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Most Significant Trail Blazers Stories of 2021: Olshey Gone

The most significant event for the Blazers in 2021 marked the end of an era and the beginning of deep questions.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers had a volatile, interesting year in 2021. After nearly a decade of stability, the Blazers experienced seismic shifts that redefined the terrain under their feet, changing the outlook heading into 2022 and beyond. On New Year’s Day we’re going to look back at the most significant events defining the franchise over the last 365 days. These are the stories that made their year.

The biggest story of the year for any NBA team is probably COVID-19. It has changed the league, and its member franchises, more than could have been imagined two years ago. But COVID is a multi-year reality. It also affects 30 organizations and the league office, not just the Blazers. So we’re going with the obvious, team-specific story as our most significant of the year.

In 2021, the Blazers finally parted ways with President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey. The move itself was significant enough, as Olshey had captained the front office since 2012. But the circumstances surrounding the firing made it especially memorable.

The Blazers had plenty of basketball-related reasons to oust Olshey. His master plan was rapidly petering out. The hope of a rebuilding franchise under young phenom Damian Lillard in 2015 had given way to more prosaic realities: bungled cap space in 2016, blown draft picks in 2017, failure to make meaningful, team-improving trades in 2018 and beyond. By 2021, the Blazers were bereft of cap space, short draft picks, swimming in luxury tax, and losing.

But those events weren’t news. They had developed over the course of years, each one evident as it happened, the final outcome all but predictable. Olshey had survived them all with a three-pronged approach:

  1. Never make moves risky enough to fail spectacularly, thus avoiding being called to account dramatically.
  2. Oversell every incremental move and the general future of the franchise, skipping over its current state entirely, giving people something to hope in instead of examine.
  3. Keep near-exclusive access to the audience that truly mattered: franchise owner Paul Allen, followed by his sister Jody.

These strategies worked so well that not only was Olshey retained, the franchise extended his contract lucratively after a single run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019. The Blazers were swept by an injured Golden State Warriors squad in that series, but never mind that. It had to be a sign that the promise was finally coming true, right? Staying the course never looked so good. By the time it all started falling apart—which was just a season after—Olshey was already made and paid for several more seasons.

Lack of basketball acumen would not bring Portland’s lead executive down from the throne. Instead, he was fired because of the one aspect of his approach that he couldn’t make excuses for or sell as promising.

In the fall of 2021, Trail Blazers employees filed a complaint accusing Olshey of creating a toxic, abusive workplace environment. Stories began to leak about his tactics, language, and relationship skills...generally described as demeaning and bullying. The results of the investigation were not made public, but on Friday, December 3rd, the Blazers announced that they were firing Olshey for violating the team’s code of conduct.

Few mourned Olshey’s departure. His removal—just months after the franchise lost Head Coach Terry Stotts, weeks after the announcement that Team President Chris McGowan was leaving—left a void in which the team’s current instability rattles. The Blazers under Olshey weren’t always good, but they were at least predictable. At this point nobody knows who the Blazers are exactly, let alone their future trajectory.

Olshey’s firing capped off a year of dramatic change for a franchise that had seen relatively little for a decade. For that reason, and because of the huge question marks left in his wake, it’s the most significant Trail Blazers story of 2021.

Agree with our list? Want to honorable mention anything? Add your observations in the comments below!