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?
July 19, 2019, 9:59 pmLuke KornetPF-C, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have officially announced the signings of Luke Kornet and Shaquille Harrison.
Kornet can provide threes and blocks as a backup big for the Bulls. He is currently behind Lauri Markkanen, Thaddeus Young and Wendell Carter Jr. but may be able to carve out some minutes for deep-league owners. Harrison will be fighting for minutes with the Bulls' plethora of point guards at the moment. If he can find some minutes during the season, he can be a source of steals as a player to stream or for deep leagues.
July 19, 2019, 9:24 pmRondae Hollis-JeffersonSF, Toronto Raptors
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Raptors.
Hollis-Jefferson's deal was originally reported as a minimum contract however it is now a $2.5 million contract which comes out of the Raptors' non-taxpayer mid-level. He will likely play some minutes behind Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. He is capable of defending multiple positions and might be able to provide some deep-league value in rebounds, steals and blocks.
Source: Jeff Siegel on Twitter
July 19, 2019, 8:54 pmMike MuscalaPF, Oklahoma City Thunder
Mike Muscala has signed with the Thunder on a two-year, $4.31 million deal with a player option.
Muscala could step in with the Thunder to be their stretch four behind Danilo Gallinari or back up Steven Adams. He could potentially earn some minutes especially with Jeremi Grant no longer on the team. He averaged around 20 mpg in his last two seasons with the Lakers and Hawks, providing threes and blocks that were useful to deep-league owners.
Source: OKC Thunder Wire
July 19, 2019, 8:27 pmRussell WestbrookPG, Houston Rockets
Mike D'Antoni "would be disappointed" if Russell Westbrook didn't improve his 3-point percentage this season.
D'Antoni added, "I think we can do that. I think that just by knowing that that's kind of how we play and him having the green light to (shoot) and not worry about it." Westbrook shot just 29.0 percent from deep last season and has been under 30.0 percent in four of his last five campaigns, so there is definite room for improvement. It's possible that Westbrook will find more catch-and-shoot looks available next to James Harden, and moving away from pull-up threes could help him improve his efficiency, but we won't be able to tell for sure until we see the duo take the court in preseason. Improving his deep shooting would definitely help, but there are serious questions about the rest of Westbrook's stat set. Rebounds and assists may not be as available in a system that isn't specifically tailored to him, and free throws and turnovers still look like problem areas. It's not a bad on-court fit but Westbrook seems unlikely to return to his former top-30 glory.
Source: Salman Ali on Twitter
July 19, 2019, 8:14 pmJ.J. BareaPG, Dallas Mavericks
J.J. Barea (torn right Achilles) will be cautious in his recovery and will not play for Puerto Rico at the upcoming FIBA World Cup.
Barea expects to be ready for September's training camp but has decided that rushing back to play high-level international hoops would be a step too far. The tournament opens less than eight months after Barea sustained the injury, and he will instead focus his attention on getting ready for another season in Dallas. With the additions of Delon Wright and Seth Curry, it's unlikely that Barea plays enough to be worth your time in fantasy.
Source: Tim MacMahon on Twitter
July 19, 2019, 8:02 pmMatt ThomasPG, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors have officially signed shooting guard Matt Thomas.
Thomas will join the Raptors on a three-year deal after emerging as one of Europe's top shooters with Valencia last season. The Iowa State product hit 48.5 percent of his 3-pointers last season and is at a clean 47 percent in his two seasons in Spain. He should factor into the shooting guard rotation with Danny Green gone and is someone to monitor in deeper formats for his 3-point potential.
Source: Toronto Raptors
July 19, 2019, 7:56 pmTyson ChandlerC, Houston Rockets
The Rockets have announced the signing of Tyson Chandler.
Chandler is looking like the backup to Clint Capela and could be called on more in certain matchups, though he doesn't figure to play enough to support any worthwhile fantasy value. It's possible that Chandler holds appeal in deeper leagues as a rebounding specialist but that should be about it.
Source: Houston Rockets
July 19, 2019, 5:52 pmKostas AntetokounmpoPF, Dallas Mavericks
The Raptors are planning to claim Kostas Antetokounmpo off waivers, per Eurohoops' Nikos Varlas.
Blake Murphy of The Athletic reports that the Raptors were interested in adding Antetokounmpo last season, but had their plans dashed when Dallas took Antetokounmpo with the final pick in the draft. He's incredibly raw still, but has the physical build that the Raptors seem to love in their developmental projects.
Source: Nikos Varlas on Twitter
July 19, 2019, 5:38 pmB.J. JohnsonPF, Sacramento Kings
The Kings have waived B.J. Johnson.
Johnson had a decent showing in Summer League but never seemed likely to last in Sacramento given the team's depth at forward. After making seven appearances on a pair of 10-day contracts with the Hawks last season, Johnson will look to find more concrete footing in the league this season.
Source: Jason Jones on Twitter
July 19, 2019, 5:07 pmKostas AntetokounmpoPF, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs have waived Kostas Antetokounmpo, per Shams Charania.
The youngest Antetokounmpo was Mr. Irrelevant in the 2018 draft but only appeared in two games with the Mavs last season. Dallas opens up a two-way contract slot and will likely find a more NBA-ready player on the market, while Antetokounmpo will look to latch on with another team for camp. Perhaps the 21-year-old can make it a family affair, with both of his older brothers playing in Milwaukee.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter