The (Blazers') world, according to Olshey
Being an NBA general manager is a thankless job, unless you're Neil Olshey. Then you can thank yourself.
For six years, Olshey — who also carries the title president of basketball operations with the Trail Blazers — has engaged in various stages of self-adulation during his infrequent forays into the local media.
The most recent example came Sunday when Olshey, sharing the podium with coach Terry Stotts, delivered a postmortem at the team's Tualatin training facility after the Blazers' unceremonious first-round playoff sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans.
Olshey, mostly, spent a half-hour filling in reporters on the outstanding job he has been doing, and how doltish the critics of his work are among the media and Blazer fans.
The Blazers, you see, finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the NBA in rim protection. They were tied for eighth in defensive rating. And they won 49 regular-season games, an eight-game improvement over the previous year, something none of us thought possible (though I, for one, predicted 47).
When one reporter asked if he deemed the season a success, Olshey turned it around.
"I don't know," he said. "Is it a success in you guys' eyes?"
"The way it ended takes a lot away from it," the reporter said.
"That's fair," Olshey said, proceeding to spend the next few minutes telling everyone why, in fact, it wasn't fair.
The playoff result "doesn't change anything about the season," said Olshey, sending less-erudite reporters to dictionary.com to check out two challenging words in his next two sentences. "We have to bifurcate those two things to a certain degree. We lost four games coming into the playoffs and that didn't change everyone's overall outlook on a macro level."
Olshey meant that we have to take the regular season and playoffs as separate entities, and that the Blazers' four-game skid toward the end of the regular season didn't affect our overall impression of the team's success in the regular season. Although actually, it did. A 52- or 53-win season would have been even more impressive, right? And it kept Portland from going into the playoffs on a roll, a factor Damian Lillard, at least, felt was important.
"Coming into the playoffs, we hadn't played our best basketball going down the stretch," Lillard said, referring to the Blazers losing seven of their final 12 games. Teams that finish the regular season in a groove tend to have a better chance for success in the postseason.
Olshey conceded the New Orleans series illustrated some deficiencies in the Blazers, and "we'll address those in the offseason."
"But I don't want to overreact to one unfavorable matchup and a team that just played outstanding basketball," he said. "We're going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster like we always do. But we're also not going to lose sight of the success and the growth that we had through the course of the season."
I wasn't sure what Olshey meant by "one unfavorable matchup." Was the reference to Anthony Davis? The guards, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, surprisingly outplaying Lillard and CJ McCollum?
"I mean the team," he said. "The whole team."
The inference was the Blazers were unlucky with the matchup against the Pelicans, who, as Olshey pointed out, finished only a game back of Portland in the regular season. Certainly, they are a handful, and I see them giving the Golden State Warriors all they can handle in their Western Conference semifinal series.
But other than Oklahoma City — a team Portland owned 4-0 in the regular season — what would have been a favorable first-round matchup for the Blazers? Not Utah, the hottest team outside of Houston from the West heading into the postseason. Minnesota? Not with Jimmy Butler back. Possibly San Antonio, though the Spurs beat Portland rather convincingly the last week of the regular season.
The Blazers, actually, were fortunate to get the No. 3 seed. Had they lost a couple more regular-season games, they'd have finished seventh or eighth and been paired up with Houston or Golden State in the first round.
Olshey said the Blazers saw what was coming against the Pelicans much more clearly than us morons in the media (including myself, who picked Portland in five games).
"We were far more conservative in our expectations of that series than the pundits, who all picked us to win it," he said. Indeed, all 22 ESPN experts had Portland winning. "We knew how good they were and how unique they are playing Anthony at (center)."
But getting to Olshey's point, the Blazers had "great success" in the regular season, with the highest seed for a Portland team since 2000.
"The postseason couldn't have been worse," said Olshey, although in his mind, the "unfavorable matchup" made it so. "I don't know that you can have a happy medium. You can't look at it at it as one consistent theme. You have to look at them separately. There were a lot of positives from the regular season, and then a lot of issues we need to address based on the result of the very abbreviated postseason. But I don't know that the postseason was long enough to blend it in with 82 games."
Asked a reporter: How hard is it to take that next step? I took that to mean, actually winning a playoff series.
"Ask the guys who finished fourth through 15 (in the Western Conference)," Olshey said, beginning a lecture on expectations. "Last year, we crept into the playoffs and the question was, 'Can we ever be a team that gets homecourt advantage? How do you finish in the top four (in the West)?' We did it with internal growth, excellent coaching. We did it with teamwork, with guys who play well together, who play in a system. We did it with guys who contributed in different areas. Guys were asked to step up, and also to step back, at times.
"That's how we did it, and we'll continue to do that. We're building a team. I don't have all the answers for you today. Everybody wants to know if there's some magical free agent, if there's some incredible trade, some draft pick that will revolutionize your franchise. A lot of times, you don't know where the help is coming from."
So get off Olshey's back, everyone. You asked for improvement from last season. The Blazers won more games in the regular season and didn't have to "creep" into the playoffs. They got homecourt advantage. What, you expect a win or two in the postseason?
One reporter said some fans want sweeping changes. That seemed to strike a nerve in Olshey's sacroiliac.
"The same people who wanted sweeping changes last year?" Olshey asked rhetorically. "We got swept by Golden State in the first round, and all the alarmists overreacted.
"Let's be a little bit measured in our reaction. ... Where were all these people who wanted sweeping changes 10 days ago? Where were they? They were the ones bouncing off the walls in the Moda Center when we got the third seed for the first time since 1999-2000."
It's Olshey's job, he said, to be measured and not overreact. "When you overreact," he said, "you make mistakes."
Seems logical. But Olshey wasn't finished with his browbeating of the critics.
"Relative to people who back in December were complaining we were in purgatory, because we weren't even going to make the playoffs and we weren't going to pick high enough (in the draft) — that was the rallying cry," he said. "Then it was, 'Oh, my God, they're going to blow the third seed because they're going to lose all these games down the stretch. They're not going to get homecourt advantage.'
"They overreacted to that. And you know what? If the series goes six or seven (games), if Game 1 goes differently, like when we had the ball, down one (late in the game), who knows where the series goes? But it didn't."
You can understand the consternation all the second-guessing causes Olshey. He, after all, should be above such backseat driving from folks who ought to simply trust in the man Paul Allen is paying big bucks to in the drive to an NBA championship. With just one fortuitous bounce or two in the opener of the New Orleans series, the Blazers might have prevailed and be looking at an upcoming matchup with the defending champion Warriors.
And, Olshey said ruefully, all the scrutiny over the Blazers' ouster from the playoffs was magnified by the early exit.
"We're the first ones out," he said. "This will be heightened and an over amount of attention paid to this series until other teams start going out, and then they'll need sweeping changes."
Olshey's conclusion: "You don't take four games and overreact and diminish what you accomplished over 82 games."
My response: It was a good regular season, not great. It wasn't a 60-win season, and it certainly didn't make up for one of the worst postseason performances in franchise history — and maybe the worst ever for a Portland team with homecourt advantage.
When Olshey offered that the Blazers "had to face a lot of adversity throughout the year," I stifled a guffaw. Between Lillard, McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner, there were 16 missed games. New Orleans lost DeMarcus Cousins for 34. Minnesota's Jimmy Butler was sidelined for 23. Kawhi Leonard, for crying out loud, was lost to San Antonio for all but nine games. Golden State lost Stephen Curry for 31 games; each of the Warrior starters missed at least nine games to injury.
It was, in fact, a charmed regular season for the Blazers. And they did a nice job with it. With a core unit that was in its third season together, the defense tightened up. Lillard enjoyed a career season — until the playoffs, when it fell apart under a smart defensive scheme by coach Alvin Gentry, who forced the other Blazers to beat the Pelicans. And they couldn't.
Some believe the Blazers can only get better if they break up their backcourt, trading McCollum for talent at one of the front-line positions. Olshey might have just said Lillard and McCollum will usually outscore, and often outplay, the opponent's backcourt. But that's not his style.
"When 27 other teams aren't jealous of our backcourt," Olshey said, "then I'll start worrying about (that)."
The Blazers are among the upper end of the league in committed payroll for next season at $111.3 million, already over the salary cap ($101 million) and approaching the luxury tax ($123 million). They have four free agents from this year's roster — Nurkic and Shabazz Napier (restricted) and Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton (unrestricted).
Olshey doesn't talk about those kind of things with local reporters, but I'm guessing he'd like to keep Nurkic, Davis and Connaughton. Those three, plus $1.14 million if they keep the 24th pick in the draft, would put the Blazers way over the tax threshold. I think Allen would be fine with doing that with a title-contending team. But, even with growth from the Blazers' current roster, the second-youngest in the NBA this past season, I don't see that happening.
Then again, we're not as plugged in on that subject as Olshey. And he'll be the first to tell you.
"People get caught up in financial restrictions," he said. "Half of the league is projected to be in (I think he means "above") the salary cap last year. There are a million ways to build a team. Everyone gets caught up there in thinking there is some magic solution because you have cap room or you have an exception."
Olshey said more teams got better this season due to trades or draft-related moves than to signing of free agents. Perhaps he has a blockbuster deal up his sleeve.
There was more admonishment for Olshey's clueless critics among the Fourth Estate.
"One of the things I'm disappointed with from a narrative standpoint this whole year that nobody picked up on was this: How important the quality of your players and building a team is to winning games," Olshey began. "Everybody wants to look in a vacuum at specific players. What nobody looked at was the chemistry, the camaraderie, the teamwork, the way this group stayed together. We'd lose three or four in a row; they never fractured.
"It frustrated guys in the media. You'd ask 'Dame' or CJ and they'd say, 'We're fine.' Nobody wanted to believe they were fine. Somehow we ended with 49 wins and were the third seed in the Western Conference. We were fine. They believed it. They believe in each other, and they elevate each other."
Olshey is right about the quality of the Blazer locker room. It seems like a great bunch of guys. There doesn't seem to be a bad apple in the bunch. They are respectful to media, good with the public and — led by Lillard — appreciative of the terrific support they get from the Blazer faithful.
But this is nothing new. After the "Jail Blazers" era and GM Bob Whitsitt's departure, Allen made it a priority to clean up the players' deportment and his team's image in the community. Beginning with the drafting of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006, the Blazers have paraded a procession of high-caliber people through their rosters.
"This isn't 'NBA2K,'" Olshey continued. "The teams across the board with the highest-profile names on their team aren't necessarily the best teams. It comes down to coaching and character-building and culture and organization.
"That's what you saw during the ebbs and flows of our year. It never fractured in here — ever. Not once. That's what kept everybody together. That bond is why, even losing in four (games), it will give us something to build on instead of something to regret."
Some of Olshey's assertions are correct; others exaggerated or off the mark. Fact is, the Blazers weren't "fine" in the playoffs. How much the GM is to blame is fodder for another column.
I doubt that the owner was overly impressed by the regular season. I'm pretty sure he was discouraged by the playoff results.
Time will tell whether Olshey earned himself another chance at sitting courtside with Allen next season, or whether he will be banished to the bowels of Moda Center again. In the meantime, he may need a massage from the rigors of patting himself on the back.