August 2, 2018, 5:33 pm
Neil Olshey has never found himself at a loss for words. In a sprawling interview earlier this week, the Portland Trail Blazers general manager tried his best to explain his team’s upside-down offseason, what went wrong in the first round of the playoffs and why he remains confident in the direction of the organization. Below are six key excerpts from Olshey’s typically verbose, and some would say unsurprisingly self-serving, 30-minute interview conducted by team reporter Brooke Olzendam, with analysis to follow.
Olshey, a darling of media and fans alike early in his career as a front-office honcho dating back to his days with the Los Angeles Clippers, has never faced more criticism at any point in his career than the present. And talking points like these, illuminating as they often appear on the surface, are examples of the many reasons why fans continue growing more and more frustrated with his penchant for partisan spin at the expense of true transparency.
On takeaways from Summer League…
“It was really nice to see some guys that had some things to prove, like Wade and Jake, guys like Gary and Anfernee, I mean, who were kind of unknown coming into the draft what they’d be able to do. So what was really inspiring, as much as guys like K.J. and and John and Archie contributed, our guys really carried the weight, and that’s really inspiring heading into the season.”
Olshey was quick to point out that the Blazers’ decision-making brass understands the fool’s gold associated with individual play at Summer League. There is no direct analogue between what Portland will do in 2018-19 and what it did in Las Vegas last month, going undefeated and beating the Los Angeles Lakers in a rematch of last year’s championship game. Not only is the level competition drastically inferior during the summer, but many players are asked to assume roles they never would in an NBA ecosystem. Wade Baldwin, for instance, will never be a primary ball handler, and Gary Trent, Jr. won’t ever average more shots over a full season than the rest of his teammates. But there’s utility in Summer League analysis nonetheless, and each of the Blazers’ six roster players showed some measure of cause for celebration and concern in Las Vegas – as detailed in-depth HERE.
It certainly bears mentioning, though, that Olshey is minimizing the contributions of fringe veterans to Portland’s summer success. K.J. McDaniels was named MVP of the title game after scoring a team-high 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting via an array of highlight-reel finishes. John Jenkins shot an incredible 69.6 percent overall and 60 percent from 3-point range at LVSL. Archie Goodwin had 22 points despite taking just five field goal attempts in a 97-92 semifinal win over the Memphis Grizzlies, connecting on 14-of-16 from the free-throw line. The Blazers’ veteran role players were at their best when it mattered most, basically, while guys like Baldwin, Trent, Jake Layman and Anfernee Simons were either inconsistent or mostly invisible during the knockout stage of play.
Timing only matters so much here. That Baldwin fared better early in Las Vegas rather than late doesn’t change the fact that his overall performance suggests he has a shot to earn rotation minutes next season. Simons’ poise, so impressive for a teenager coming straight from IMG Academy, was evident even as he struggled. But it’s not like Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan and the rest dominated en route to a Summer League championship, with McDaniels and Jenkins filling in the gaps. Portland’s quality of depth was its trump card in Las Vegas, a reality that will mean very little to Terry Stotts come training camp.
On lingering effects of the 2016 cap spike making it more difficult to acquire talent…
“I don’t know if it’s as much a product of the 2016 cap spike. You know, there are guys that their numbers are inflated relative to what guys were getting last summer and this summer. And a year from now, those guys will cycle off and everything will get back to they way normal business is, which, three or four teams have cap room, you’ve got the mid-level and teams have to do business with each other. But I think what we’re really seeing is that cap spike has put teams in a position where they’re less reluctant to manage the cap. Everybody seems very unconcerned about their cap and tax position right now, other than the ones that were so egregious, or there was an ulterior motive in terms of opening up room to acquire a player they knew would come if they had cap space. So, it’s an interesting time in the league because it’s been very dormant in terms of player transactions. And as we make phone calls around the league, you know, teams are really less apt to just do business; they’re really looking to just keep roster continuity, develop their players, and kind of look forward going long with guys that they believe they can develop to become a long-term piece as opposed to thinking they can buy their way out of trouble with cap room, which, quite honestly, is a fool’s errand in 90 percent of the markets in the league.”
Not once during his chat with Olzendam did Olshey explain why the Blazers had such limited means of financial flexibility this summer. No team in the league overpaid free agents like Portland did two years ago; exorbitant contracts afforded to Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and more are the cause of those shackles. The Blazers had already given away Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh to duck the luxury tax, yet still lacked the cap space this summer to bring in an impact player that might have changed their fortunes for 2018-19. Olshey doesn’t get a pass for his 2016 spending spree, and doesn’t even necessarily need one. Portland wasn’t the only team to misjudge how much the cap would rise in the wake of new broadcasting agreements. Publicly admitting mistakes of the past would go a long way toward Olshey ingratiating himself to fans. Instead, he continues to deflect and talk around the truth.
The boogie man in the Bay looms large here, too. Olshey is right about the dearth of player-for-player trades this summer; there wasn’t a single one on draft night, normally a hotbed of movement across the league. The Golden State Warriors’ stranglehold on the Larry O’Brien trophy has a lot to do with the notion of teams building from within. What’s the point of sacrificing long-term ceilings for win-now baselines if it’s impossible to go head-to-head with the Warriors in terms of talent? The waiting game has never made more sense in the NBA than it does right now, especially with Kevin Durant re-entering the free-agency fray next summer, when many teams will be rife with cap room.
Speaking of which, a favorite talking point of Olshey’s is the Blazers’ unfortunate standing as a free-agent destination. Understandable. Portland, as a city, will never be as popular to players as marquee landing spots like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago or even Dallas or Houston. Just like the smartest coaches try their hardest to avoid putting limits on players, though, successful teams should be careful against underestimating their ability to compete on the free-agent market. The Blazers have made the playoffs five years in a row; are lauded across the league for the organizational culture promoted by Damian Lillard; have an owner willing to spend to field a championship contender; and are lucky enough to possess a zealous fan base that keeps the Moda Center full and makes players feel at home.
On failing to sign a veteran wing in free agency…
“Well, the market dictates that. You know, we identified five wings, that all had playoff experience or veteran wings we thought we could get for the taxpayer mid-level. They all got more than the taxpayer mid-level. They all got either significantly more, or they’re in markets where they’ll become early Bird players, or they’ll have no state income tax, which adds to the value of the contract. So what we did, what realized this year was we’re going to go through our list, we attacked each guy, we recruited him as hard as possible. When they were able to get compensated at a much higher level than the 5.3 tax mid-level, then we went with talent. Instead of continually going down the list and trying to make signings that checked some boxes in July, we went with the guys that we thought had a younger, had more talent, that had higher ceilings and were better for the future, because at the end of the day that ends up paying off.
“So we went out earlier to get [Stauskas]. And then like I said, we played the taxpayer mid-level market all the way through until about July 5, and we just couldn’t outbid teams. We only had 5.3. It was a three-year deal worth about $16.5 million, and we got outbid, quite honestly. And at that kind of a price point, guys are going to take the extra million, million-five, over coming to a place that they would have to take a reduction and you can’t even offer a starting role.”
Nobody understands the pitfalls of overpaying role players better than Olshey. It was always a pipe dream that the Blazers would be able to add a starting-caliber wing with the taxpayer mid-level exception, too. Mario Hezonja, who reportedly received an offer from Portland, did nothing with the Orlando Magic over the past three years – even last season, by far his best – to suggest he’s anything more than a back-of-rotation player on a good team, yet signed a one-year deal with the New York Knicks worth a million dollars more than the Blazers’ most lucrative cap exception. Offering him a three-year contract would have made a lesser annual salary more palatable, but also carry significant risk for a team that’s already capped-out through 2019-20.
Most interesting here is Olshey acknowledging that Portland underestimated the open-market value of wings. Did the front office watch the playoffs after the Blazers were summarily eliminated in the first round? Players capable of guarding multiple positions and knocking down open shots were the only ones able to stay on the floor regardless of circumstance. Even guys like Wayne Ellington and Nemanja Bjelica, with clear offensive strengths but limited versatility on the other end, ended up getting more than the taxpayer mid-level. Ariza was exactly the type of player the Blazers wanted, and probably targeted, and signed for nearly three times that amount.
One more thing: Why was Portland telling prospective signees it didn’t have a starting spot available? Moe Harkless came on strong as a shooter late last season and has the physical tools to capably check four positions, but nevertheless fell completely out of Stotts’ rotation last December. While that stretch seems much more like a bump in the road of Harkless’ career rather than some immovable obstacle, it still warrants skepticism based on his play going forward – especially as an etched-in starter.
On why the Blazers let Ed Davis walk…
“We feel like we have internal solutions that will eventually be upgrades, and that was the deal. Ed is a veteran. You can’t bring Ed back and ask him to take on a reduced role. But if Ed comes back and plays the same role, it sublimates guys on the roster that we think have a higher ceiling, and that eventually can bring more to the table. So it’s not about development over winning. We feel like, like I said, when you watched what Zach Collins did in Summer League, when you watch some of the issues in the playoffs we faced in terms of spacing, in terms of floor balance. Because of the style of play Ed plays, it put us in a position where you watched Dame get blitzed in pick-and-rolls when he shares the floor with guys. And we needed to add more shooting, more floor spacing, more playmaking out of that position. So, Ed was great, and we talked about it. During the regular season it was phenomenal. We ran into a really tough matchup in the playoffs, They blitzed every pick-and-roll; it essentially took Nurk out of a lot of the series as well. And we really felt like we needed to move on and get guys that can play a style where they can attack switches better in the low post, they can stretch the floor and shoot the ball when Dame’s blitzed if guys aren’t going to rotate to the rolling or popping or fading big. And like I said, Brooke, it’s not a position anymore where guys are carrying three and four centers…You have you’re starting center, and then you’re kind of piecemealing it behind that guy. And we needed just to give an opportunity to guys that were here. We feel like they step into that role better, and that they bring something to the table we were missing and got exposed in that playoff series.”
The Blazers were never going to enter 2018-19 with both Davis and Jusuf Nurkic on the roster. Before the playoffs, common knowledge was that Portland would quickly come to an expensive multi-year agreement with Nurkic, playing the best two-way basketball of his career back then, that would make him the team’s center of the present and future. Getting swept by the New Orleans Pelicans changed everything for the Blazers, though, and perhaps for no individual player more than Nurkic. After he was played off the floor by the Pelicans’ suped-up, sharp-shooting frontcourt, it was fair to wonder if Portland would be making the right decision by committing a major salary slot to Nurkic long-term.
Davis wasn’t the lasting answer, but he might have been an effective one-year stopgap – until Zach Collins was ready to take over full-time – had Olshey and company opted to move on from Nurkic. Instead, Davis was the offseason victim of the layered factors that led to New Orleans’ sweep. Olshey saved some of his most glowing comments of the interview for Collins, by the way, who, fully realized, could be an antidote to the playing style that doomed Portland in the first round. Davis, at 29 and coming off a career campaign, is who he is at this point: an undeniably productive big man whose two-way limitations, amplified in the age of small-ball, make him worthy a reserve. With Collins showing so much hopeful promise and Nurkic entrenched as an objectively superior player with some remaining upside, there just wasn’t a clear role for Davis with the Blazers going forward.
Don’t discount Swanigan here, either. He’s a poor fit for the modern game defensively, but Portland clearly likes him, and he has the nascent shooting and passing ability needed to open up space for Lillard and McCollum. Leonard, the team’s only proven 3-point threat other than Al-Farouq Aminu up front, will surely be given more opportunity in 2018-19, too, especially if Collins isn’t quite ready to play a lion’s share of his minutes at center.
On the Allen Crabbe trade exception, which expired earlier this week.,.
“We were caught off-guard. We thought for sure the Allen Crabbe trade exception would have huge value in the league. And like I said, teams just are not in the business of giving up quality players the way they were, because I think everybody understands they’re going to have to pay the freight this summer for what everybody did back in 2016. And there just wasn’t as many pieces in the marketplace to do the absorption deals we’ve seen in the past.”
Olshey stressed time and again since last summer that the $13 million trade exception netted in the Crabbe deal would be a major team-building asset for the Blazers. Not so. The one-year window to apply the exception expired on Monday, sapping Portland of the flexibility Olshey tried so hard to convince team followers it provided. Of course, such talk was always lip service more than anything else. Trade exceptions usually amount to nothing, and there were only so many players potentially becoming available who would have been worth the accompanying luxury-tax trouble.
Would Wilson Chandler have moved the needle? The Philadelphia 76ers took him into cap space from the Denver Nuggets and picked up a future second-rounder in the process, signaling that Tim Connelly would have been open to a similar salary-shedding deal with the Blazers. But Chandler hasn’t been the same since hip surgery cost him all of 2015-16, and Portland has already shown it would rather lessen tax burdens or duck them altogether if the team isn’t competing for a title.
It was a long-shot that the Crabbe trade exception would ever be put into play. Don’t let Olshey’s hollow year-long insistence otherwise make you think differently.
On his confidence in the Blazers for 2018-19…
“We are confident. I think if you look around the Western Conference, I mean, look – LeBron went to the Lakers. So I think, you know, look, that changes the dynamic there. But if you look at the rest of the Western Conference, it’s pretty much status quo. You know what teams really did is they signed their own guys. They made sure that they retained their players, guys that had given them success. Well, the players that we really felt like got us to the third seed in the Western Conference, that, you know, produced throughout the year, the young guys that we have that we know are ready to take the next are step on the roster, and that’s the key. But what we’re trying to do is stay opportunistic. And we don’t want to say, ‘Look, the roster is done. This is all we’re doing.’ But for now the key was keeping as much young talent on the roster as possible, filling needs where we could even if it was kind of margin-type plays, without breaking up. Our top six, seven players are still on the roster. So when you really look at, especially the way Terry likes to run his rotation, he really likes a nine-man rotation, so when you look at the starters plus Evan, plus Zach getting an increased role, we’re at our seven guys. Seth steps in, he gets to eight, and then it’s a battle for that ninth and tenth situational-minute spot. So really not much has changed, and a lot of it will be continuity, learning the system and having more young talent behind those guys, pushing them for minutes, knowing Terry has alternatives whether it’s injury, guys going into a little bit of a slump, we have more young talent. And at the end of the day, you can play trust or you can play talent. We’re trying to get to a point where we’re playing more talent than just trust, because it has a higher ceiling, and it gives you a better future.”
Go ahead and earmark playoff spots for the Warriors and Houston Rockets. The Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder deserve that benefit of the doubt, too, albeit to a lesser extent. Other than that quartet, is there a single team in the Western Conference that’s a likely bet to make the postseason? Portland is stuck in the succeeding middle-class muck with the Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and, if healthy, the Memphis Grizzlies. That’s ten teams for eight spots, before getting to LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers or Dallas Mavericks, a team some believe will be in playoff contention this season after adding Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan.
Could the Blazers, a year removed from the three seed, be on the outside looking in come playoff time? Perhaps, and their summer didn’t do much to assuage those concerns. Portland’s first-round pick will spend most of his time in the G-League, and its most significant free-agent signee, Curry, is a bench player who missed all of last season with injury. The Blazers might have gotten better over the past six weeks, but the Western Conference at large certainly did, too.
Maybe take some solace from Olshey’s confidence anyway?
April 22, 2019, 1:49 pmJoel Embiid - F/C - Philadelphia Sixers
Joel Embiid (left knee soreness) wouldn't commit to playing in Game 5 vs. the Nets on Tuesday.
Embiid said that "We've got to keep them guessing" and it's highly likely he doesn't even know whether or not he's going to play yet. He's been a true game-time decision for the entire series and that's not going to change so stay tuned for updates closer to tip off.
Source: Keith Pompey on Twitter
April 22, 2019, 12:54 pmEd Davis - C - Brooklyn Nets
Ed Davis (ankle) is considered to be questionable going into Tuesday's Game 5 vs. the 76ers.
Davis was a big part in the Nets' Game 1 win and his rebounding could serve to help Brooklyn out a ton. They just look outmatched by Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanovic and Davis could provide another big man presence down low. This could be the last game of the series so Davis' status should be a big story coming into the game.
Source: Brian Lewis on Twitter
April 22, 2019, 11:52 amJeff Green - F - Washington Wizards
Jeff Green expressed that he would like to return and play for the Wizards during the 2019-2020 season.
"I would love to come back," Green said. "Great set of guys on this team. I loved playing with Brad [Beal], John [Wall]." Green was very consistent and was on a friendly contract, but the direction in which the organization wants to go remains unclear. Green may need to find a new home given the plethora of depth the Wizards have at the forward position.
Source: Chase Hughes of NBC Washington
April 22, 2019, 12:42 amRussell Westbrook - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook went 5-for-21 from the field to finish with 14 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two treys in Sunday's 98-111 Game 4 loss to the Blazers.
Time and again in this series, it's been evident that Damian Lillard has been playing at a higher level than Westbrook and tonight was a fine example. Lillard was able to shake off his early shooting struggles and come up big in the second half, but Westbrook was still forcing shots and appeared to be on the back foot for most of the game. He's best when he's the one taking it to his opponents. A reactive Westbrook is simply not the star the Thunder need right now, if they want to salvage any hopes of coming back in this first-round series.
April 22, 2019, 12:36 amDennis Schroder - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Dennis Schroder mirrored his 17-point performance from Friday with another 17-point game in Sunday's loss to the Blazers.
Schroder shot 6-of-12 from the field and added three rebounds, three assists, two 3s and one steal to the box score tonight. Aside from him though, the Thunder's bench was deafeningly quiet. He cannot carry the load of the second unit's scoring output by his lonesome, especially when they're faced up against a team with multiple weapons like the Blazers. For now, the Thunder can only hope he keeps this up and that the other reserves will follow suit.
April 22, 2019, 12:32 amJerami Grant - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Jerami Grant made just 4-of-10 shots from the field on Sunday to finish with 11 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three triples and two steals in 34 minutes.
Grant's impact on the defensive end has been invaluable to the Thunder in this series and it was nice to see him active on the glass tonight, especially with Steven Adams being relatively quiet on that front with seven boards while adding six points, one assist, one steal and one block. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Portland's forwards, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu outplayed and out-hustled them on both ends of the floor.
April 22, 2019, 12:27 amPaul George - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite being slowed down by turnovers and foul trouble, Paul George still managed to light up the box score in Sunday's loss to the Blazers with 32 points on 8-of-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, six assists, four 3s, one steal and one block.
George has been banged up as early as March and he's been such a trooper, powering through a bothersome shoulder to lead the Thunder in this first-round playoff series. Unfortunately, Damian Lillard and company have been far too much for OKC to handle and George's big nights have come and gone with a lack of ample support to properly contest for the win.
April 22, 2019, 12:23 amMaurice Harkless - F - Trail Blazers
Maurice Harkless had a swell two-way performance in the Blazers' 111-98 Game 4 win over the Thunder on Sunday, posting 15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, adding 10 rebounds, one triple, two steals and three blocks in 34 minutes.
Harkless was mostly a non-factor in fantasy during the regular season due to injuries. He's clearly feeling much better now and is delivering for the Blazers at the right time. If he can keep up posting performances like this, the Blazers could emerge as a dark horse to upset favorites in the west.
April 22, 2019, 12:18 amAl-Farouq Aminu - F - Trail Blazers
Al-Farouq Aminu was feeling it on Sunday, hitting 4-of-9 shots from downtown to help secure a Game 4 win over the Thunder via his 19 points (7-of-16 shooting), nine rebounds, one steal and one block.
The Blazers found an extra kick from Aminu tonight thanks to his hot hand. He's capable of explosions like this from time to time but they're not very consistent, making him a tough player to bank on in playoff DFS. Enes Kanter was relatively quiet as he put up eight points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block.
April 22, 2019, 12:15 amCJ McCollum - G - Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum kept his foot on the gas pedal on Sunday, raining down five 3s on the Thunder en route to his team-high 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting, while adding four rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks.
McCollum is heating up at just the right time for the Blazers and he picked up some of the slack while Damian Lillard was struggling early in the first half. When he and multiple Blazers are able to put up full lines like this, Portland becomes a devastating opponent, even if the opposing team has name-brand superstars in the form of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.