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NBA PM: A Look at Neil Olshey’s Success With the Blazers

Neil Olshey’s unconventional rebuilding of the Trail Blazers warranted today’s extension.

Yannis Koutroupis profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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How Olshey Quickly Rebuilt the Blazers

When the news broke that Neil Olshey was leaving the Los Angeles Clippers to take over the Portland Trail Blazers in 2012, it raised a lot of eyebrows – and not just because three days prior the Clippers announced that they had come to terms on a new deal. The Clippers were poised to skyrocket up the ranks of the Western Conference with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul as their core; the Trail Blazers were floundering with an All-Star starting to become disgruntled in LaMarcus Aldridge, not to mention a bad string of injuries that still makes the loyal and commendable Blazers faithful shudder upon recall.

At the time, Olshey said he wanted a new challenge, that he had accomplished everything he could with the Clippers, where he served in a variety of roles before becoming the top executive in 2010. In light of the scandal involving former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, though, we now know that just getting away from his reign of ignorance and overbearing-ness was enough to send anyone jumping at the next opportunity to come their way – let alone the better financial agreement the Blazers offered that nearly doubled his salary and offered him two more years of security. Sterling may have been able to keep him if he were willing to match the Blazers’ offer. After all, Olshey had thrived with the franchise and managed to build a contender in spite of Sterling’s often-counterproductive presence. But, Sterling, angered by the fact that Olshey would even entertain an offer from another team after they had just worked out a new a deal, refused.PUBLISHERS EDIT: Sterling did in fact match the Trail Blazers’ offer with a better one, but Olshey, could not pass on the Trail Blazers’ position because of all the right things they offered, not anything the Clippers did not do.

Coming off of the blockbuster acquisition of Paul, Olshey’s first moves in Portland were hardly as newsworthy – at least at the time. He did make his presence felt, though, and made it clear that he was there to do things his way, no matter how unpopular his decisions may be to those effected by them and those analyzing them.

Named the general manager on the June 4, Olshey quickly had to adjust from preparing for the Clippers’ draft to figuring out what to do with two critical lottery picks that would play a large role in determining whether his current contract was the first of many, or the only one. The Blazers picked sixth and 11th overall, and Olshey couldn’t afford to walk away with anything other than two significant pieces.

He invested in Damian Lillard, a product of little-known Weber State who never played in an NCAA Tournament game, and Meyers Leonard, a sophomore big man that had talent evaluators split on his potential. Both were serious gambles. He passed on Harrison Barnes, who was hyped up as one of the premier players in the class since he was in high school, for Lillard despite the fact that Nicolas Batum was a restricted free agent and he could end up with a gaping hole at the small forward position. Instead of Leonard, he could have went with the much more proven John Henson, Andrew Nicholson or Jared Sullinger. He made some good value picks in the second round in Will Barton and Tyshawn Taylor, but the success of his lottery picks were paramount over everything.

It would be a week later in free agency when Olshey really set the tone for his new era. He shocked the Indiana Pacers by putting down a four-year, $58 million max offer sheet for Roy Hibbert in order to put the true big man alongside Aldridge that he coveted. The Pacers had long insisted that they would match any offer for Hibbert, but never expected it to be the max. Hibbert was coming off of a strong season in which he averaged 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and two blocks a game. Those are hardly max numbers, but the potential of him and Aldridge manning the interior together made him worth it to Olshey. To this day, those numbers are still the best in Hibbert’s career, and having to overpay for him played a role in the Pacers losing Lance Stephenson for nothing this offseason as they were too close to the luxury tax threshold to match his asking price. Hibbert has been solid since then and helped lead the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances. It’s hard to say whether missing out on him was a blessing in disguise or a missed opportunity, but Olshey quickly moved on to a serviceable Plan B.

In order to address their need at center and hand the keys at point guard to Lillard, he signed-and-traded Raymond Felton to the New York Knicks along with Kurt Thomas for Jared Jeffries, Dan Gadzuric, the draft rights to Georgioz Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou, a 2016 second-round pick and cash considerations. He also re-signed J.J. Hickson.

Whether because Hibbert was made the top priority or the appeal of playing alongside Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio was more attractive to him, Batum was ready to move on from Portland. He signed a four-year, $46 million offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves and through his agent asked Olshey not to match. Then Timberwolves GM David Kahn tried to engage Olshey on numerous sign-and-trade discussions featuring Derrick Williams and multiple draft picks, but Olshey refused both and matched the offer.

“The decision was made a long time ago,” Olshey said afterward. “We were never not going to have Nicolas back.”

Olshey’s next order of business was hiring a head coach. Prior to his hiring the Blazers had parted ways with Nate McMillan, who quickly fell out of favor after helping the franchise end a five-year playoff drought and make three-straight playoff appearances from 2009-2011. The choice was his, and rather than going with a sexy, big name with a proven record of success, he hired Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Terry Stotts. A controversial hire despite Stotts’ role in helping the Mavericks win a championship in 2011, Stotts came in with an unimpressive 115-168 record as a head coach. He served in the role previously with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, only lasting two seasons with each and never finishing with a record above .500. Stotts was fired in-season by the Bucks the year after making his only playoff appearance as a head coach, an appearance that ended in a 1-4 first round loss.

“Terry is one of the elite offensive minds in the NBA, has extensive experience with multiple organizations and was instrumental in the Dallas Mavericks winning the 2011 NBA championship,” Olshey said at the time. “He understands the vision for the future of the franchise, appreciates the process involved and will create an environment on the court that will produce championship habits.”

The following season, the Blazers actually regressed from the year before – a lockout-plagued year in which they went 28-38. They finished with a .402 win percentage at 33-49, down from .424. Their bench was one of the worst in the league, rumors were swirling that Aldridge wanted out, and his hiring of Stotts was being questioned more than before. One of the few bright spots was that Lillard ran away with the Rookie of the Year award in a fashion that few have before. He became one of just four players to win the award unanimously along with Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.

Olshey was extremely aggressive in getting in front of the Aldridge rumors. Citing that the summer of 2015 was the soonest he could become a free agent, Olshey kept in close contact with him and made sure that they never took on a life of their own. Aldridge said all the right things publicly to help his cause and protect his image, but was indeed frustrated that despite his immense amount of individual success, the Blazers were back in the lottery while the Western Conference was only getting tougher.

Olshey invested the Blazers’ lottery pick that year in C.J. McCollum, hoping to strike gold with another mid-major star. McCollum’s ability to play both guard positions was most attractive as he could both spot Lillard when needed and play with him as well. He went with McCollum over Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk, Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee – still holding faith in the development of Leonard after a rookie year that was as underwhelming as Lillard’s was electrifying. Plus, a veteran center was his top priority in free agency.

This time, though, Olshey was a little bit more strategic. Rather than putting out on offer sheet only to see it get matched, he took the Spurs’ word for it when they said they would not let Tiago Splitter go for the four-year, $36 million deal that he was going to offer and facilitated a three-team trade to acquire Robin Lopez instead. Like Stotts, the arrival of Lopez filled a need but hardly appeased Olshey’s critics. Lopez was a middle-of-the-road big man at best, and hardly seemed like the splash they needed to make in order to become more competitive in the Western Conference. That, along with the August signing of former All-Star point guard Maurice Williams to a bargain deal, a trade for struggling young power forward Thomas Robinson and the pickup of Dorell Wright compromised the Blazers’ offseason.

It may not be fair to say that Olshey entered the second year of his third-year contract on the hot seat, but the future didn’t look pretty if the 2013-14 campaign was another losing one.

It wasn’t, though. In fact, the Blazers turned in one of the more shockingly successful campaigns that season. Lillard’s next step forward was another huge one. He wasn’t just the reigning Rookie of the Year. He was one of the truly elite point guards during a golden age for them. Lopez’s toughness and defense-first mentality turned out to be exactly what the Blazers needed alongside Aldridge and were hoping to get from either Hibbert or Splitter. They finished the year 54-28 and upset the favored Houston Rockets in the first round thanks to one of the greatest series-clinching buzzer beaters the league has ever seen, from Lillard. They went on to lose a five-game series to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, but Olshey went out and made two more sound pickups this offseason in veterans Steve Blake and Chris Kaman.

He also awarded Stotts, who is now regarded as one of the better coaches in the league and a truly great pickup by Olshey, with a contract extension and this year has enjoyed his team establishing themselves as a legitimate title contender. They are 27-8 and just two games behind the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league. As a result, today Olshey was given a well-earned three-year extension.

“Our team has made great strides under Neil’s leadership, and I am excited to extend his contract,” Blazers owner Paul Allen said. “Neil has done an outstanding job as general manager by quickly rebuilding our team into a playoff contender. The franchise is clearly on the upswing, and I hope to see further improvements in the years to come.”

“This extension is a validation of the efforts of the entire Trail Blazers front office and an endorsement of the level of commitment expected of us by our owner Paul Allen,” Olshey said. “The level of passion for this franchise by our owner, season-ticket holders and fans, drives us to build a team that this community can be proud of.”

It hasn’t been easy, or without some misses along the way, but Olshey has succeeded as the Trail Blazers’ GM. And, he did so in a manner that few others would have done while having to go to contingency plans every offseason. Now all that’s left for Olshey to accomplish is to see his team win the championship that has alluded Portland for so long. With the foundation he’s put into place and plenty of financial flexibility this offseason, it could happen sooner rather than later. That’s certainly been the trend during his tenure with the Blazers so far.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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