So, What Next?

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Rebuild or “reload.” “Retool.” These are the words being bandied about around the Blazers lately. With only six players currently on the books, two lottery picks about to join the team and a host of cap space left over, the front office—such as it was before Neil Olshey came aboard—wanted to get the word out that the Trail Blazers would not be taking any steps back before moving forward. So with Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard now the two newest Blazers, how much more do we know?

Well, not much really. The reality is, and always was, that there were no real franchise-altering opportunities available to the Blazers last night. In a certain sense, you can take the “re-tool” approach as a tacit admission that nothing this off-season was worth stripping the roster to the studs, and that the “problem” of a ticking clock on LaMarcus Aldridge’s prime is easier to deal with than bottoming out for relatively little reward.

So what of the picks themselves? On both counts, I would describe myself as dubiously hopeful. My own position—a minority one among Blazers observers, I realize—was that the team should’ve swung for the fences with Drummond and paired him with the best available ball handler at 11. Still, it was clear early they were taking Lillard, and a franchise getting its target player and filling a roster need with another pick is as close to an instant success as there can be. The larger point, however, is that neither Leonard nor Lillard provide a direction for the team that they didn’t have yesterday morning.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lillard could work out as a pick and roll orchestrator that the team has been searching for, or he could be more of a penetrating scorer who creates tangentially. Leonard could be a mobile defender and shot blocker, or he could be more of a face-up offensive player. Any of those things help. But just about any basketball skill is helpful in a vacuum, and the Blazers still have a vacuum.

The obvious next step here is a coach. Neil Olshey has proven himself capable of acquiring talent, but he has also sometimes shown a propensity for sticking many parts together and trying to force a whole. What the franchise needs to target next is a coach who can collaborate with the front office and help shape how the team plays. If only there were a coach with great credentials, a reputation for pick and roll ingenuity, a history of maximizing stretchy power forwards and developing defensive centers…. If only just such a coach were available…

That’s right Portland. I’ve brought my Stan Van Gundy crush straight over from covering the Magic, and he is my new pipe dream for the Blazers. There are a lot of reasons to believe SVG won’t come here. I can’t imagine that after dealing with Orlando’s front office that Van Gundy would want to deal with Paul Allen and company. Similarly, I’m not sure that the Blazers have proven themselves up to managing a coach with Stan’s penchant for shooting from the hip. But with the players that Portland just drafted, I can’t imagine a better coach.

Damian Lillard is basically built to be a better version of Jameer Nelson, a fearless scorer with range on his shot and an ability to leverage his own aggression to create shots for teammates. LaMarcus Aldridge is probably the best power forward in the league for a varied arsenal of pick and rolls. With rangy wing defenders at his disposal and a young center to fill with defensive zeal, Van Gundy would have at his disposal all the tools he’d need to absolutely max out the roster.

All that said, Van Gundy ain’t coming to Portland, I don’t think. Signs point to him taking a year off, and Ihaven’t heard much by way of the Blazers coming after him. That said, I think Van Gundy’s approach to coaching is exactly what the Blazers—and for that matter, almost every team in the league—need. Van Gundy crafts teams based on what his players can do, and leaves their deficiencies unacknowledged. If his team doesn’t have a ball-dominant shot creator, they play inside out with a ton of ball movement. If his team has a slug-footed wing defender, he is supported from the back line. That’s the mentality the Blazers need to replicate moving forward.

Just about any prediction I could make at this point would be wrong. Just about any concrete scenario I could wish for would be a pipedream. But what the Blazers need now is to find a coach—and he may already be in Portland—and an identity that lets their young players flourish based on their talents rather than struggle to adapt to precast roles. Until that happens, the Trail Blazers will be a collection of talents without a focus, an engine with no wheels. We’ll see what happens.

Hello, Portland

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Hey everybody. I’m new here. My name is Danny, and I’ll be hanging around for the next little while watching and writing about the Blazers. I’ve done some work on TrueHoop Network blogs MagicBasketball and HoopSpeak, but I live in Portland now and I’m excited to cover a team that I have more than an internet connection to.

It’s a really exciting time, obviously, to be jumping into the Blazers, and I will have some thoughts on last night’s draft up shortly. I’ll also be spending the foreseeable future opining on the direction of the team and what the impending decisions say about all that. Please do email us—portlandroundballsociety [at] gmail [dot] com—or leave comments to let me know what you care most about in the coming weeks.

I’m not from ‘round these parts, but I’ll wrap this up by saying that the Blazers were a major factor in my deciding on Portland as a place to live, and the appeal the Blazers have is pretty much entirely due to their fans. So I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

One last look at the 2011-12 Blazers

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Maddison has kindly put together a look back at the 2011-12 Blazers. As we head into draft night it’s a reminder of how bad things got last season and a glimmer of hope that it can’t get much worse than this lineup we see here.

Artwork by Maddison Bond. Click for the full size image. Masochists can download as wallpaper.

Only six players are technically on the books for 2012-13: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Luke Babbitt, Kurt Thomas, Elliot Williams, and Nolan Smith.

The Blazers have made a qualifying offer to Nicolas Batum who is presumed to return to Portland next season, but we won’t know the exact numbers for another couple of weeks at the earliest. JJ Hickson is also a RFA, but no qualifying offer has been made yet. Shawne Williams and Jamal Crawford both have player options for next season. Crawford’s deadline to pick up the option came and went this past Friday, with both sides agreeing to extend the deadline to the 29th which preserves Crawford’s Bird rights in a potential draft day trade. Crawford has said he will opt out if he’s not traded.

The rest is up in the air. It’s up to new GM Neil Olshey to put together Aldridge’s supporting cast for 2012-13.

This concludes the Raymond Felton era.

Maddison Bond is a regular PRS contributor. Check out his Tumblr Sportz Ill-Ustrated here.

Being Cautiously Optimistic About the Neil Olshey Era

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After 377 days of pretending that a general manager is not a necessary part of a successful professional basketball team, the Portland Trail Blazers have hired Neil Olshey away from the Los Angeles Clippers, just days after he had reportedly agreed to a deal to stay on in LA. This is interesting because now we have confirmation that there is at least one owner who’s still worse to work for than Paul Allen. Olshey looked at Portland’s recent front-office history—firing Tom Penn, Kevin Pritchard, and Rich Cho within a year of each other, and then deciding to go without replacing Cho for an entire year, with disastrous results—and decided that work environment was still preferable to the idea of answering to Donald Sterling for three more years. This should be of some comfort to Blazers fans. They could have it a lot worse.

The statements released by Allen and Larry Miller following the announcement are telling as far as the reasoning for the Olshey hire, and are consistent with the way the organization has been approaching this rebuild since the season imploded in March. When Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby were traded for picks and parts at the trading deadline, the phrase interim GM Chad Buchanan used repeatedly was “reload, not rebuild.” Following Olshey’s hire, Allen and Miller both said similar things, citing Olshey’s swift reinvention of the Clippers as a model for what they hope to accomplish in Portland. It’s clear that they aren’t interested in a true rebuild of the variety that Oklahoma City undertook and that New Orleans is gearing up to do with Anthony Davis in tow. They don’t want to bottom out, gun for a franchise player, hoard cap space and picks, and tell the fanbase to accept that they won’t be back in the playoffs for several years. Taking that approach would have probably required trading LaMarcus Aldridge at some point and setting themselves up for a few seasons of Charlotte Bobcats-level bad basketball. That may have been the right move to make, but it would have been a pretty tough sell, and the organization has made it clear that they’re erring on the side of caution with the rebuild.

For a GM who was strongly in the mix for the Executive of the Year award, Olshey’s track record is pretty spotty, with some ill-advised free-agent signings and one trade that looks incredibly shortsighted now that Kyrie Irving is a future All-NBA-level talent in Cleveland. His most high-profile move with the Clippers was, obviously, swooping in on Chris Paul after the fiasco that was the blocked Lakers-Hornets trade. It was a great move that singlehandedly transformed the Clippers from the biggest joke in the league to a second-round playoff team with room to grow. However, it was also a no-brainer. If the opportunity is there to get Chris Paul, you do it. And Olshey did, and should be applauded for doing so. But it wasn’t exactly outside-the-box thinking. As great as Eric Gordon is, trading for Chris Paul with at least one more year on his contract and Blake Griffin to pair him with isn’t a gamble.

The move Olshey has been criticized for the most is actually the one I’m least concerned about with regards to his potential performance in Portland. At the 2011 trading deadline, he traded the Clippers’ first-round pick from that year to Cleveland for Mo Williams, as a courtesy for them to take Baron Davis’ contract off his hands. The pick turned out to be the top overall selection, and Kyrie Irving is now the centerpiece of a young Cavs team that has a bright future. But the Clippers finished with the eighth-worst record in 2010-11, meaning the probability of that pick landing at No. 1 was 2.8%. Considering the Blazers have no contracts even half as bad as Baron’s albatross, the likelihood of Olshey trading another high first-round pick in a salary dump is low.

I’m far more worried about a pair of contracts the Clippers handed out in December: Caron Butler’s three-year, $24 million deal and the decision to match the Warriors’ four-year, $43 million offer sheet on DeAndre Jordan. The willingness to match that offer for Jordan makes me think there’s no amount of money short of a max deal that the Olshey-helmed Blazers won’t match for restricted free-agent Nicolas Batum. Which is fine. Batum is one of two players (the other being Aldridge) currently on Portland’s roster that they can comfortably call a building block. If overpaying to match an offer sheet is necessary to keep him, so be it. But what about J.J. Hickson? What about the potential of overpaying for Lou Williams or Spencer Hawes for the sake of signing a name? The Butler contract is a classic example of paying a veteran for the sake of paying a veteran, which isn’t something the Blazers should be striving to do right now.

Olshey should, however, be commended for some of his lower-profile moves, particularly since the end of the lockout. Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin were solid value signings in the vein of the Blazers’ Craig Smith acquisition (or at least what the Craig Smith acquisition would have been if he had ever gotten playing time in Portland. But I digress). Ditto picking up Chauncey Billups off the amnesty waivers. And at the March deadline, Olshey added Nick Young for the mere price of Brian Cook and a second-round pick. Considering they gave up virtually nothing, and Young’s three straight three-pointers basically won the Clippers game 1 of their first-round series against the Grizzlies, that’s the kind of move that should be promising to Blazers fans.

Despite the hangups that exist with Olshey, this is a step forward for the Blazers. They have a GM now, which is more than they’ve been able to say for a year. There’s still almost a month until the draft, which will give Olshey plenty of time to put his team in place and scout players before having to actually make any decisions. It’s unclear who the finalists were in the GM search, but there were strong rumors over the weekend that Chad Buchanan was in the running to stay on. And considering Buchanan a) drafted Nolan Smith over Kenneth Faried in 2011 despite the Blazers’ desperate need for size and rebounding, and b) traded for Raymond Felton, if the choice came down to keeping Buchanan or hiring Olshey, this is a win. Though his record hasn’t been perfect, he has made the Clippers into a playoff team on extremely short notice. Now, all that’s left is to hope he doesn’t get fired after 10 months like his predecessor.