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.