The Portland Trail Blazers obviously have been punched in the stomach a bit this summer, losing LaMarcus Aldridge as well as veterans Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo among others through free agency after riding them to back-to-back 50-win seasons and some moderate playoff success.
However, the instant Aldridge informed Blazers general manager Neil Olshey that he wouldn’t be returning to Portland, the Blazers front office initiated Plan B, which Olshey helped explain earlier this month following a trade for forward Moe Harkless.
“We were preparing for this and were trying to play both sides against the middle,” he said, explaining that free agency before Aldridge’s decision was a double-edge sword that had him looking for guys with the potential to either complement Aldridge or help to replace him. He left, obviously, and that set off a new plan.
“When LaMarcus informed us he wouldn’t be back, we went full bore with guys who are on the same career arc as Damian Lillard,” Olshey said. “He’s a two-time All-Star, and we’re going to bring in guys that complement him, his skill set and can grow with him.”
In other words, all those older, veteran free agents would be allowed to walk away following Aldridge’s departure, and Olshey would try to restock with promising younger players who not only would be around for a long time, but also would come into their own quickly enough to take advantage of Lillard’s peak years.
That explains why Matthews, Lopez and Afflalo weren’t re-signed and why fellow veterans like Nic Batum and Steve Blake were traded. It also explains why Olshey worked so hard to acquire talented youngsters like Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu and Harkless among others. It’s doubtful that this team will be better right away, but this scenario is better than having to go full rebuild as these are kids with some obvious talent.
“We were preparing for [a team built of young players],” Olshey said. “We’re going to try to play a little more up-tempo. We’re more athletic.”
Looking at Vonleh, Harkless and even returning center Meyers Leonard, drafted in the lottery the same year as Lillard and Harkless (2012), it’s easy to believe that playing fast and spread out is the way they’re going to go.
“We’ll get up and down a little bit more,” Leonard said. “Space on the court is something that not I only do but the team will do well. We’ll play hard, and we’ll be younger than we were. We won’t be able to pour it into LaMarcus and count on him getting a bucket, of course. We have Dame, but Wes making big shots, Nic making plays, Robin getting offensive rebounds, those guys are gone. And now it’s time to focus our energy on what we can do now to be a successful team.”
Vonleh had something similar to say about his own perceived role in that Portland offense.
“I’m showing my versatility, showing I can get action for the other guys on the team, and getting some scoring opportunities myself,” Vonleh said. “I think I can be really versatile in this offense and play well off of Damian.”
Vonleh, a rail-thin rookie only a year ago, also has worked hard to put on some muscle this past offseason, which should help him since he has an opportunity to play quite a bit more for the Blazers than he did in Charlotte.
“I’ve been in the weight room bench-pressing and doing a lot upper body exercises to get stronger because I’m going to be playing against a lot of grown men, guys who are stronger than me,” Vonleh said. “It was just something I knew I needed to work on. I realized it last year once I left college. These are big guys with grown men strength, and I’ve got to be able to compete with them.”
Leonard, meanwhile, looks forward to working with a roster of younger players that all want to completely buy into head coach Terry Stotts’ system.
“I think it’s cool now that we’re going to be able to mold a new system,” Leonard said. “Terry and his assistants came in with their own system, and we had two 50-win seasons in a row with guys who were vets already. But getting them to change was something they did to win, but now with a team built of younger players we’ll be able to bring the team together, learn the process and continue to work and play hard.”
Harkless, meanwhile, will certainly have a role on the wing with Batum and Matthews gone.
“I definitely see myself fitting in pretty well,” Harkless said. “We’re going to play a fast-paced game, everybody is going to get involved, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
He also added that he sees himself fitting in with Lillard in the backcourt long-term, which Olshey did say was a priority in that specific acquisition.
“I feel like I complement him pretty well,” Harkless said. “He’s a guard that can get in the lane, penetrate and kick, so I can stay out of his way and just shoot off of him, or if he’s going to run I can run with him. I’ll do whatever. At this point, I just want to find my role.”
All three young players are about to see more playing time than they’ve had previously in their careers, which means good things for them personally and probably some growing pains for the Blazers as a team. Still, with commitment toward relative youth and building a team around Lillard, these are all players with enough promise to give Portland fans a bit of optimism.
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