Blazer fans let’s just accept it, All stars aren’t going to just start coming to Portland to build super-teams. Neil Olshey has. Role players? Sure. By the dozens. Especially if Olshey is willing to keep dolling out hefty contracts. The Blazers moves this summer though, point towards a different strategy. For a small market team that struggles to attract elite free agents, internal development and finding the right mix of role players has become Neil’s go to patent for the Blazers franchise.The great northwest bake-off.
Neil Olshey has been trying to sell us on this cake baking venture for some time. Look, its a multi year rebuild/retooling process. Yes, it is tedious. Yes, it requires patience. Yeah, there is a chance it doesn’t work, Lillard leaves, (not likely) and the Blazers wipe the slate clean and start again. Yada yada yada. I am not going to try and sell you a lemon like a used car salesman. I offer no guarantees. Yes, the rhetoric is tiring. Maybe it is just time time to accept it.That said, what if I told you, it is kind of sort of working. What if I told you there is progress. I know it is slow going, and you’ll probably give me a, my dead grandma can move faster quip in response. But, hey hear me out. Before you grow more impatient, let’s take a look at the evolution of the roster since this so called rebuild/ retool and decide how successful it’s been.
2015 – 16
LaMarcus Aldridge – FA
Wesley Mathews – FA
Nic Batum – Trade (Hornets)
Robin Lopez- FA
Arron Afflalo – FA
Steve Blake – Trade (Draft trade, Nets)
Tim Frazier – FA
Joel Freeland – FA
Alonzo Gee – FA
Dorell Wright – FA
( Will Barton, Victor Claver, Thomas Robinson were traded during the preceding season)
Mason Plumlee – Trade (Draft trade Nets)
Maurice Harkless – Trade (Magic)
Pat Connaughton – Trade (Draft trade via Nets)
Gerald Henderson – Trade (Hornets)
Noah Vonleh – Trade (Hornets)
Brian Roberts – Trade (Heat)
Luis Montero – FA
Cliff Alexander – FA
Al Farouq Aminu
In 2015 came the unraveling of an Era. When the smoke cleared, all that was really left of substance was Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Blazers traded for Mason Plumlee and draft pick Pat Connaughton.They signed Al Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis. Traded for Maurice Harkless. They put their faith in their youth, Allen Crabbe, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Brian Roberts, Luis Montero, Cliff Alexander. The rebuild began. No one expected much of anything. The young Blazers performed shy of miraculous and made the 2nd round of the playoffs, only to be handed plane tickets home by the Warriors. It was nearly a fun series to watch the young Blazers tangoed, and caused Golden State to take them seriously.
Roberts became another failed back up point guard attempt. Maybe the Blazers gave up to soon on Tim Frazier. Still, neither of them turned into a Patty Mills. Montero and Cliff Anderson never clicked. Gerald Henderson who had been a energetic 6th man, was lost in the fray. The rest of Portlands youth had quickly become a close knit group, a solid core.
Record: 44-38 (.537) Playoffs: Conference semifinals, lost to the Warriors 1-4) Place: 2nd Northwest Division, 5th in western conference
5 of the players from that roster remain. (Lillard, McCollum, Aminu, Harkless, and Leonard)
2016 – 17
Shabazz Napier – Trade (Magic)
Jake Layman (Draft Trade – Magic)
Tim Quarterman – FA
Festus Ezeli – FA
Evan Turner – FA
Al Farouq Aminu
The summer of ill repute. The Blazers non factors in the draft, sans a pick. They bought into the second round to pick up Jake Layman. Desperate for a needle mover, the Blazers jumped the gun and gave Evan Turner a contract he couldn’t refuse: $70million over 4 years. Allen Crabbe showed promise, so Neil doubled down. $75 million over 4 years. Meyers Leonard? Sure. He was streaking at 40/50/90 remember? 4 years $40 million. Harkless too. Yep. 4 years, $41 million. Add a trade for Shabazz Napier and you get high expectations. Too high. Pressure cooker. Impossible. It’s a summer Neil would like to forget. Me too.
Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe are the perfect antithesis for internal growth. Crabbe got paid, and seemed to lose care for the game. Not sure how much was effort, a lack of effort, or a lack of skill. The Blazers offloaded him to the Nets. The joke is on them. Meyers still persists. Festus Ezeli’s knees were gone before het got here. A low risk gamble. Not sure what Portland’s obession is with big men and bad knees. Just a roll of the dice I guess. Ok, that was a lemon. How about some lemonade? 2016 saw the Blazers trade for Jusuf Nurkic. Plumlee was good, a solid player. He was an adequate rebounder, an adept passer, but small in length compared to other bigs. He would have cost too much to retain and would never have been what the Blazers truly needed. A beast like Jusuf Nurkic. A young explosive center who could not only be a Juggernaut of a presence in the paint, but help to reinvigorate a stagnated Blazers offense.
Record: 41-41 (.500) Playoffs: 1st rnd, lost to Warriors 0-4 Place: 3rd Northwest Division, 8th Western Conference
7 of the players from that roster remain. (Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Aminu, Harkless, Layman, and Leonard)
2017 – 18
Allen Crabbe – Trade (Nets)
Festus Ezeli- FA
Tim Quarterman – Trade (Houston)
(Mason Plumlee was traded the preceding season)
Al Farouq Aminu
Wade Baldwin (2 way)
CJ Wilcox (2 way)
2017 brought action in the draft in the form of a trade for big man Zach Collins. Blazers also drafted Caleb Swanigan. The Blazers offloaded Allen Crabbe in the summer. Signed Georgios Papagiannis. In their first year of 2 way contracts, signed Wade Baldwin IV and CJ Wilcox.
The Blazers played inspired basketball and made third place in a stacked western conference, winning the NW division. The Blazers traded Noah Vonleh mideason to avert luxury tax, a move that may still comeback to haunt them. He played well next to Nurkic, but in a guard focused offense, his play never evolved. Did the Blazers give up on him too soon?
The same ghosts continued to haunt them in the playoffs. An all to predictable offense that relied almost exclusively on Lillard and McCollum.The Blazers didn’t have dependable shooters to stretch the defense. Aminu, Harkless, Napier, and Connaughton all had the distance, but no consistency.
Record: 49-33(.598) Playoffs: 1st rnd, lost to the Pelicans 0-4 Place: 1st Northwest division, 3rd western conference
11 of the players from that roster remain. (Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Collins, Aminu, Harkless, Turner, Baldwin, Layman, Swanigan, and Leonard)
(Noah Vonleh was traded the preceding season)
Gary Trent Jr
(Noah Vonleh was traded during the preceding season)
This summer was a heart breaker. Ed Davis walked away at the opening of free agency. Olshey, not having been able to unload Leonard or Turner had to let him walk, asked him too. Shabazz Napier followed suit. He was a good back up point guard, too good. He deserved to start somewhere, get paid to do so. The Blazers gave up on Pat Connaughton who had shown progress the season before. Papagiannis struggled terribly in summer league. Left, headed to Europe before the Blazers could hand him a pink slip.
The Blazers drafted young Anfernee Simons and bought into 2nd round for Gary Trent Jr. They signed Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas. They are perilously thin in the front court, but they have more than enough shooters to start a gun fight at the O.K. Corral. Terry Stotts is going to have to come up with some unorthodox lineups, but then he seems to be pretty good at that .The Blazers are going to give Meyers Leonard a last chance, not that they have a choice. Hope that guys like Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless show up. It will be interesting to see how they fare minus a physical player like Ed Davis. Zach Collins please don’t let us down. Let’s take a look at the roster as it stands, and see what kind of shape the Blazers are in.
Damian Lillard: The best example of internal development. Drafted in 2012 Lillard was a a star in the making from the get go, and the NBA was found wanting. A three time all star, he is one of only three players in NBA history with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his debut. (Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson are the other two) and received rookie of the year honors. Over 6 seasons he has become an elite player. He is a natural born killer…I mean leader. The John Conner of this Blazers resistance.
CJ McCollum: Another great example of internal development. CJ drafted the following year spent time behind Wesley Matthews and battled over playing time with Will Barton. It did him well. He won most improved player in his third season. He has become a star next to Damian Lillard.The pair are considered one of the best back courts in the NBA.
Jusuf Nurkic: The Blazers traded for Nurkic at the 2016 trade deadline. The Nuggets have been enjoying their summers since. Nurkic confused teams for half a season with his high pick and roll and brought much needed energy to Portland basketball, and provided a third scoring presence. He posted similar numbers last season albeit a slow start. He needs to work on keeping control of the ball in the lane, and finishing strong in the paint. Truth be told dude is a monster, and he is only going to get better.
Al Farouq Aminu: Aminu came to Portland with 5 years already under his belt. He has emerged as a salacious defender and rebounder. He has become a decent 3 point shooter, though he lacks consistency. There is that and his dribbling. I have never been so scared as when he dribbles into the crowded lane or across half court. Scary stuff. I hope he worked on that this summer.
Maurice Harkless: The Magic are still kicking themselves. Harkless has for the most part been a diamond in the rough. The issue has been getting that diamond polished. Harkless entered last season in a rut after being the center of trade speculation during the summer. His struggle hurt the Blazers. He is an energizer bunny for them, fueling steals and fast breaks. He is also another option from the arc when he is on and clicking. He never found himself last year. Hopefully, this season begins with a revitalized version of Harkless. He is still young and on the upswing.
Evan Turner: Ugh. Turner is not a terrible player. He is a player who is being terribly misused and who doesn’t fit in with the Blazers. He is a hell of a ball handler and a play maker. In his element he posts against smaller guards like no ones business. It hasn’t worked yet as a Blazer. He has hurt the team terribly on the offensive end. He has been developing his 3 pointer to fit into Stotts system. Truth is if he didn’t have such a terrible contract he would be gone. But, as is the Blazers will try to stick a bunch of shooters around him and hope it works.
Zach Collins: Collins a McDonald’s All American out of Gonzaga is everything the Blazers never got out of Leonard. He can shoot from distance. He isn’t scared to battle in the paint for rebounds. He is a scrapper. Highly explosive and quick in the paint. He will block you six weeks from Sunday and then dare you to your face to say something about it. Collins is on a promising trajectory. A multi talented big man, he will soon be a starter, hopefully the Blazers PF of the future.
Meyers Leonard: Meyers Leonard has suffered at the hands of self confidence issues since joining the Blazers in 2012, and has yet to make a real impact on the court. Many have given up on him or have little faith left in his capabilities 6 years in. I get it. Don’t forget though this is the big who shot 50/40\90. He played decent basketball last season in limited minutes. He will get more this season. He has a year left to prove himself, and if he hopes to further his basketball career in the NBA, he’ll get his head straight and leave it all on the court.
Wade Baldwin: Talk about exciting. The Grizzlies threw him in the dumpster. The Blazers claimed him as their own. One teams trash is another team’s gold. Well, in this case anyway. Baldwin is still developing and has shown glimpses of what he can be. Explosive on both ends, with a tenacious knack for defense. He can be exactly what the Blazers need. That said, he is still very young and expectations must be tempered. Still, he is a guy to keep your eye on.
Jake Layman: Layman had the best Blazer rookie debut since Damian Lillard, torching the Warriors in the fourth quarter for 17 points on 5-7 shooting from beyond the arc. Don’t let Jake Layman’s overall stats fool you. In limited minutes through his first two years, Layman has not had much opportunity to show his athleticism. I’ll tell you, dude can play. He will get minutes this year, and chance to prove himself, some probably at the 4. He needs to show up with some of that vertical lift he brought in summer league, where he helped lead the Blazers to a championship. Those alley oops on the fast break were a sight for sore eyes.
Caleb Swanigan: You gotta like the kid. He has faced a good deal of adversity ( his weight, homelessness, his father’s death) in his young age and bounced back from it through hard work. Swanigan was a dominant big man in college and showed promise in the summer league, his first year averaging 16 pts and 10 rebounds a game. He got opportunities to play in the regular season but, eventually got lost in a pile up of Blazer bigs. He showed great energy on the boards, but struggled with his hands on the offense, was weak at passing and creating for himself. Swanigan showed some progress on some of those faucets during the summer league this time around. He will be fighting Meyers Leonard for playing time this season. At least we know Swanigan will have his eyes open.
Anfernee Simons: Fresh out of prep school is the explosive pure shooting, play making combo guard that all teams dream of. The only problem, is he is 19, undeveloped, lacks size, and has a deficit on the defensive end. It may take a year, or a few, but dude is a freak on the court. He can beat other guards off the dribble with his speed, and shoot from anywhere. He can finish at the rim with crisp ease. The future looks bright for the youngest Blazer. Another cake fest, but worth waiting for.
Gary Trent Jr: A prolific three point shooter and effective transition player, Trent could help the Blazers stretch defenses if he somehow cracks the rotation. His lack of explosiveness could hurt him. That along with a lapse on defense are definitely his weak spots. Like his draft companion Simons, he will likely see a lot of time in the G league.
Seth Curry: The 5th year 6’1 guard is not his brother, but he can sure as hell shoot the 3. Dude is an assassin. He average 42.5% before sitting out a season with a broken leg. He will be less of a playmaker in Portland and more of a spot up shooter. He is reliable too and will keep the defense honest. He will be a huge asset for the Blazers. Problem is he won’t be playing much with both Lillard and McCollum on the court because of his size.
Nik Stauskas: Threes Threes and more threes. Stauskas another lights out three point shooter joined the Blazers in free agency this summer. He will be a quick draw off the pass shooter. Another attempt by the Blazers to keep double teams off of Lillard and McCollum and bring more offensive power to the bench. Problem is Stauskas is a defensive liability. Has been. That is not going to change. Hopefully, he will work on his transition play too. Dude is slow, and it seems to be rooted in a lack of effort. But, oh those threes.
Looking at the team since the rebuild, things have been tough playoff wise. Fans want their team to be a contender now not later, to hoist the trophy, they want the parade. It’s not their fault. They crave it. Impatience festers. They call for heads to roll. The politics of basketball are intense. But, I tell you waiting can pay off. Waiting got the Blazers one of the best back courts in the NBA in Lillard and McCollum. It got us a behemoth of a center in Nurkic. A young and freaky Big man in Collins. Not to mention a spate of role players and developing prospects. There seems to be an identifiable trajectory here, one of a positive nature. Through quite a bit of trial and error the Blazers are assembling talent. Through the process the Blazers did let go of some players that maybe should have stayed like Davis, Napier, and arguably Henderson. One could contend that guys like Connaughton, Frazier, Roberts, Quarterman, and Vonleh didn’t get enough time. That the Blazers revolving door is moving to quickly, but its all just part of the system in play. And, It’s working! The Blazers have finished each season since the rebuild at or above .500 basketball. They have made the playoffs every year since then. The roster for the most part has steadily improved. So, I say let the great northwest bake off continue. Let, the cake bake. Be patient even though it is at times excruciating. Because waiting will pay off. It is all in trusting the mechanism, and the Blazers franchise is one heck of an oven.