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Looking Back at Neil Olshey’s Tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers

Five years later on, how good was he?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Neil Olshey was promoted to General Manager of the Los Angeles Clippers in March 2010 after a particularly ugly split between the team and Mike Dunleavy, who had previously been serving as both the team’s head coach and GM. Dunleavy brought in Olshey at the beginning of his Clippers tenure and moved him all over the organization, from assistant coach to assistant general manager, before Olshey was elevated to take over the reins. In the intervening two years and three months before he was hired by the Portland Trail Blazers, Olshey flexed his muscles in multiple ways, from taking care of the young core he inherited to pulling off one of the great trades in NBA history.

At the time, the Clippers were long thought to be nothing more than cannon fodder for the other teams in the league: a small speed bump encountered on the way in or out of Staples Center to play the Lakers, the real team in Los Angeles. Olshey played a starring role in changing that perception, from drafting DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin in his time as assistant general manager to acquiring Chris Paul. This series of transactions (combined with Donald Sterling being ousted as owner later in the decade) set the foundation for the Clippers to move out of the shadow of the Lakers and firmly establish themselves as a consistent playoff contender and one of the most valuable clubs in the league.

It’s hard to give the Clippers too much credit for drafting Griffin, who was clearly the top pick at the time, but identifying Jordan in the second round and developing him into one of the best defensive centers in the league started with Olshey and his staff. Meanwhile the Paul trade was nothing short of a masterpiece for Los Angeles, who enjoyed many years of playoff success behind his leadership. Moving Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a first-rounder for the guy who was right at the top of everybody’s point guard rankings was exactly the heist that it looks like all these years later. That same off-season, Olshey matched a four-year, $42.7-million offer sheet for Jordan and signed Caron Butler, then thought to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, to a contract for $8 million per season. Butler turned down richer offers from other teams that summer to join the Clippers—another feather in Olshey’s cap.

Olshey’s draft record was relatively short in his two years in Los Angeles. In 2010, he took Aminu with the eighth pick and traded back into the first round to take Eric Bledsoe at 18. In 2011, he didn’t have a first-round pick (more on that in a minute) and got nothing from two bites at the apple in the second round. It’s hard to argue with the value of those two picks in 2010: Aminu’s been a starting-caliber player throughout his career, including for Olshey’s current Portland team the past three years, and Bledsoe looked on his way to becoming a star before injuries derailed him. Aminu was also a part of the package sent to New Orleans in the Paul trade, so it’s not clear that a better player at that position would have garnered a lot more value for the Clippers than Aminu did. (The next two choices were Gordon Hayward and Paul George).

Despite all the good, you can’t talk about Olshey’s years with the Clippers without bringing up the Baron Davis trade. Davis was salary-dumped to Cleveland along with L.A.‘s 2011 first-round pick at that year’s trade deadline for Mo Williams (who had been an All-Star a couple years earlier) and Jamario Moon. The Clippers were firmly outside the playoff picture with a 21-37 record at the time of the trade and needed to cheapen their roster. Davis still had three years and $39 million left on his contract at the time of the trade and Williams was $13 million cheaper over the same period, so Olshey was willing to part with an immediate first-round pick to get the deal done.

The problem came with typical Clippers luck on lottery night, when that pick they handed the Cavaliers jumped from eighth-best odds in the lottery to #1 overall, where Cleveland would subsequently draft Kyrie Irving. Obviously, there was no way for Olshey to know his mid-lottery pick was actually the golden ticket to one of the best scoring guards of this generation, and when you look around where the Cavaliers were supposed to have picked in that draft—they had just a 2.8 percent chance of nabbing the first pick—Olshey’s quote after the trade makes a lot more sense: “I’m not that high on the draft to begin with this year.” Among players taken around the eighth pick in 2011: Jan Vesely (sixth), Bismack Biyombo (seventh), Brandon Knight (eighth), and Jimmer Fredette (tenth).

Like any draft, we can play revisionist history and nitpick teams that didn’t take the absolute best player available, but with the Clippers likely drafting in an area of the draft featuring multiple busts, it’s hard to say that Olshey was wrong to make the Davis trade.

Olshey hasn’t enjoyed quite the same level of success with the Trail Blazers, though his draft record is still very strong. (Picking Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in your first two years will do that.) He has a mixed record on trades and free agency signings in the intervening years since he moved up I-5 from Los Angeles, but taken as a whole, his ledger is clean. In Portland or L.A., he’s been willing to take swings. While some of them whiff, enough hit to build a consistent playoff contenders.