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Looking Back At The 2018 Portland Trail Blazers

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Once upon a time, Neil Olshey made moves that mattered.

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2021 offseason has been typified by mostly modest moves and signings. Outside of the lucrative re-signing of guard Norman Powell, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey bolstered the bench by signing center Cody Zeller, veteran forwards Tony Snell and Ben McLemore, and trading for forward Larry Nance Jr.

Yet, after Portland’s ousting from the 2021 Playoffs by a shorthanded Nuggets team, critics and fans cast serious doubts whether these moves will seriously change the Blazers’ fate.

The summer of 2018 — and moves made that upcoming season — followed a similar formula. Portland was swept out of the first round in embarrassing fashion by the New Orleans Pelicans, but the following offseason also showed Olshey making minor moves around the margin. Just like this year, Olshey re-signed a key starter, fortified the bench, and later traded non-rotation pieces for a useful player from the Cleveland Cavaliers. It resulted in a major reversal of fortunes, with Portland appearing in their first conference finals in 18 years.

If there’s a jump in progression this offseason’s new crop of players is hoping to emulate, it would be the jolt the 2018 additions brought to the franchise. In our series where we look at how recent offseason acquisitions have fared in Portland and beyond, today we analyze 2018.

Jusuf Nurkic | Re-Signed Free Agent

Seasons: 5 | PTS: 14.5 | REB: 9.6 | AST: 2.8 | Postseason Appearances: 16

*Stint with Blazers

In the 2018 offseason, the Blazers maintained their starting core by re-signing center Jusuf Nurkic, a restricted free agent, to a four-year, $48-million contract. Outside of Damian Lillard, Nurkic may be the most invaluable player to Portland’s success. He covers so many areas of need for the team: screen setting, playmaking, scoring, rebounding, and interior defense.

He rewarded the Blazers for re-signing him in 2018 by putting up the best numbers of his career. In 27 minutes per game over 72 starts before his season ended with a gruesome leg injury in March, Nurkic averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds (3.4 offensive), and 3.4 assists.

The 2018-19 campaign was proof of just how impressive the Bosnian Beast can be when he stays healthy, stays engaged, and puts it all together. Since his season-ending injury in 2019, Portland hasn’t gotten a clear image of what its main core looks like clicking on all cylinders. For Nurkic, there’s been a lack of rhythm, more injury troubles, and discontentment.

The move to re-sign Nurkic in 2018 was the right one. Portland’s gaping hole in the lineup when he’s missing confirms his value. Whether Nurk can stay healthy and return to his best form this upcoming season may largely determine just how fondly his Portland career is remembered.

IMPROVING BENCH WEAKNESSES

During the 2018 offseason, Portland’s cap space was still tied up in 2016 contracts, so Olshey targeted bench improvement in free agency. In the 2017-18 season, Portland’s bench ranked 27th in scoring. On top of putrid bench scoring, the New Orleans series exposed another glaring weakness: If teams blitzed Lillard with traps, his teammates couldn’t consistently knock down open shots to make the defense pay. The bench especially ailed Portland in this department, ranking 27th in three-point percentage while taking the third fewest attempts in the league. Olshey’s solution to this conundrum: sign two cost-effective floor-spacers.

Seth Curry | Free Agent Acquisition

Seasons: 1 | PTS: 7.9 | 3P: 45.0% | REB: 1.6 | Postseason Appearances: 16

One of these sharpshooters, Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry, broke out in the 2016-17 season with the Mavs, averaging 12.8 points and shooting 42.5% from downtown. But after injury caused Curry to miss the entire 2017-18 season, Olshey could snag the gunner at a reasonable price in 2018. Signed to a two-year, $5.6-million deal with a player option in the second year, Curry was a low-risk, high-reward experiment for Olshey.

Curry’s lone season in Portland wasn’t spectacular, chipping in 7.9 points per game in 18.9 minutes off the bench, but his shooting stroke was superb. Bouncing back from over a year off, Curry shot 45 percent from beyond the arc, good enough for third-best in the NBA. He could be relied on to make opposing defenses pay for cheating up on Lillard, a welcomed luxury during that year’s playoff run.

Curry’s three-point performance in 2018-19 made his asking price the following offseason skyrocket. He opted out of the second year of his contract and rejoined Dallas on a four-year, $32-million deal. Curry’s numbers in later stops actually point to him being underutilized in Portland. In the following season with Dallas, Curry increased his three-point attempts to five per game, while still shooting at a 45.2% clip. His scoring jumped to 12.4 points per game.

The next season in Philadelphia saw similar production from Curry, until he entered a different stratosphere in the playoffs. Over 12 starts, Curry averaged 18.8 points and shot an absurd 50.6% from beyond the arc on 6.8 attempts. The price tag of Curry’s subsequent deal, as well as his performance since his time in Portland, is evidence Olshey struck big with that offseason signing.

Nik Stauskas | Free Agent Acquisition

Seasons: 1 | PTS: 6.1 | 3P: 34.4% | AST: 1.4 | Postseason Appearances: 0

The other sharpshooter acquired during the 2018 offseason, Nik Stauskas was also a low-risk, high-reward pickup. The eighth pick in the 2014 Draft, Sauce Castillo had already appeared on three teams in four years, struggling to stick in an NBA rotation. Signed at just the minimum, there was hope Stauskas could rejuvenate his career with a fresh start and Lillard and McCollum generating open looks.

For a flickering second, the addition looked glorious. Stauskas lit up LeBron James and the Lakers on opening night for a career-high 24 points. But after a few more decent games, Stauskas rode a shooting slump all the way out of the rotation and ultimately out of town. He shot 33.4% from distance over his time in Portland before he was traded, not ideal for a three-point specialist. After finishing the 2018-19 season with Cleveland, he hasn’t appeared in an NBA game again.

Rodney Hood | Trade Acquisition

Seasons: 3 | PTS: 7.8 | 3P: 37.2% | REB: 2.2 | Postseason Appearances: 16

Olshey’s misfire on Stauskas is forgivable — almost commendable — considering how he utilized Stauskas, Caleb Swanigan, and some picks to acquire Cleveland Cavalier forward Rodney Hood in a February trade. Hood had lost some of his form in Cleveland after being a standout player in Utah for five seasons, but he was a usable piece who provided more shooting, individual shot-creation, and length.

After taking some time to adjust, Hood had a coming-out-party in the playoffs to make Olshey’s tinkering look genius. In the second round series against Denver, Hood averaged 14.7 points off the bench to be Portland’s third-leading scorer. What appeared to be a minor move in February was a major reason why Portland survived a hotly-contested, seven-game playoff series.

Hood re-signed with Portland for the 2019-20 season, making the move look even better as Olshey cleared a starting spot for him. For 21 games before tearing his Achilles, Hood averaged 11 points, while shooting a remarkable 50.6% from the field and 49.3% from downtown.

The torn Achilles derailed Hood’s impact. After struggling in the 2020-21 season to maintain his pre-injury production, Portland traded Hood to Toronto where he averaged only 3.9 points per game in 17 appearances, suffering more injury problems.

Enes Kanter | Buyout Market

Seasons: 2 | PTS: 11.7 | REB: 10.5 | ORB: 3.9 | Postseason Appearances: 21

Another midseason maneuver, Olshey acquired backup center Enes Kanter on the buyout market in February, prying him away from stiff competition such as the Lakers. With the seven-foot Kanter backing up Nurkic, the Blazers could deploy 48 minutes of bully ball. Kanter was averaging 14 points and 3.9 offensive rebounds per game in New York prior to the trade that season. It would be a tall and unique task for opposing teams to keep both centers off the glass, especially opposing second units. Plus, when your defense is in the middle of the pack and not second-worst in the NBA like this past year’s squad, you can afford the luxury of an Enes Kanter without letting his defensive liabilities sink the ship.

Over the course of 15 games, before Nurkic’s injury, Portland went 12-3 with Nurkic and Kanter playing together. During that span Portland outrebounded teams 731-620 and 197-159 on offensive boards, with Nurk and Kanter combining for six or more offensive rebounds in 11 different games.

After Nurkic’s injury, Kanter was no longer a punch off the bench but a necessity thrust into the starting lineup. He stepped into his unexpected role admirably, finishing his season with 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. His presence kept the season afloat, but had Nurkic stayed healthy and Kanter stuck to the role Olshey initially envisioned, this move could be looked back on as a bigger turning point.

After spending the following season in Boston, Kanter’s return to Portland this past year brought his patented offense and rebounding, but those skills were marred by his defensive inadequacies. It’s no question, his fit was much better on the 2018-19 roster.

RECAP

Along with making win-now moves during the 2018-19 season, Olshey stashed valuable assets for the franchise’s future through the 2018 Draft. Olshey selected guards Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr. with the 24th and 37th pick. The jury is still out on Simons, but his impressive three-point shooting this past season and athletic upside makes him a rotation piece in the league at 22. Trent Jr. cemented Olshey’s status as a second round drafting guru and eventually netted the Blazers Norman Powell, arguably the most talented player Olshey has acquired through the trade market in Portland.

The 2018-19 season represents Olshey at his absolute best. It was a time when Olshey’s low-risk, high-reward moves came up roses and when they didn’t, he covered his mistakes by flipping them for utilizable pieces. Olshey plugged holes and weaknesses on the roster, improving the bench scoring to 21st and bench three-point shooting percentage to fifth. The minor moves gave Portland one of its deepest, most adaptable rosters, and it showed in the final results.