With NBA free agency around the corner and the Portland Trail Blazers in need of roster help, Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey is facing considerable pressure. Franchise star Damian Lillard wants to win now. The Portland fan base wanted to win yesterday. Olshey’s ability to bring in players could make or break the Blazers’ season and his reputation.
With so much on the line, Olshey’s past performance at assembling talent is worth a second look. He is set to enter his tenth season in Portland as the fourth-longest tenured general manager in the league. A plethora of his moves have already played out. Over the course of a couple posts, we’re going to look at how the talent he acquired has fared in Portland and stops after.
Today we’re going to examine Portland’s major signings in 2015 and 2016. We’ll cover 2017 through the present in a later post.
2016: The Turning Point
The summer of 2016 looms as the critical section of Olshey’s resume. In his first chance to really retool the roster in the post-LaMarcus-Aldridge era around cornerstone Lillard and a budding CJ McCollum, Olshey dished out large amounts of money for players in deals questionable even at the time.
Oregon Live’s Aaron Fentress recently put out a Tweet defending Olshey’s moves in the 2016 offseason, saying, “That 2016 thing remains completely overblown.” He pointed out that the team made the Western Conference Finals three years later. Yet even considering the Blazers’ 2019 Conference Finals appearance, with every player signed in the 2016 offseason now on different teams five years later, the moves look worse.
Evan Turner | Free Agent Acquisition
Seasons: 3 | PTS: 8.0 | AST: 3.0 | FG%: 44.3 | Postseason Appearances: 23*
*Stint with Blazers
The big signing for the Blazers that summer was luring versatile backup point guard Evan Turner away from the Boston Celtics with a $70-million, four-year deal. Over three seasons, his fit in Portland’s three-point happy offense was never ideal and his production as a bench role player never justified such a large contract.
In the summer of 2019, Turner was traded to the Atlanta Hawks for small forward Kent Bazemore. At age 31, Turner was entering the backslide of his career, but still expected to lead the Hawks’ bench unit as a strong veteran presence. In one abysmal season, he averaged 3.3 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, in 13 minutes per game before being cut out of the rotation after 19 games.
With his free agent stock plummeting, Turner retired as a player before the 2020-21 season and joined the Celtics coaching staff. His $70-million deal with the Blazers would be the last NBA contract he signed as a player.
Allen Crabbe | 2013 Draft Pick (31st pick)
Seasons: 4 | PTS: 8.3 | REB: 2.3 | 3P: 41.1% | Postseason Appearances: 17
The other big contract the Blazers signed in the summer of 2016 was a $75-million, four-year deal for three-point specialist Allen Crabbe. Olshey selected Crabbe with the 31st pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and in the 2015-16 season he broke into the rotation averaging 10 points off the bench. After one more season with similar production, the Blazers traded Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets for Andrew Nicholson who the team immediately waived.
In Crabbe’s first season in Brooklyn and with a new starting role, his scoring average jumped to 13.2 points per game. Although his three-point percentage dropped to 37.8%, partially because he practically doubled his attempts to 7 attempts per game, he set a franchise record for 201 three-pointers made in a single season. The following season, knee issues allowed Crabbe to play in only 43 games for the Nets.
He was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in the 2019 offseason, where he played in only 28 games and averaged 5.1 points in 18.6 minutes before being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves at midseason. During Crabbe’s Atlanta stint his three-point percentage dropped to 32.3%. After appearing in 9 games in Minnesota, the Timberwolves waived Crabbe on February 20, 2020 and he hasn’t appeared in a NBA game since.
He worked out this past offseason with hopes of being picked up on the free agency market, but at the age of 29, just like Turner, Crabbe’s contract with the Blazers is his last NBA contract as of today.
Moe Harkless | Trade Acquisition
Seasons: 4 | PTS: 7.7 | REB: 3.8 | 3P: 33.0%| Postseason Appearances: 33
Moe Harkless is a classic Neil Olshey move — the young, former-first round pick, reclamation project initially grabbed on the cheap. He’s also the best outcome in a long line of these Olshey experiments (say, what happened to Thomas Robinson, Noah Vonleh, Nik Stauskas, etc?). The Blazers used a future second-round pick to acquire Harkless in the 2015 offseason. Harkless, just 23 at the time, was the 15th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, but had fallen out of the rotation in his third season with the Orlando Magic. After one season with the Blazers, the team signed Harkless to a $40-million, four-year deal in 2016.
In three seasons as the Blazers starting small forward, Harkless served as the team’s X-factor. He buoyed the team’s defense alongside forward Al-Farouq Aminu, often guarding the opposing team’s best player with his length and athleticism. Offensively, Harkless was limited. Lacking playmaking and shot-creation skills, he was used in Stotts’ offense as a cutter and an inconsistent spot-up shooter. With his young age, Harkless had the potential to develop more assets to his game and improve his shot with time. While his floor remained the same, he never raised his ceiling as a player during his time in Portland.
Portland traded Harkless to the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2019 offseason in a four-team deal that brought center Hassan Whiteside to the Blazers. His time after Portland has been an odyssey of sorts. In 50 games, Harkless ate up minutes for the load-management heavy Clippers, starting in 38 games and producing similar numbers to his time in Portland. The Clippers then dealt him to the New York Knicks at the trade deadline. Harkless appeared in only 12 games for the Knicks in the 2019-20 season before play was suspended due to COVID.
The following year, the Heat signed Harkless to a much more modest, $3.6-million, one-year deal, expecting him to be a spark off the bench and capable starter if needed. Injuries hurt Harkless’ chances on the Heat roster early, and he was cut out of the rotation even when cleared to play, appearing in only 14 games before being dealt to the Sacramento Kings in March.
The Kings were in desperate need of defensive help and acquired Harkless to give them just that off the bench. Due to injuries moving him up the depth chart, in 26 games, Harkless logged 20 starts and 24.9 minutes per game, his most since the the 2016-17 season. Just before entering another summer in free agency, Harkless again showcased limited offense (6.9 points, 24.7% from beyond the arc), but did provide a spark for an awful defensive team, saving him from possible NBA exile. He can be a rotation piece on an NBA roster with the right fit but not a highly-desired one at just 28.
Al-Farouq Aminu | Free Agent Signing
Seasons: 4 | PTS: 9.5 | REB: 7.1 | 3P: 35.3%| Postseason Appearances: 35
Although Al-Farouq Aminu was signed by the Blazers in the summer of 2015, he’s included in this list because he was a major part of the nucleus that the moves in 2016 were building around. Signed in 2015 to a $30-million, 4-year deal, Aminu was a starting forward for Portland every year of his contract. He provided defensive prowess to a starting five that needed to compensate for its undersized, offensive-minded backcourt. He gave the team toughness and excelled at his role of doing the dirty work. Similar to Harkless, his skillset was limited offensively. He was an inconsistent three-point shooter with an erratic handle and a catapult-shooting form that didn’t translate into a smooth midrange game. He could attack the rim off the catch better than Harkless, but not by much.
Aminu’s contract expired following Portland’s run to the 2019 Western Conference Finals. With a young Zach Collins waiting in the wings and Aminu carrying a decent price tag, Portland let their long-tenured forward walk. Orlando signed Aminu to a $29-million, 3-year deal.
Aminu’s time in Orlando was marred by injuries. He appeared in only 18 games in the 2019-20 season and sat out with a torn meniscus from November 2019 until February 2021. He appeared in 17 games for the Magic in the 2020-21 season before being traded to the Chicago Bulls in March as part of the Nikola Vucevic package. In his 35 appearances in a Magic uniform, he averaged 4.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, and shot 23.9% from beyond the arc.
Despite Aminu’s potential in Orlando being clouded by injury and lack of rhythm, what is apparent is the role he was signed to provide. At the time of his signing, the Magic had forwards Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac ahead of Aminu on the depth chart, so he was brought in to add rebounding, defensive depth, and a veteran presence. Orlando signed Aminu only a few months before his 29th birthday, when he should have been entering the peak of his NBA prime. Yet, he was a bench piece.
Portland heavily relied on Aminu for four years. He tallied 255 starts and 28.9 minutes per game. Even before the injury in Orlando, Aminu’s workload had dropped to 21.1 minutes per game.
After the trade, Aminu appeared in six games for the Bulls, averaging 1.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 11.2 minutes. He was cut out of the rotation for the last seven games.
For three years, the starting forward-pairing of Aminu and Harkless was often criticized as a primary reason the Blazers couldn’t get over the hump and contend for a title. The argument in defense of the duo was that with Lillard and McCollum providing the offensive firepower, the Blazers didn’t need much else from their forwards besides defense. Yet, if your goal is to contend for a title, your roster does need more from your starting forwards. Their time after Portland has largely justified the critiques, exposing Aminu and Harkless as non-bonafide NBA starters.
Meyers Leonard | 2012 Draft Pick (11th Pick)
Seasons: 7 | PTS: 5.6 | REB: 3.7 | 3P: 38.5%| Postseason Appearances: 25
Through the ups and downs of Meyers Leonard’s seven seasons in Portland, he never broke out of the backup big man role. He was a good teammate, always embracing the role of towel-waiving cheerleader on the sideline. On the court, he was a fiery competitor and solid screen-setter, with a three-point shot that kept him valuable in today’s game. In the summer of 2016, with Leonard just 24, Portland resigned him to a $40-million, 4-year deal. In the end, Leonard averaged just 14.4 minutes per game in the 2018-19 season, his final as a Blazer.
Leonard was traded to the Miami Heat before the 2019-20 season. His minutes jumped to 20.3 per game, and he started in 49 out of his 51 regular season appearances, more starts than in his seven seasons in Portland combined. However, Leonard’s postseason statistics with the Heat that season are more telling of his overall value. Miami pulled off a midseason trade that added Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, and Solomon Hill to the roster, so Leonard was bumped out of the rotation. During Miami’s surprise run to the 2020 Finals, Leonard appeared in just 3 games out of 21 postseason contests, averaging only 10.3 minutes per game.
The Heat did resign Leonard to a $20-million, 2-year deal the following offseason, but that arguably was in large part due to the intangibles he brought as a positive locker room presence. Leonard’s supportive attitude, despite his postseason demotion, was a breath of fresh air for a Heat franchise that had just dealt with a discontented Hassan Whiteside. After Leonard’s use of an anti-Semitic slur on a livestream put his character in question and caused a social media firestorm, he was promptly traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in March. Leonard, who was out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury, was released by the Thunder eight days later. He’s currently a free agent.
Other notable moves made that summer: signing free agent center Festus Ezeli (hasn’t played in a NBA game since 2016 due to injuries); drafting forward Jake Layman in the second round with the 47th pick (he’s currently still fighting to prove he’s a rotation player in Minnesota); and picking up Shabazz Napier as a cheap, backup point guard (after bouncing around the league for a few years after his time in Portland, Napier wasn’t signed to a NBA roster in the 2020-21 season and is a free agent at age 30).
The summer of 2016 represents Olshey pushing his chips to the center of the table and largely coming up empty-handed. He bet on the development of players who largely stayed who they were at the time. It got the Blazers serviceable—but nowhere near elite—talent and tied their hands together as far as roster construction during crucial years of Lillard’s timeline.
Next Time: Olshey’s signings from 2017 to the present.