The Blazers are 6-9 over their last fifteen games, and it seems like there’s been a general pessimism around the team recently. I’m doing my best to resist pushing the panic button on a team that’s already two wins shy of their over/under on the season. These losses have been close, and there’s nothing to suggest this isn’t just the team regressing after an unsustainably hot start.
That said, it’s clear that the good vibes from the first half are gone, and now is as good a time as any to scrutinize the Blazers and figure out what we really have here. Specifically, I want to talk about Neil Olshey.
Olshey’s been hailed as the Joe Torre to Paul Allen’s George Steinbrenner, the first Blazers GM since Pritchard to last more than a season and the initiator of the team’s renaissance. But let’s look at his major moves and see how they hold up to his reputation*.
1. Drafted Damian Lillard. This one’s not difficult. Maybe, maybe you could convince me that Drummond would have been a better pick, but this is unambiguously a great pick. It was also not an easy one—someone worried about his job more than success might have taken Ross, Barnes, Drummond, or some other prospect from a big school.
2. Drafted Meyers Leonard and Will Barton. Neither of these picks have worked out well, but it’s hard to see exactly how they might have been improved. Mike Scott (the Regional Manager!) was picked 43rd, and he would probably represent an upgrade over the slop Portland’s trotted out at the backup four the last two years (this is poorly timed given Robinson’s incredible game last night. Keep it up, T-Rob). Second-round picks are crapshoots, though, and Barton hasn’t been terrible, all things considered. Leonard is a different story. Olshey could have taken Kendall Marshall. A bust until recently, he’s been a boon for the miserable Lakers. The miserable Lakers. The miserable Lakers. Sorry, what were we talking about? Right. Marshall would probably be an upgrade over Williams, but it would have looked like a terrible choice for quite a while. Jared Sullinger, John Henson, and especially Terrence Jones would all be solid backup power forwards as well. On the face of it, this looks like a bad pick. But Olshey was understandably looking for his starting center of the future, a role filled at the time by JJ Hickson. Hardly any centers were taken after Leonard, and Olshey can hardly be blamed for missing on Miles Plumlee, can he?
3. Signed Nicolas Batum. Batum’s taken flak lately after his annual maybe-lingering-injury-related slump. He’s certainly not scoring like he should be, but I’d say this move has worked out. Going by on/off numbers, he is the second most important Blazer on the offensive end, behind Aldridge and just ahead of Lillard. This no doubt has a lot to do with the lack of backup small forward help, but that’s the point. He might not fetch quite this much on the open market anymore, but the Blazers are getting a solid return on their investment.
4. Signed Roy Hibbert to an offer sheet, which the Pacers matched. I won’t go too far into this one because it’s a move that didn’t happen. There was a recent Bill Simmons/Zach Lowe column at the trade deadline where Simmons mentioned that the best way for a new GM to guarantee job security is by bottoming out. I can’t speak to exactly how true that is, but Zach Lowe agreed, and I usually defer to him. In that case, we should applaud Olshey for deciding to swing for the fences the moment he took the job. Also: can you imagine this Blazers team plus Hibbert? Portland and Indiana run similar schemes, but we have Lopez cleaning up the interior, so it doesn’t work as well. Had that pairing worked out, the Blazers would be like the Monstars crossed with the ‘86 Celtics .
5. Traded Jeff Withey, cash, and two second-rounders for Robin Lopez. This looks to be an absolute coup. Withey might yet become the shot-blocking badass he was in college, but it’s unlikely. Lopez’s defensive impact as an upgrade over Hickson has probably been overstated, but he’s been phenomenal on offense as a low-usage finisher and rebounder. He might not be a center for a championship team, but it’s clear at this point that he was absolutely worth it.
6. Traded two Eurostashes and two second rounders to the Rockets for Thomas Robinson. It’s Houston, so you never know. They use second-rounders like no one else, and it’s possible they see something in Kostas Papanikolau and Marko Todorovic that Portland didn’t. We should also stop acting like Robinson’s special due to his draft position. At this point, he’s an NBA player and should be evaluated as such. Caveats aside though, this trade looked like a steal at the time.
Although it’s hard to say that Olshey definitively missed on any of his major moves, his image as the orchestrator of the best Portland team in years is probably overblown. Lillard aside, he’s never made what might be called a needle-moving move. His two signature trades in Portland–Robinson and Lopez–were both value trades, meaning that the returns were great for the price, but not necessarily in isolation. Hibbert would have been that move, but it didn’t happen. In his tenure as GM he’s proved pretty conclusively that he’s clever, but the jury’s still out on whether his cleverness will lead the team anywhere.
*I’ve left out the Claver/Freeland signings and CJ McCollum for space. Real quickly: These are tricky because Olshey didn’t draft either Euro and they’re both early in their Portland careers. That last bit is doubly true for CJ, plus the 2013 draft was so bad that the opportunity cost on that pick was practically zero.