Following the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2018 NBA Playoffs sweep at the hands of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey sat down for a press conference interview with assembled members of the Portland media. Thanks to Blazer’s Edge writer Team Mom, a transcript of the complete interview is below.
When Olshey talked to NBCSports Northwest personality Dwight Jaynes following the mid-season trade deadline, I wrote a blow-by-blow response to his assertions, several of which needed some... errrr.... nuance to align with observed reality. Though the feature was reasonably popular, I had decided to forego doing the same with the post-season press conference. By Monday afternoon my mailbox was starting to ping with requests, asking that I do the same, and Mailbag questions asking what I thought of Olshey’s statements. So I give up, I guess. The interview is five days old now, but here are Olshey’s responses to the Blazers’ season and their playoff defeat, followed by my thoughts about them.
Media questions are in bold, Olshey’s statements enclosed in blockquotes, mine in regular type following each statement.
Does the first-round sweep change your thinking about this team and season?
“It doesn’t change anything about the season. I think we’ve got to bifurcate those two things to a certain degree. We lost four games coming into the playoffs and that didn’t change anyone’s overall outlook on a macro level. I think the playoffs brought a couple issues to bear in terms of teams that can go small. I think (there are) some things we need to address. But playoff series’ are always going to illustrate deficiencies. That’s what coaches do. They get to play you four different times. They find your weaknesses. And we’ll address those in the off-season.
”Regardless of whether we got swept, we lost 4-3, we get into the second round, nothing is going to go un-examined in the organization. It’s just a matter of, I think, this one was so extreme, I don’t want to overreact to one unfavorable matchup and a team that just played outstanding basketball. You just can’t do that. You can’t react to, well, now we have to overreact to when we play this style of basketball. We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster, like we always do. But we’re also not going to lose sight of the success we had throughout the course of the season, and the growth that we had.”
How about last year’s unfavorable matchup, then? And the year before? And matchups against the teams that beat Portland during the regular season employing such strategies? The issue is less that coaches get to find your weaknesses than it is that this team’s weaknesses are so prominent and obvious that a franchise on the exact same level as Portland in “regular season success” made them look helpless in the playoffs. This has happened every year for the past four.
“We’ll address [weaknesses] in the off-season” is easy to say, but those weaknesses have been apparent for multiple seasons, through multiple summers, with multiple angles of attack on improving the roster, including copious cap space, draft picks, and potential trades. So far, none of it has worked.
Chalking up the 2018 post-season to an “unfavorable matchup” erases the team’s recent history and ignores the fact that they’re asking the same questions—and trying to address the same problems—they’ve exited every season with, regardless of playoff matchup.
Capped out, burdened with hard-to-trade assets, and holding only a mid-20’s draft pick to make significant changes with, it might be time to overreact a little.
You say [one] unfavorable matchup, do you mean Anthony Davis or something else?
”I mean the team.”
How stunned were you with the way everything unfolded?
”I think we all are, actually. I think that was the recurring theme in the exit interviews. Nobody has any plane flights scheduled today because nobody expected it to happen. But it did. We had our chance[s] in Game 1. We had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a big setback and then last night, same thing. I was really proud of the way the guys came back on the road in the fourth quarter, made it a one-possession game multiple times. I think stunned; I think disappointed. But I think you also have to keep perspective. We were the three seed. We were a game ahead of New Orleans. We split with them during the season. The one time that we beat them as constructed, when they did play small with (Nikola) Mirotic at four and Anthony at five, I think we won by one and (Damian Lillard) had 40 and he had 20 in the fourth quarter. So it took a gargantuan effort on the road to get that one. We were far more conservative in our expectations of that series than I think the pundits were that all picked us to win it. Because I think we knew just how good they were and how unique they are with playing Anthony at five.”
If the Blazers, their players, and their chief executive are stunned than a playoff opponent overplayed Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and the team didn’t prosper, I don’t know what to say.
I am reminded of an episode of Black Adder, the World War I incarnation. In this episode, one of the British commanders came up with a new plan: to charge straight at the enemy trenches. With requisite snark, Black Adder commented that the new plan was exactly like the 568 plans that had proceeded it. The commander looked with dead-eye seriousness and said, “Yes. The enemy will never expect us to do it again!” It was supposed to be an ironic joke.
When people who plan public events don’t get a big turnout, they’ll often blame the weather. The thing is, every type of weather provides a potential out. If it’s sunny, people didn’t show up because they were out doing other things. If it’s rainy, people didn’t show up because they’d get wet. Nobody drives in the snow. The wind makes it hard to hear. I guess there’s a 62-degree, only mildly windy, and all beaches are closed day in which the event would have been a success, but when does that actually happen?
If the Blazers can’t beat New Orleans because of Anthony Davis and can’t beat Golden State because of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and (presumably) can’t beat Houston because of James Harden and Chris Paul, which path through the playoffs do they think they’ll take? How long before Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are added to that list? Who else?
How do you view this year? Is a success in your eyes?
”I don’t know. Is it a success in your guys eyes?”
For me personally, I think the way it ended takes a lot away from it.
”OK. And that’s fair. And I think you have to look at it three ways. You have to look at the regular season, where we had great success. We had the third seed, which was the highest this organization’s been seeded in two decades. I think the postseason couldn’t have been worse. I don’t know that you can even have a happy medium. I don’t think you can look at it as one consistent theme. I think you really have to look at them separately. I think there’s a lot of positives we need to take away from the regular season. And then there’s a lot of issues we need to address based on the result of the very abbreviated postseason. But I don’t even know that the postseason, honestly, was long enough to blend it in with the other 82 games.”
The third seed becomes a canard when you’re exactly one game ahead of teams 4-6, two ahead of teams 7 and 8. As we covered on Monday, the Blazers have finished farther over average playoff team wins, farther over 8th place, and closer to the 1st seed within the last five years. Trot out the third seed all you want, this was not a once-in-two-decades season.
Also, at what point is it fair to start considering post-season performance significant? Only when the team wins, but not when they lose? How many wins trip the trigger of, “You can count this now”?
The West is so strong. How hard is it to take that next step?
”Ask the guys that finish four through 15. Right? I think we sat in this room last year and last year we crept into the playoffs. And the question mark was can we ever be a team that [can host] a playoff series. Can we get home court advantage, finishing in the top four? How do you go about doing that? We did it with internal growth, excellent coaching. We did it with teamwork. We did it with guys that play well together, that play in a system. We did it with guys that contributed in different areas. Guys were asked throughout the year to step up. And also to step back at times. That’s how we did it. And we’ll continue to do that. We’re building a team.
Once again, the “guys” that finished 4-8 were essentially tied with the Blazers for regular season record. Whatever is claimed for Portland’s regular season can also be claimed for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, and probably the Denver Nuggets. Plus all of them except Denver won at least one playoff game, whereas Portland did not.
Professional sports are not about abstractions. They’re a competition. Your progress is measured against opponents, both in micro and macro senses. “Getting home court advantage” doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t follow through on it. “49 wins” and “Third Seed” are just pretty decorations when everybody decent gets the former and a lower seed tromps over you in the playoffs.
The Blazers are clearly better than the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers, and the post-Chris Paul, post-Blake Griffin Los Angeles Clippers. That’s the only thing we know for sure right now about this “building team”. And every one of those lesser franchises except the Clippers has a significantly lower cap obligation than Portland and most of them have lottery picks upcoming. They’re not likely to overtake the Blazers immediately, but, “What’s the next step forward?” is a critical question.
”I don’t have all the answers for you today. Everybody wants to know that there’s some magical free agent. There’s some incredible trade. There’s some draft pick that’s going to revolutionize your franchise. And a lot of times you don’t know where the help is coming from. Some of it is how you change the lineup, someone that you don’t expect to step up. Who would have thought Al-Farouq Aminu was going to spend most of the season shooting 40 percent from three? But he did. Right? The reinsertion of Moe Harkless into the starting lineup. We go 17-3 with Moe as a starter. (Jusuf Nurkic) started out slow. Played well. It takes some time. We lost last night. Nobody expected it. Nobody anticipated it. It happened. And we’ve now got 10 weeks to kind of address and build a team heading into free agency and the summer and trades. We’ll do what we always do. We’ll draft, trade, player development, free agency and we’ll build the roster.”
Except most of those avenues for the Blazers have either been shut or have not yielded definitive results. And every year the line from management is, “We like where we are and we have [insert potential future asset here] to help us improve over the summer,” as if the disembodied assets themselves were the answer.
Usually we don’t get the “No magical free agent or incredible trade” speech until after the free agency period. Perhaps the early arrival this year is foreshadowing that the Blazers anticipate a rough time trying to effect change.
There are fans who are calling for sweeping changes. Do you think the roster needs tweaking or significant changes?
The same people that wanted sweeping changes last year?
Perhaps because the same basic result happened, just with a fancier win streak in the closing months?
I don’t know. I don’t know them personally. I just hear from them all the time.
”Right. Great. Well, last year was going to take sweeping changes because we got swept by Golden State in the first round and all the alarmists overreacted. Golden State went on to sweep Utah and sweep San Antonio and basically win in five without breaking a sweat against Cleveland. And everybody overreacted.
The Blazers are not Golden State. Nor are they even close to Golden State in regular-season or playoff performance. That’s obvious, though I’m not entirely sanguine about how easily and often that reality is accepted. But when the same thing happens against the Pelicans that happened against the Warriors, only worse, it might not be the opponent.
People devote their entire lives to enter the NBA. Players and executives get paid millions to produce. Not being the best, or even top five, at any given time is understandable; only a few teams earn that designation. Saying, “Hey, look, we’re in the pack somewhere getting beaten but so are lots of franchises, so chill out, it’s all OK...” is an attitude that I’m not comfortable with from a franchise leader.
”So let’s be a little bit measured in our reaction to the fact that we ended up against a tough matchup with the best two-way player in the NBA, having a career series. Jrue (Holiday) is healthy and he played phenomenal basketball. It happens.
”But [again] this idea that (we need) sweeping changes. Where were all these people that wanted sweeping changes 10 days ago? Where were they? They were the ones bouncing off the walls in the Moda Center when we got the third seed for the first time since 1999-00. So it’s our job to be measured and not overreact. Because when you overreact is when you make mistakes. Nobody thinks this roster is a finished product. Everybody understands it is a work in progress. But it’s a work in progress.
It’s also super weird to have the President of Basketball Operations exhibit contempt for fans, whom he apparently deems fairly simple and reactionary. Not only is there plenty of evidence to the contrary, it’s an attitude that has been blessedly absent from Portland since the Steve Patterson era.
Relative to people back in December who were complaining that we weren’t going to make the playoffs and we were in purgatory because we weren’t going to make the playoffs and we weren’t going to pick high enough. Right? That was the rallying cry. Then it was, ‘Oh my God. They’re going to blow the third seed because they’re going to lose all these games. They’re not even going to get home court advantage.’ They overreacted to that. You know what? If the series goes six or seven, if Game 1 goes differently when we had the ball down one, who knows where this series goes? But it didn’t.
”But, again, you don’t take four games and overreact and diminish what you accomplished over 82 games. The foundation is built during the regular season. There are always extraneous factors that go on in a playoff series. We’re the first ones out, so this will be heightened and there will be an over-amount of attention paid to this series until other teams start going out. And then they’ll all need sweeping changes.”
The Blazers were first ones out of the playoffs, and it came at the hands of a sixth seed. If we want to talk significantly rare occurrences over the course of decades, since first-round series went to the best-of-seven format, no third seed has never been swept by a sixth seed. Before that, the last time it happened was 1978, when first-round series were best-of-three. It doesn’t seem logical to talk about the third seed as a magical, revolutionary talisman of promise without also giving weight to how it was surrendered in unprecedented fashion.
Does the way you finished the regular season set a new bar for the team and expectations moving forward?
”The bar’s always the same. You’re trying to be a factor in the playoffs, you’re trying to be a team that can advance in the playoffs and see what happens. And you try to put the best team possible on the floor. And you’re trying to do that while growing, not just looking for help externally. But growing from within. I thought this was the most competitive roster [we’ve had] in the three years that we kind of entered into [this] rebuild. I thought Damian showed great leadership throughout the course of the year. I think we probably had more ebbs and flows this season than we did in the first two years. The first two years we just started off really slow and made runs late. And it was kind of almost two distinct seasons. This one was up and down throughout. We had to face a lot of adversity throughout the year. I think, sometimes, people get too high and they also get too low. When all is said and done, weeks down the road, we’ll look back and realize we lost in the first round. And whether it 4-3 or 4-0 isn’t going to change the fact that in the regular season, a lot of the teams that are playing in the playoffs right now, we either swept, split with, beat. And we’ll realize how competitive we were.”
So you trust the team that you saw in the regular season more than the team we just saw get swept?
”I would rather trust a team I saw over 82 games than a team I saw over four games.”
Here is the Trail Blazers record by month.
- October 4-3
- November 9-6
- December 5-8
- January 11-5
- February 6-4
- March 12-3
- April 2-4
The Blazers had an incredible March and a very good January. Their record is directly attributable to the (enormous and legitimate) 13-game win streak spanning February and March, plus a January in which 7 of 11 wins came against non-playoff teams. Outside of January and March, Portland went 26-25.
If Olshey trusts in the clear positives of this season, he’s trusting in a team he only saw for two months of the year, dismissing the team he saw the other four (two-thirds of the season) plus the playoffs. The team he’s lifting up didn’t show up over 82 games...more like 31. And they didn’t appear at all against the Pelicans.
Can you address the job coach Terry Stotts and his staff did this year?
”What do you expect from a coaching staff? [Do] your players get better? [They did.] There was internal growth. Are you competitive every night? Did you improve on areas where you struggled in the past? One of the things people talked about when we sat in this room a year ago, was everyone complained about our defense. It was 26th in the league. It finished ranked eighth (this year). Right? That’s growth. Young teams take longer to develop a defensive mindset. It’s harder for young teams to defend well. Usually veteran teams are those defensive teams.
Offensively, I think we actually took a little bit of a step back this year because there was such a focus on the defensive end. The defensive rebounding carried us during some of the early parts of the season, when the offense struggled. Terry can speak more to that. But there’s never a question about coaching or ... whether we were or not prepared going into a game. That was stipulated. Like I said, we ran into a well-coached team with a superstar player that plays both ways, that played a unique style, relative to how they played the first three times we played them during the regular season. They played it really well. And I think the one thing they did a phenomenal job of was, they imposed their style of play on us. And they came out victorious as a result.”
This is correct, though one might quibble with the last couple sentences about playoffs defeat being inevitable and solely matchup-related. But this is also part of the issue. If micro factors are not improving and you’re not able to plow forward, that might be a coaching issue. When micro factors are improving and you’re still not moving forward, that calls your whole strategy into question.
For those who would say 41 wins to 49 wins means that you are plowing forward, remember everyone in the murky middle of the West won 47-49 this year. The Blazers ended up on top of the shuffle this year, the bottom last year, and the middle the year before. They’ve not been dealt out of the deck onto the actual table yet. 49 wins was a long way from second place and light years from first.
In light of the financial restrictions you have this summer, what vehicles do you view as the most likely to help the roster?
”It’s always the same. It’s draft, trade, player development, free agency. People get caught up in financial restrictions. First of all, half the league is at or will be ... (above) the salary cap next year. And it’s a result of the cap spike from two years ago, increased spending. That’s the way it is. But there’s a million ways to build a team and I think everybody gets caught up in thinking there’s some magical solution because you have cap room or you have an exception. That’s not necessarily true. If you look at how many teams got better this year because of trade or draft-related moves versus teams that got a free agent to come into their cap room, the teams that did the former improved greater than the teams that just signed the free agent. That’s how it works. So, like I said, guys are going to continue to get better. There’s still a lot of upside on the roster. We have our first-round draft pick, we’ll be active at the draft as usual. We’ve been active and opportunistic in trades. We’ve found value players. We’ll continue to do that.
I don’t think anybody will argue the methods the Blazers use to get better, just that they need to get better, no matter the approach.
Olshey’s blithe dismissal of financial factors ignores the fact that financial decisions—signings and stretching waived players over multiple years—impact the franchise’s ability to maneuver in trades and free agency. The Blazers risk missing opportunities, or having to pay extra for them, because of their cap ledger. The two issues are not separate.
“Half the league will be above the salary cap...as a result of the cap spike from two years ago” is a facile statement. In 2015-16, 27 of 30 NBA teams were over the cap. Since 2011, the ratio of teams over the cap to under has never been lower than two-thirds. This actually semi-supports Olshey’s point.
On the other hand the Blazers ranked 26th in the league this year in the amount of available cap space and already rank in the bottom half (16th) for next season without a single free agent re-signed. “Everybody’s doing it” is not a great excuse for being in a problematic position. The goal is to be better than everyone, not join them.
One of the things I’m disappointed in from a narrative standpoint from this whole year that nobody picked up on was this: How important the quality of your players and building a team is to winning and losing basketball games. Everybody wants to look [in] a vacuum at specific players. This player, this player, this player. His numbers, his numbers, his numbers. And what nobody looked at was the chemistry, the camaraderie, the teamwork, the way this group stayed together. We’d lose three or four in a row, they never fractured. It frustrated guys in the media because you would ask Dame or you would ask CJ (McCollum), they’d say, ‘We’re fine. We’re fine.’ And nobody wanted to believe that we were fine. Yet somehow, we ended up with 49 wins and we were the third seed in the Western Conference. We were fine. They believed it. They’re the ones that have to believe and they believe in each other and they elevate each other. It’s one of the things we talked about with Dame’s leadership. Dame’s great ability from a leadership standpoint is to get guys to elevate their play to a level they can play at. By increasing everybody’s level of play by five, 10, 15 percent, because of the empowerment he gives them, in aggregate adds another player, another impact player.
Portland got swept in the playoffs. This was not fine. If they’re anything like other aging NBA free agents, when the contracts of Lillard, McCollum, and significant players come up, track record will factor in. Chemistry is great, but when chemistry does not produce clear, sustained success, it’s just a buzz word.
I think that’s the hardest thing at times; this isn’t NBA2K. The teams with, across the board, the highest profile names on their teams aren’t necessarily the best teams. And it comes down to coaching and culture and organization and team-building and character. And that’s what you saw during the ebbs and flows of our year. It never fractured in here ever. Not once. You never heard one story about it fracturing, relationships player-to-player, player-to-coach, the organization, organization-to-coach. Never. Not once. You never heard that. And that’s what kept everybody together. And that bond is why, even losing in four, will give us something to build on instead of something to regret.”
Maybe, if they don’t get ahead, something needs to fracture?
Have you spoken with owner Paul Allen since the season ended? And what was his message?
”Yeah, I was with Paul last night. His message was we had a great regular season, he was proud of the way we competed. He was proud of the fact that even last night, when we got down 15, we never stopped fighting. But, based on the regular season, we had larger aspirations than a first-round playoff exit. And we need to find a way to get better.”
How will you approach Nurkic’s free agency?
”We can’t. You know we can’t discuss free agency. He’s a restricted free agent. We’ll handle that when free agency starts. He’s not the only restricted free agent on the roster. Pat (Connaughton) is restricted, Shabazz (Napier) is restricted. Ed (Davis) is unrestricted. So we’ve got some guys we have to deal with internally. And we’ll handle that. Right now, we’re trying to get through our exit interviews with our guys and check in on them, make sure they have what they need heading into the offseason and set the plan for the young guys as far as what we expect from them in the offseason, prep them for summer league. And in a couple weeks, we’ll get to Chicago and start working on the draft.”
Do you share Portland’s love for Ed Davis?
”Yeah. Everybody does. I signed him. Another guy happy that he left L.A. and came to Portland, along with me. So there you go.”
Do you remain steadfast that you’re not going to break up the Lillard and McCollum core?
”Yeah. Yeah. When 27 other teams aren’t jealous of our backcourt, then I’ll start worrying about (it). The other thing I said to somebody last night, they were asking, ‘Can you win with two 6-foot-3 guards?’ We just got swept by a team that started three guards under 6-4. So I don’t know what our two guys have to do with it.”
Agreed on all points, save the obvious that it’s not just a pair of six-foot guards, but a roster with the right mix of skills and determination that matters. The Blazers have the guards and they can score. The rest remains to be seen.
You seem so positive about a team that was just swept out of the playoffs. What gives you so much optimism about this roster and this nucleus?
”The growth. I think we had an eight-game improvement over last year. I think if you ask anybody, we gave away some games this year. I don’t even know that the record is 100 percent reflective of what it was capable of. We did have some ebbs and flows and lost some games that, I think, if you look back on the schedule, you would have checked off as wins. And then we also won some games I don’t think anybody expected us to win. I think when you look at how competitive we are with the teams that were in our conference, that were in our division, that are playing at a really high level right now and how we performed against them, knowing internally the amount of work that they put in. And I think more than anything, the biggest question mark we’ve all had that goes beyond whether or not we have two guards on our backcourt under 6-3, would Nurk become a player or anything else; the biggest question was always: ‘Can this group, as constructed, have an impact defensively?’
”And I think from a coaching standpoint, from a player-commitment standpoint, to get buy-in from guys that, quite honestly, other than Farouq and maybe Moe (Harkless), are really guys that probably came into the league as offensive players. To get that kind of buy-in from an individual and team concept, that’s why we did play so well on the road until this series, because the defense traveled. I think the coaches believed. But I don’t know that we believed we could, with this group, have a top-10 defense for the entire NBA season. And we did. And I think there were even guys looking at it, analytics-based, back in November/December, wondering if it was sustainable or if it was a byproduct of a soft beginning of the schedule. And it was. When you can be in the top 10 all year over an 82-game schedule with a predominantly offensive-oriented roster, it’s a testament to the job the coaches did. And it’s also kudos to the players that they were able to adopt a totally different mindset as two-ways guys as opposed to just trying to outscore people on the other end of the floor.”
Totally agreed. The defensive development this year was significant. Next step: Is it good enough to hold up during the playoffs against all comers?
Moe Harkless mentioned to us how important you guys said he was to the team. Is that one thing you learned?
”I give credit to Zach Williams, who runs our analytics. Because he’s probably the biggest Moe backer. Whenever things were down, all the numbers kept showing how important Moe was to us. Last year, when we finished strong throughout the year, we were at our best with Moe and Farouq at three and four. It got even better when Nurk came in. I think we saw that this year. Moe admittedly got off to a slow start. So did Nurk. We were sluggish early. We had a soft schedule that we didn’t really take advantage of and guys weren’t playing at their level. And Terry reinserted Moe into the starting lineup. Evan was dinged up a little bit with his calf strain, so he was on limited minutes. And we went on a 17-3 run.
”So Moe is a high-impact guy for us. He gives us a lot of defensive versatility. He can score in transition. He makes a lot of things at three/four switchable with Farouq. He can guard one-through-four. And he’s probably the best athlete on the team. He is. He’s a linchpin to a lot of things we do and I think a lot of the guys who are in the know, when Moe went down late in the year, there were guys that knew this was going to be a huge loss for us. That’s not using injury as an excuse. That’s just answering your question about how important Moe playing at the level he’s capable of. You forget, we lost one of our better defenders, (but) Moe was also second in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage after the trade deadline behind Doug McDermott. He was shooting 54.5 percent. He went from shooting 31 to 41.5 on the season. I think Moe ended up leading our team in three-point shooting for the regular season. That’s a big deal. Everybody’s looking for 3-and-D guys. Well there you go. And he’s still only 24 years-old. I think we’ll see a more consistent Moe next year, realizing he needs to come in Day 1 and play at the level he’s capable of.”
Moe did well this year. For him and for the team, 82 games count, not just the ones they did well in. Both Harkless and his teammates knew that the first months of the season scuttled their 2016-17 campaign, rendering a sterling late-season run moot. They had just lived through it; there was no mystery. Then they came out and did the exact same same thing again this year. It’s like they forgot all facets matter, not just the positive ones.
The idea that the “real” Blazers were the ones who won games and the other Blazers were just a fluke recurs multiple times in Olshey’s interview. I think fans have the luxury of thinking that way. It’s somewhat disturbing hearing this come from a chief executive and seeing it play out in the actual record of the team. I hope that the internal assessment of the team is far harsher than the external pitch.
How would you evaluate Zach Collins’ growth and importance moving forward?
”I think Zach played really well for us. I think he did what he was asked to do. He had an impact defensively. We finished the regular season No. 1 in rim protection. A lot of that was Nurk and Ed. But a lot of that was Zach at four as well. His length, his ability as a rookie to learn and establish a reputation with referees that he knew how to play verticality without picking up fouls that he had done early in the year [and] in summer league. I also thing he did a lot of things for us as a team in terms of floor balance because he shared the floor with Ed, it was one of our most productive lineups. But he played far away from the basket. He got to three-point range probably earlier than we even would have liked. I don’t know if he was ready for that. But it opened up the court, let Ed be a dive guy, let Ed be an offensive rebounder. And I think what he did most importantly, as a 10th pick in the draft, he had to earn his stripes. It wasn’t handed to him Day 1. He joined a playoff team, a returning playoff team, a team with playoff aspirations, and other guys’ got opportunities before him at that position. Caleb (Swanigan) got a shot. Noah (Vonleh) got a shot. Farouq was a starter. So when he got on the floor, it was with the backing and endorsement and respect of the veterans in the locker room that he had earned it. And that’s a bigger hurdle to climb that just playing minutes. Anybody can get minutes in the NBA. One of the things that will accelerate Zach’s growth ... not only did he earn it, but his minutes came playing on a team playing for something other than just getting their rookies minutes. And I think that gives him a foundation to build on.”
That’s a solid assessment and a fair way to talk about a player who, all things considered, may be Portland’s greatest hope for improvement going forward.
In the main, this was standard Olshey fare. Supporters will find the usual buffet of hopeful options to cling onto, though fewer of those items are substantiated each year. Instead we’re forced to detach data points from the whole and abstract them in order to make the case that they’re valid: 49 wins become significant in themselves regardless of median victories, a third seed exists in a vacuum apart from the playoffs, Moe Harkless’ improvement marks him as a big potential agent of change when the team is probably far more dependent on the guards and Jusuf Nurkic. Throughout Olshey’s interview, points that pundits would tab as mistakes (or at least worrisome) were characterized as trivial things we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about. A disparaging dismissal awaits for everyone who does. After all, everything in shiny in Blazers Land.
The most significant change might have been the, “Nobody thinks this roster is finished yet” line. Ongoing rebuild has been a continual theme after negative events, but usually the sense is, “We’re pretty far along.” The tenor of the conversation changed slightly during this interview. I suspect the Blazers know that getting swept by New Orleans was a significant setback. Olshey will have to process that setback with multiple audiences, not just the press and public, but Paul Allen, the scouts and executives, and players...a couple of whom will probably be looking for better results and could get discouraged if they’re not forthcoming soon.
In all of this, I hear the clock ticking. The Blazers have two more years until Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum reach their “lame duck” seasons, just three before Lillard turns 30 and both guards become unrestricted free agents. The backcourt’s prime years have arrived; they’re in them right now. They’re going to need more to show for it than playoff losses and speeches. With a big cap obligation, a low draft pick, and modest trade assets available, paths for clear improvement seem narrow. They need to find them, otherwise no matter how it’s spun, “good enough” is not going to end up good enough.