The Portland Trailblazers were in no-mans land in the summer of 2015. LaMarcus Aldridge was all but gone. He was saying the right things about giving the Blazers a meeting but everyone knew it was ceremonial. All season he was passive-aggressive, not saying he was out the door but not saying he was committed to the organization either. It felt awkward between Aldridge and Damian Lillard, particularly when insiders continually reported he wanted to be on the Spurs (who wouldn’t?). The Aldridge free agency circus and his ultimate exit left the Blazers with one of those stabs in the back with blood oozing at the seams. It felt like familiar history, a ship sinking on a rock.
Damian Lillard, as good as he was, as dynamic, as tough, as mesmerizing, as old school NBA, was still a young player. Wesley Matthews was gone to Dallas. Nic Batum was gone, traded to Charlotte. That meant three-fifths of the starting lineup was playing somewhere else. You do the math. Lose almost everyone one of your starters and its back to the lottery time. Or is it?
No one thought the Blazers would be able to bounce back. The label of “rebuilding” was thrown in their collective face as the Blazers were discounted as being anything more than a thrilling but ultimately disappointing Damian Lillard show.
To that end Neil Olshey had the last laugh.
The 51 year old General Manger of the Portland Trailblazers has been on the job for four years and in four years he has made it possible for an All-Star and top-5 power forward to leave town and the Blazers can turn the page. And while they are at it, make the playoffs.
In 2012, Olshey drafted Damian Lillard, an unheard of college point who played at Weber State. Lillard, a four year college player, entered the NBA with a skill set and intelligence and more importantly a toughness he honed in his native Oakland. Also that year, the Blazers drafted Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. In August of 2012, Olshey hired Terry Stotts.
A year later, Olshey drafted scorer C.J. McCollum. McCollum injured his foot his senior year at Lehigh and may have been a top-five pick had he played more that season. Olshey traded the Blazers 2015 and 2016 second round picks to Cleveland for Allen Crabbe. Crabbe was a scorer who played his college ball on the west coast, UC Berkeley.
Two years later, in June 2015, Olshey acquired Mason Plumlee from Brooklyn, In July of that same year, he traded a 2020 second round pick to Orlando for Maurice Harkless. He signed free agents Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis to bolster the front court in Aldridge’s absence.
This summer, Olshey signed Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. He gave Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum expensive contract extensions.
This was the team (with the exception of Turner and Ezeli) that made it possible to absorb the LaMarcus Aldridge loss. How did they do in Aldridge’s first year gone?
Though he wasn’t an All-Star, when measuring impact Damian Lillard ranked 15th among point guards (Real Plus-Minus). C.J. McCollum was the 7th most impactful shooting guard. Al-Farouq Aminu was the 10th most impactful small forward. Mason Plumlee was the 10th most impactful power forward. (LaMarcus Aldridge ranked 12th). They are the backbone for the Blazers going forward: young, athletic, skilled.
A general manager’s job is to mine talent and create flexibility for the future so when (and if) an All-Star player leaves there is plenty in the cupboard. Most teams lose an All-Star and they are in the lottery for the next three years. The Blazers have not been in the lottery since they grabbed Damian Lillard, four years ago, and those days are a thing of the past.
It’s well documented that the Blazers have had a lot of heartbreaking franchise moments, a lot of failed draft picks that were supposed to do more, a lot of playoff heartbreaks that depressed the fan base. But that was the past. This young team is exactly what the loyal Rip City fans deserve- on the road to a 50 win season and contenders in the West. There isn’t a LaMarcus Aldrige flu making everyone sick. Not in Portland.
photo via llananba