sellers were asking ridiculous prices.
At this trade deadline the Orlando Magic traded Elfrid Payton for a second-round pick. The Cleveland Cavaliers got Rodney Hood and George Hill for Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose (who will be released immediately by the Utah Jazz), Jae Crowder, and a second-round pick. The Detroit Pistons got Jameer Nelson for Willie Reed. Deals weren’t just available, they were made.
The Blazers were not in position to take advantage of deals being offered because they did not have the talent or the contract structure to make those deals happen. If Portland had offered the Los Angeles Clippers Damian Lillard or McCollum for DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers would have probably jumped on that. Yes, that’s a ridiculous price. So let’s go one step down and try to find a middle ground. Portland could offer restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic, a protected first-round pick, and a mediocre player on a terrible contract (maybe two of them, to make salaries balance). The next step down from ridiculous is off a cliff.
If a man goes to Pizza Hut with a pair of one-ounce gold coins, a dollar, and a bunch of lint—and the restaurant is forced to take one of those forms of currency—guess what? That pepperoni pizza is going to cost a gold coin. He will claim that’s ridiculous, but is that about the restaurant or what’s in his pocket?
Well I tell you what, the plan has been to make the playoffs of four straight years, two trips to the second round.
Last I checked, plans were supposed to talk about the future. The plan with this deal was to not pay luxury tax at the end of the season and not start the repeater tax clock running. That’s it. Vonleh moving says nothing about the validity of the past or future plan.
But since we’re counting accomplishments, in addition to playoffs appearances we should bring up that as of February, 2018 the Blazers are a .500 team that has to dump young players they once valued for nothing in order to avoid the tax threshold. And they’re going over the tax line next year no matter what, with a single, first-round pick as their only obvious means of roster improvement. That’s where the long-term plan has brought the franchise to this point. It’s probably fair to ask about the plan.
Young players that are developing we have the draft picks. An aggressive owner. We’ve got Two trade exceptions now any of those listeners that watch poker on tv that play hold ’em just because the button gets to you doesn’t mean you have to play a hand. We saw that today...
We have another draft coming up.
This is a go-to Olshey interview tactic: name all of the future possibilities instead of addressing present reality. It might be draft picks the team has accumulated, or cap flexibility (hello Summer of 2016 contracts)...now it’s trade exceptions.
Unless the Blazers dump their egregious contracts or Nurkic in the next year, using trade exceptions to create any significant contracts will create an incredible tax burden. The team would be taking on salary without giving any back, paying 2-3 times the sticker price for each player they take on.
Unless that mid-round draft pick somehow makes an immediate impact, it’ll be five years from now—beyond the end of the Lillard-McCollum contracts—that we see the full fruits of that asset.
Every Olshey interview will send listeners chasing after the next big hope. Following the Nicolas Batum trade, Noah Vonleh was that big hope. Not only did he not pan out, the Blazers now can’t afford to keep him. Their record is significantly worse than when Batum departed, their flexibility and “tradeable“ assets significantly less. It’s hard to hope your way out of that pattern by throwing more assets at it.
To the question about breaking up Lillard-McCollum, Olshey responded:
No. Come on. This is the false narrative. That is created by media types that don’t know anything about our team.
This is another standard Olshey go-to: attack the media. It’d be interesting to compile a list of all the former players and national analysts who have broached this topic, whom Olshey is claiming are ignorant.
You can be sure of this: if Portland’s winning percentage and post-season accomplishments do not improve radically over the next two seasons, Lillard and McCollum themselves will be asking this question. At that point they’ll have the power to decide, as well, with unrestricted free agency on the horizon. If the front office isn’t considering the possibility at all, they’re abdicating control of the franchise.
Obviously Olshey cannot come out and say, “Yes! This is in our plan!” Denial does not require him to pull out the “fake news/bad media” narrative, especially when we’d be fools to believe that it’s not a question. If you want to know where some of the rumblings of distaste come for Olshey’s tactics, this is a decent example.
First of all our backcourt has nothing to do with the defensive rating.
The defensive rating is good now.
I think everybody got carried away because year one of the rebuild resulted in a conference semi-final appearance.
With the amount of self-justifying hype coming out of the organization over that particular year and that particular playoffs appearance, this is pretty striking. Memory Lane: the Blazers won 44 games and passed the first round when Chris Paul AND Blake Griffin both got injured in the series. Perhaps you’ll also recall the derision for those who didn’t reflexively anoint this event the beginning of a grand, new era. Obviously an executive will want to paint his accomplishments in the best possible light, but if people got “carried away”, Olshey was behind that bus, pushing it down the hill.
A huge thank you to Dan Marang and Timmay for the transcription.