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BATTERED BLAZERS SEARCH FOR WINNING FORMULA
Last season, after the Trail Blazers came on with a rush down the stretch to win 44 regular-season games and reach the second round of the playoffs, general manager Neil Olshey was runner-up for the NBA's Executive of the Year Award behind San Antonio's R.C. Buford.
If there were a booby prize for this season, Olshey would have an addition to his trophy case.
Portland is the most disappointing team in the league, and it's not even close.
Collectively, the Blazer players have performed below expectations, and fans and media are ranting about it. Coach Terry Stotts is getting deserved criticism, too, for being unable to find a winning formula after a promising 2015-16 campaign.
But Olshey has pretty much gotten a pass for his role in this hot mess, which shouldn't be the case. This is his roster of players — with an unprecedentedly expensive price tag at that. More on that in a minute.
The majority of pundits picked the Blazers to end up fourth or fifth in the Western Conference and finish somewhere from 45 and 50 wins. If they go unbeaten through the remainder of the regular season, they'll still fall short of the 50-win plateau.
After the 2016 draft, Olshey talked about employing a smaller lineup featuring Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward. "We are a much stronger team when Farouq plays 4," he said. "Our ratings with Farouq at 4 make us project to a 53-, 54-win team (for the 2016-17 season), whereas Farouq at 3 has us in the mid-40s."
Only 26 games remain, beginning with Thursday's visit to Orlando to start a three-game road trip, and Portland (23-33) would have to close the season 22-4 to get to 45 victories.
The Blazers might finish strong enough to gain the eighth and final playoff seed in the West, earning them a probable first-round date with Golden State — and a very quick exit.
For now, the Blazers are 10th in the West, two games back of No. 8 Denver (25-31) and a half-game behind No. 9 Sacramento (24-33). Within a game and a half of Portland are New Orleans (23-34), Dallas (22-34) and Minnesota (22-35). Thirteenth place in the conference is not that far away.
Portland's coaches and players will do what they can to win games and make the postseason. The psyche has been shaken and their confidence battered through a spiraling last few weeks, but I'd be surprised if they quit on the season.
Management, though, cashed in some chips with the trade that sent starting center Mason Plumlee to Denver — Portland's prime competition for the final West playoff spot — for backup big man Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round draft pick.
Plumlee is going to command big dollars as a restricted free agent this summer, and the Blazers were in no position to keep him, given the haul they handed out last summer.
The 7-foot, 280-pound Nurkic, 22, should prove to a be a useful player for the Blazers, giving them a back-to-the-basket pivot and perhaps some rim protection at the other end. But this move was about saving money and, using one of Olshey's pet terms, acquiring assets.
Over last summer, Portland's fifth-year GM committed a record half-billion dollars to the salaries of seven players, including CJ McCollum, whose new contract doesn't kick in until the 2017-18 season.
The Blazers gave Damian Lillard a no-brainer five-year, $153-million maximum deal. Olshey matched Brooklyn's four-year, $75-million offer sheet for restricted free agent Allen Crabbe, then paid big money to retain restricted free agents Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million) and Moe Harkless (four years, $40 million).
Olshey also tapped into Paul Allen's wallet to buy a pair of unrestricted free agents — Evan Turner (four years, $70 million) and Festus Ezeli (two years, $15 million).
Portland went from the team with the lowest payroll in 2015-16 ($61 million) to the second-highest in 2016-17 ($119.7 million).
With McCollum's four-year, $106-million near-max contract beginning next season, the Blazers have a committed payroll of more than $137 million — by far the most in the league, and about $15 million above the projected luxury tax.
That's OK if you're getting returns for your largesse.
Instead, the Blazers have become a punching bag for the likes of such critics as Charles Barkley, who admonished them on TNT after a recent 120-111 home loss to Boston:
"That is ridiculous for the Trail Blazers ... (the Celtics) lost to Sacramento last night without Boogie Cousins, then come up to Portland ... and you're trying to make the playoffs? You're trying to get the eighth seed? Come on! And (the Blazers) had a 17-point lead ... if a team plays the night before and travels, and you're up 17 at home, and you're trying to get the eighth seed, you cannot lose that game."
What is with this Portland team?
The offense is guard-heavy, with Lillard and McCollum one of the best scoring backcourts in the NBA but one of the poorest defensively. Contributions from the front line have been sporadic at the offensive end.
The defense, beginning with Lillard and McCollum and continuing to the interior, has been porous, yielding more than 110 points per game. Portland ranks 26th in the league in defensive efficiency.
Stotts hasn't figured out how to make the parts work together at either end of the court. And perhaps the players aren't as hungry as they were during a contract year. All the rotation players except Aminu, Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh are in the first year of a new deal, or will be next season.
In recent seasons, Olshey has granted few interviews to local media, reserving time only for the more important national press, who have had his back when assessing the team's success and failures.
Last week, in a short on-camera interview with Blazers Broadcasting's Brooke Olzendam, Olshey suggested the Blazers "are probably a six-point swing overall from being a six or a seven seed, versus where we are today. We're right there, right on the cusp. …"
A six-point swing per game, maybe. Portland currently stands 10 games behind No. 6 Memphis and 8 1/2 games back of No. 7 Oklahoma City. The Blazers are 1-4 in one-point games, 6-7 in games decided by three points or fewer. If they'd gone 13-0 in those games, they'd still be only 30-26 and a game and a half-game back of OKC in eighth place.
Olshey's math doesn't work, and his offseason moves haven't, either.
It's a results-oriented business. Allen's plan is to win an NBA championship. That's what he hires his GMs to help him do.
During Olshey's tenure in Portland, the Blazers have gone 33-49, 54-28, 51-31, 44-38 and now 23-33. Things aren't trending in the right direction.
Allen gave Geoff Petrie four years, Bob Whitsitt 10 years, John Nash three years, Steve Patterson one year, Kevin Pritchard three years and Rich Cho one year in the GM seat. Olshey has lasted longer than anyone except Whitsitt, who presided over the "Jail Blazer" era, won a lot of games and took the team's salary cap numbers to a then-record $105.7 million his last season (2002-03) — nearly $20 million more than the next team, New York.
The 2016-17 Blazers are one of the youngest teams in the NBA. The oldest player, Turner, is 28. Their window to grow together and become a contender hasn't yet closed.
But Olshey needs to balance the roster with more front-line talent. Should he trade Lillard or McCollum to acquire it? It's an option that has to be considered.
Those are the decisions that Olshey is paid the big bucks to make.
The results this summer will decide the Blazers' immediate future, and Olshey's.