New era dawns for Blazers
Finding the new coach after the exit of Terry Stotts remains the first priority for the Trail Blazers, said Neil Olshey, president of basketball operations.
He's not putting roster decisions at the top of the list, yet. He said four of the five starters remain under contract — Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic — and Olshey spoke highly about expected free agent Norman Powell's contribution to the Blazers.
It was announced that Stotts and the Trail Blazers had mutually agreed to part ways Friday, June 4. Stotts guided Portland to eight consecutive NBA playoff appearances, this season while dealing with injuries to McCollum and Nurkic. Olshey said he met with Stotts quickly after the surprising playoff series loss to undermanned Denver, and delivering the bad news to the veteran coach allowed Stotts the opportunity to look for other work — even though he has two years left on his contract.
Despite Stotts' success with the Blazers, which parallels Lillard's rise to superstardom, the Blazers had "plateaued," Olshey said. Portland has been a top offensive team, but a poor defensive team, and the team's play needs to change, he added.
"We want to improve on the defensive end of the floor, we want somebody with strong leadership qualities and somebody who will hold people accountable on both ends of floor," Olshey said. The Blazers were 29th in defensive rating this season, and 26th last season.
"We reached a ceiling with the team. It was not an easy decision, obviously. We needed to show improvement on the defensive end and advance in the playoffs. … We lost in the first round to a team missing an all-star point guard (Jamal Murray) and two of its top five players (Murray, Will Barton). We feel like we plateaued."
Olshey said a candidate list of 20-25 people would be pared in the coming week or two and interviews set up remotely and candidates presented to chair/owner Jody Allen and vice chair Bert Kolde. Lillard's opinion would be factored in, Olshey said. Lillard, through a media member, had let it be known that Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups would be his preferred candidates; Kidd, an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers, has since removed himself from contention for the position. Billups is a former NBA point guard, a champion with the Detroit Pistons and an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Olshey won't discuss any potential roster shakeup with the Blazers.
He made quite a statement Monday: "We got 80 percent of our starting lineup under contract and returning absolutely."
Speculation has always swirled around McCollum being moved to another team, but Olshey has always been reluctant to break up the Dame-CJ backcourt.
But, "It is a business, as evidenced by that we moved away from a guy (Stotts) I really cared about" and who had sustained succcess, Olshey said. "Nothing is off table if it brings us closer to a championship."
The post Nurkic has a partially guaranteed ($4 million of $12 million) contract for 2021-22, and it's been assumed that the Blazers would eventually negotiate a long-term deal with him. But, Nurkic created a stir when he said after the Denver series, pre-Stotts firing, that he wanted to play in the "right situation" in Portland and "this is not it."
Olshey defended Nurkic, saying the big man, like all players, reacted with disappointment and after having to defend Nikola Jokic without double-team help and then not being a focal point on the offensive end. Jokic had great games, and Nurkic fouled out of three games and had four fouls alone in the third quarter of Game 6, and he couldn't push Jokic on the offensive end.
It left Nurkic "vulnerable" to be exploited on the court," Olshey said. Nurkic said post-game that he wished his role "was bigger."
"He was not happy. Nobody was happy," Olshey added. "We lost as a favorite in Game 6 with a 14-point lead late in the third quarter."
The expected decision by Powell to decline his player option and explore free agency will be a thing to watch in the coming months; the Blazers acquired him from Toronto, for Gary Trent Jr., believing Powell would be signed and be part of their future. He might command $20, which would give the Blazers, in theory, about a $70 million three-guard backcourt.
And, will the Blazers be able to afford to bring back Carmelo Anthony? Derrick Jones Jr. has a player option, and his returning could be swayed by a new coach. The Blazers do like the progress of young players Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little, and hope remains that Zach Collins can remain healthy to team with Nurkic and Enes Kanter up front.
"There'll be turnover in the roster," Olshey said.
As far as a new coach, "They'e going to inherit an elite offensive team. We have to make an impact on the defensive end of the floor."
The Blazers have made the playoffs eight years in a row and possess one of the NBA's best players, but they must be better defensively, pure and simple.
"Back to the drawing board for us," Lillard said. "Obviously, where we are isn't good enough to win a championship."
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