The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2017-18 season took plenty of weird twists and turns on the way to a four-game, first-round sweep against the New Orleans Pelicans. The motor was knocking coming out of the gate, as the Blazers started slow after swearing that they weren’t going to do so for a second straight season. They righted the ship in January, sputtered a little, then gunned the engine hard through a 13-game win streak spanning February and March. A losing jag accompanied them out of the regular season, but their 49 wins proved (barely) enough to earn the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Then they were summarily dumped by Anthony Davis and company, landing with a resounding thud.
President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey gave a post-season press conference after the abrupt ouster, following several Blazers players, accompanied by Head Coach Terry Stotts. Their responses were riffs on a similar theme: “We don’t know what happened. We’re surprised by this. We’ll just keep looking to improve.” With avenues for improvement, or even significant change, seemingly narrow, those explanations are unsatisfying.
In a video interview with NBCSports Northwest, SI.com writer Ben Golliver suggested that there’s one voice we haven’t heard from yet, the only voice that truly matters: Blazers owner Paul Allen. He ultimately makes the decisions. His approbation could ease criticism of Olshey and Stotts. Yet he has remained in his familiar mode of silence, letting Olshey take the public lead.
I do not necessarily agree with Golliver that Paul Allen’s approval would quiet criticism of the team. A luxury-tax-level, straight-jacket payroll combined with first-round futility is all but inexcusable no matter who approves of it. I do agree that it’s time for Allen to speak, as his public declarations will reveal the extent of the damage and the future course of the franchise in a way that even the team executives cannot.
At one point, ownership was all in on the Trail Blazers’ current plan. You don’t throw $40 million at Moe Harkless, another $40 million at Meyers Leonard, and $70 million at Evan Turner on a whim. So far the scheme has resulted in an average of 45 wins per season and exactly zero playoff games won. Has ownership considered that the team may not be on a sound course or are they still all-in? We know what Neil Olshey is selling to the public. We can assume he must have sold a similar vision two years ago to get approval. Who, exactly, is believing anymore? The answer to that question will tell us whether we can expect change or whether we need to buckle up for more years of stomach-churning roller coasters.
Only one person can answer that question, the guy who owns the team.
It’s not likely that Allen will say much; he seldom does. It’s even less likely he’ll undercut his General Manager publicly unless and until he intends to dismiss him. But hearing whether Allen is concerned about improvement or whether he’s willing to parrot the “Just focus on 49 wins and the 3rd seed, Fire Dog says This is Fine” company line would indicate what direction this franchise is really headed.
Allen probably has until the draft and free agency period to make up his mind, but at some point, he needs to clue everyone in about it. What he says will be important. Given the way the Blazers finished the season, silence is not an option.