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General Manager Neil Olshey & Marginal Improvement


It’s weird not having to care about the NBA draft. Usually at this point in the year I’m busy regretting how little attention I pay to college ball and wondering if Andre Drummond might drop all the way to six. But this year, if you haven’t heard, the Blazers have exactly zero picks. They might trade for or buy a pick at some point, but certainly not a first-rounder. The Blazers will be bystanders at an event that will change the face of the NBA; the best draft since at least 2003.

They’ll also be bystanders at another league-defining moment, the Kevin Love sweepstakes. The Blazers have LaMarcus Aldridge at the 4 and seem to be rolling with him. They’ll give Love a once-over, as any responsible franchise would, but even an offer is very unlikely.

The fact is that the Blazers won’t have their fingerprints on much this offseason. Nothing major, certainly. They have basically no cap room for a marquee or even mid-level free agent. As a result, the Blazers seem to be headed for a summer of marginal improvement (read: a boring summer).

Luckily, the Blazers are already good. The Knicks are in a position to only make marginal improvements, and they’re coming off a 37-win season. So life as a capped-out, pick-less team varies wildly. Moreover, marginal improvements are a perfectly fine thing. Take a look at Pat Riley’s executive record. The biggest move he’s made since the summer of 2010 is… what? Signing Battier? Signing Birdman? Trading for Norris Cole?

The Blazers fall somewhere between the two. The Knicks are past the point of seismic roster changes, which is a disaster. The Heat have been at that point for a good 4 years, and they’ve wrung three-plus Finals appearances and two-plus championships out of it.

The Blazers have passed their summer 2010. It didn’t go as well as the Heat’s. On the other hand, they didn’t end up with Amare Stoudemire either. It remains to be seen if the general structure of the roster is enough for consistent contention, like the Heat’s, but the Knicks started Raymond Felton this year. Uncertainty is better than nothing.

And fortunately, marginal improvement seems to be Neil Olshey’s forte. His record as a GM contains one huge move (the Chris Paul trade) and a bunch of little stuff. (It also contains Mo Williams for the pick that became Kyrie Irving, but ignore that for now.) He turned Brian Cook and a second-rounder into Nick Young, he signed Reggie Evans, and so on.

His moves as Portland GM, drafting Lillard aside, suggest a flair for clever deals at the margin. He’s great at worming his way into three-team deals. He’s a genius at capitalizing on other teams’ cheapness. The Eric Maynor deal is telling—the Thunder didn’t want to pay him and preferred a Euro-stashed draft pick. The Blazers got a passable backup point guard out of it and as a result dramatically improved the offense.

The Robin Lopez deal straddles the line between marginal improvement and dramatic change. But it was the same sort of thing. The Kings wanted Greivis Vasquez, the Pelicans wanted Tyreke Evans, and the exact logistics weren’t working out. In came Olshey, sticking his nose into a totally unrelated deal. The result was the biggest part of a 21-win improvement.

The arms race at the top of the Western Conference is overseen by some very smart people. RC Buford, GM of the Spurs, is obviously a basketball genius. Sam Presti has overseen a remarkable turnaround over the last several years, and keeps adding Steven Adamses and Reggie Jacksons. The Clippers are a mess right now, but Doc Rivers has a vision and knows what he’s doing. The Rockets’ Daryl Morey, whatever the issues with the team he’s put together, is one of the very best there is.

That’s the spot Olshey finds himself in. He and his competition are all in a struggle for the extra 1% edge. So don’t be surprised or disappointed when Olshey flips Joel Freeland and a second-round-pick for Devin Harris, or butts into a three-team deal to get Iman Shumpert for CJ McCollum and a protected first-rounder. It’s all he can do at the moment, and we can only hope it’s all we need.

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