Two Summers ago, coming off a season where Wesley Matthews took a bad step and ended what could have been a deep playoff run, and a dark horse contention for the O’Brien trophy, instead manifested into the Blazers stumbling into the playoffs and getting knocked out in the first round by the overzealous Grizzlies. Then came the exodus of LaMarcus Aldridge, leaving Neil Olshey with a hard decision to make. He could resign the rest of the core, hope the achilles of Wesley Matthews would heal unscathed, and hedge his bets that they could, sans Aldridge still compete, or he could blow it up, let Matthews and Lopez walk away and trade Batum, to start over. The former would make little sense without Aldridge, considering there was no guarantee that Wesley Matthews would return to his pre injury iron man form, Batum was regressing, and Lopez was to expensive to keep around for what he provided. So, Olshey made a volatile, audacious, move. He chose the ladder, to show Matthews and Lopez the door, and trade Nic Batum for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh, and to rebuild around Damian Lillard.
If you think about it, it was at the time the right decision. We weren’t going to win without Aldridge with the roster as it was. Neil came up with a plan to collect assets, to go after players with small contracts and lots of potential. He signed Aminu and Davis, went after Harkless and hedged his bets on Tim Fraizer and later Brian Roberts. He put together a young team of prospects with low risk, high reward, and was rewarded. I am sure Olshey didn’t expect the Blazers to play as well as they did, to make the second round of the playoffs, no one did. No one gave them benefit of the doubt, and that with a seamless chemistry made all of the difference. The Blazers made it past the injured Clippers in the first round, and though there is speculation that had the Clippers remained healthy they wouldn’t have won the series, it remains clear that the Blazers deserved their due. Then came the Warriors, who were superior to the Blazers, and who removed any preconception that the Blazers were contenders. Still, the Blazers made a five game series seem like a seven game series, and left it all on the court, earning the respect of the league.
So, after such success it seemed evident that star players would at least be looking towards Portland as a destination. It was supposed to be the year the Blazer finally lured a big fish into town in free agency, it almost came to fruition, as Hassan Whiteside admitted he had almost chosen Portland before he decided to stay in Miami. The Blazers couldn’t get him to bite, couldn’t lure Howard or Al Horford. They didn’t even get a nibble from Kevin Durant. Then they got spurned by Chandler Parsons ( A godsend) and Olshey who is usually calm and collected panicked a bit and offered Evan Turner a contract he could not refuse, and which confused and caught by surprise the rest of the league, not to mention Portland fans, who were worried Olshey was losing sight of his own plan. Though, another faction of fans were elated, for Turner would bring an element of ball handling the Blazers offense sorely needed.
In signing Turner and matching a $75 million contract for Crabbe which was a very calculated risk at the time, and another controversial move in the eyes of the fans, meant that Gerald Henderson would be showed the door, as would Fraizer and Roberts. In hindsight, the Blazers this season have missed the sixth man pedigree of Gerald Henderson and for sure had given up on Fraizer far to soon. Olshey resigned Meyers Leonard to a $40 million contract, the same amount Leonard had asked for earlier during extension talks and was denied, now as we know, deservedly so. Then Harkless who was looking to peddle his services elsewhere was retained for another $40 plus million before he could hitch a ride. Olshey finished the offseason by trading Orlando for Shabazz Napier another low risk player who seemed to have some potential. With rookie Jake Layman, second year player Pat Connaughton in tow, Portland signed Festus Ezeli who came into town looking for a deal, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Then all that was left was the fifteenth man, which went to Tim Quarterman.
The Blazers were stocked and loaded for the season with many questions remaining. With four new players would the team’s chemistry remain seamless? Would Evan Turner bring the Blazers to next level? Would Festus Ezeli ever play and give the Blazers the defense they so needed under the rim? Would Crabbe and Meyers finally become prime time players? Would Vonleh,Layman, Napier or Connaughton show themselves this season? Would the Blazers take the next step in the Playoffs? Many people, including myself had them winning up to ten more games or more this season then they did last year. Those Bloated contracts that seemed so terribly steep, wouldn’t look so bad next year when the the cap was supposed to rise, and everything would be good. But, with the new CBA, the cap space would remain near what it was this season, meaning those contracts wouldn’t be looking as good come the end of the season. ‘The best – laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’
Halfway through the 2016-17 NBA season the Blazers are sitting with a 23-33 record and the 10th spot in the west, falling far short of expectations. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have both had a down season, hampered by opponent defenses focused solely on taking them out of their element. Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard have been inconsistent from the gate, both putting up abysmal stats, a visible difference from last year. Evan Turner struggled early before adapting to Stott’s system only to break his hand. Aminu has been battling injuries and inconsistency himself. Ed Davis has gone backwards with little playing time. Vonleh has yet to develop in a system that all but guarantees he won’t. Napier and Connaughton have gone no where fast. Ezeli has yet to play and probably never will for the Blazers. For Layman it is still to soon to tell. And Quarterman, well he’s Quarterman.
Olshey has already made his first move before the trade deadline moving the expiring contract of Mason Plumlee to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a 1st round pick. With that signals another decision Olshey must make, keep everyone else around till the end of the season or turn players into picks and take his chances in one of the deepest drafts in some time. His moving of Mason Plumlee, whom there was no way to resign at the end of the season without a lot of juggling, was necessary, both monetarily and for the sake of team. The small ball team experiment having failed, the Blazers needed major help under the rim, on both sides of the court. Jusuf Nurkic a 22 year old big man, nicknamed the ‘Bosnian Beast’ for good reason, is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Olshey has the option to keep everyone else around and see if the Blazers turn things around. Though, really what Olshey will be looking for is to increase the value of the players, and a turn around would surely help orchestrate that. A trip to the playoffs would almost be fools gold, as Olshey would love a chance to be in the lottery. Knowing Olshey’s methodology, he is surely manning the phones and looking for deals, many that are unorthodox, probably involving players in the background. With three days left we will see what he decides. With one of, if not the worst team salary to wins ratio, he finds himself at a crossroad, and he has his work cut out for him.