Will Neil Olshey’s moves as GM get the Rose Garden rocking again?
The Portland Trail Blazers hired former Clippers exec Neil Olshey on Monday to take over as general manager.
My first reaction could be likened to that feeling whenever I hear Dave Matthews. I’m generally okay with it, and my first reaction is a positive one — I don’t skip ahead songs when Matthews shows up on my Pandora stations, for instance. But I’m not jumping up and down with excitement, nor will I rush out to buy his next record.
First, before you read another word, devour this outstanding Olshey profile by Kevin Arnovitz. It gives a good look at Olshey’s basketball upbringing and how he works with others. Based on that profile alone, there’s a lot to be excited about.
I’m cautiously optimistic for a few reasons.
Olshey’s recent moves: He traded for Chris Paul; claimed Chauncey Billups off waivers; made a good trade for Nick Young when Billups went down with an injury; and signed Reggie Evans, a solid role player, to a reasonable contract. He didn’t just reinvent the Clippers almost overnight; he made them a team to contend with in the playoffs. That’s no small feat, especially with the scattershot aftermath of the lock-out.
The Blazers are in position to make some moves right now; they have two lottery picks, a smattering of young players on reasonable contracts, and some cap space to play with this off-season. If the past year is any indication, Olshey has an eye for acquiring talent, whether through the draft, free agency, or trades. Portland is, as it stands, relatively bereft of talent. They might need a mind like Olshey’s to get back on track.
His salesmanship: Olshey brought some credibility to the Clippers, as evidenced in the aforementioned profile, by his ability to get an audience with LeBron James in the summer of 2010.
It’s hard to tell how much of that success can translate to Portland. For all their faults, the Clippers are still at the heart of a lucrative media market. Portland, on the other hand, is not. How Olshey intends to sell free agents on the city remains to be seen.
My buddy Norm made a good point to me tonight: If any team is in dire need of rebranding at this point, it’s Portland. The front office has been a three-ring circus over the past several years, and with injuries piling up, it’s not that crazy to wonder if the Rose Garden was built on an Indian burial ground, with the last bit of construction wrapping up on Friday the 13th. If Olshey can bring credibility to this organization and sign a marquee free agent in the process, he will have more than earned his three-year deal.
He makes things happen: Everyone thought the Baron Davis deal was dead weight, but Olshey found a trading partner in the Cavs. He traded for Chris Paul. He unloaded Al Thornton for expiring deals. Olshey has shown a knack for getting out of his own way when necessary. That ability to recognize mistakes and swiftly correct them is a great skill to have.
And he makes things happen in a hurry: The Clippers improved from a .390 winning percentage in 2010-2011 to an impressive .606 winning percentage in a ridiculous 2011-2012 season. Blazers fans agonizing over the potential for another three- to five-year rebuild should take heart: Olshey turned the Clippers around in short order, and they’re in good shape for the foreseeable future. It seems like that’s the hope in Portland.
Then again, there are some red flags:
Free agent signings: He apparently orchestrated the disastrous Baron Davis signing a few years ago — and compounded it by trading Davis, along with the Clippers’ unprotected first-round pick, for Mo Williams. That pick became star point guard Kyrie Irving. Granted, they had a pretty small shot at landing that number-one pick, but even New Jersey slapped top-three protection on that conditional pick at the heart of the Gerald Wallace trade.
Olshey followed that up by overpaying Caron Butler, a star who’s past his prime and injury-prone. He then matched Golden State’s offer $43 million offer to DeAndre Jordan; he’s a serviceable center and all, but Jordan is a black hole at the free throw line and has a limited offensive repertoire. Granted, no GM worth his salt is without a few missteps. But these are pretty glaring mistakes.
The draft: The Clippers’ recent draft history is decidedly mixed. He was a part of the front office when they found a second-round sleeper in DeAndre Jordan, snagged Blake Griffin in the biggest no-brainer since Kevin Durant-over-Greg Oden (oh, wait …), and drafted Eric Gordon, who was a budding All-Star when he became the centerpiece in the Chris Paul trade. Then again, point guard Eric Bledsoe was injury-plagued this season, and it’s charitable to say that the jury is out on the since-traded Al-Farouq Aminu.
His choice of coach: I don’t know how or why Vinny Del Negro kept his job after the 2011-2012 season, but he was recently given an extension. Was that at Olshey’s behest? Was it the Clippers trying to pinch pennies? We may never know, so this stretches the definition of “red flag.”
So what should Portland fans expect? I’m less worried about a full-scale rebuild now than I was before I heard the news. If all goes well, a retooled Portland roster could well make noise in the playoffs next season — and for several seasons to come. If Olshey hits a few speed bumps between here and Halloween, Portland might get stuck in the worst place to be: The mushy middle of the NBA. They might be just good enough to lose in the first round of the playoffs, never good enough to win a series, and never quite bad enough to land a high lottery pick.
Then again, Olshey has shown some serious resourcefulness as the Clippers’ deal-maker. He may be able to quickly change course in the wake of tumultuous times — something the Blazers haven’t done in several seasons.
Olshey has two lottery picks and two second-rounders to work with. He has cap space and some decent assets at his disposal. This could be one of the most pivotal drafts and off-seasons in franchise history. But, hey, no pressure or anything.
(If 975 words about Olshey weren’t enough, the always-fantastic Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge has a good rundown of Olshey’s experience and what the move means for Portland.)