The Blazers knew. The city knew. LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t want to be there anymore. He had grown tired of it. He was a Texan by birth who never cut the lone star state out of his soul. He never transitioned to the scenic northwest. Sensitive to any criticism of his game, Aldridge never found common ground with critics who downgraded his play and never put him in the top 5 when talking about best power forwards. Aldridge wasn’t explosive. He wasn’t a floor spacer. He wasn’t a dunker nor was he a rim protector. He made mid-range jumpers. He was a scorer. He rebounded. He lost in the playoffs.
The Damian Lillard ascendancy had Aldridge privately seething. Lillard was the center of all things Blazers but Aldridge had been there longer and paid his dues; it wasn’t fair. It only reaffirmed the decision to walk. Besides, Aldridge had given the Blazers everything he could. It had been almost a decade. There was no pretense. Aldridge politely gave Portland an interview and because Aldridge isn’t the type to burn bridges while going out the door like Shaquille O’Neal, he said nothing overtly controversial. But the word was he wanted to be in San Antonio or Los Angeles.
Portland fans would have preferred L.A. That way they could have watched their team kick Aldridge’s ass four times. But even the ones who felt betrayed by Aldridge knew he’d never last down south. If he couldn’t take the Lillard fantacisim, how would he ever deal with the Kobe universe or the expectations lorded upon him once he signed with L.A. Aldridge likes to control his environment. He comes to work and then he goes home. Playing in L.A. is a different kind of existence, one that would have made quiet, sensitive Aldridge miserable. It’s what Rip City wanted for him. Misery. But instead of L.A., he bolted into Tim Duncan’s arms.
Blazers GM, Neil Olshey operated on the assumption Aldridge was gone. Once Wesley Matthews ripped his Achilles, it ended any kind of fairy tale ending where Aldridge stayed put with the team in tact. Aldridge wanted to win a title and he wanted to win it now. He was 30 years old. So the Blazers and Neil Olshey got to work.
In June, Olshey traded Nic Batum to the Hornets and in return received Gerald Henderson and rookie Noah Vonleh. Henderson, a Duke trained wing, was athletic and could get to the rim. He had three solid years in Charlotte, 2011-14, putting up 15 points. Vonleh was a rookie who had been injured.
Plan “B” was just beginning.
Olshey traded aged and slow point guard Steve Blake and draft pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to the Nets for big man Mason Plumlee.
In July, Olshey traded a future second round pick for small forward Maurice Harkless who had been shoved out of the rotation in Orlando. He signed Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis as free agents to shore up defense and rebounding.
On the court, C.J. McCollum who was a lottery pick in 2012, and widely considered one of the most skilled shooters in that draft, was plucked from his dying on the vine bench spot and put next to Damian Lillard, rivaling the guard tandem(s) of Steph Curry-Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan. Allen Crabbe, the Berkely scorer who also never played was a key sixth man.
Olshey had a vision even as no one predicted the Blazers to make the playoffs. There were questions. How exactly would Lillard handle being the face of the franchise with all of the expectations and pressure it brings, the ecstasy and misery, the winning and losing. Was he mature enough? With Aldridge gone, there was no place for Lillard to hide on those really bad nights when nothing goes right. Was he up for it?
Lillard performed exactly as Olshey knew he would. He is the sixth leading scorer in the league at 24.1 points and 36% on threes. Lillard still has to evolve as a more efficient shooter. HIs 41.8% on field goals is a career low, worse than his rookie year of 42.9%. He is having a career high in assists, 7.3, which ranks him 6th in the league, so yeah, Lillard was able to rise to the challenge and is the face of the Blazers for the next decade.
The Blazers hired Olshey in 2010 after his contract negotiations with the Clippers stalled. The former soap opera actor, player development scout, assistant coach, and basketball operations president, was responsible for bringing Chris Paul to Los Angeles. He was the assistant G.M. when the Clippers drafted Blake Griffin and the G.M. who brought Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu to L.A. He had some negatives on his resume as well. He traded a first round pick to Cleveland for Mo Williams. That became the number one pick and Kyrie Irving.
Since he arrived in Portland, Olshey’s results have made him one of the most effective GM’s in the league. He drafted Damian Lillard instead of Harrison Barnes in 2012. He drafted C.J. McCollum in 2013. He traded for Allen Crabbe on draft night in 2013.
It is what Olshey has managed to build this year that is cementing his front office legacy. When you lose a 20+ ppg All-Star like Aldridge, it can take years to recover. But here the Blazers are fighting for a playoff spot. And if they can find a way to trade a pick and low hanging fruit for Pau Gasol who is being aggressively pushed out the Bulls door, then the Blazers have a good chance to move up in the standings, especially since Marc Gasol was lost by Memphis and replaced by underwhelming Chris Anderson.
Give Olshey the credit he deserves. He took the Aldridge loss and built a different team. A playoff team.
Front Office Grade: A-
photo via llananba