Portland Trail Blazers Review – This Team And Everyone Involved Deserves Our Praise

They might not have the star power other teams do. They might not have the salary cap space other teams do. You might be regularly angry with their GM but have a tough time committing to it, because that same dude also brought in some of your favorite players. 

You take turns yelling, screaming, and laughing at the tv in front of you.

You laugh, you cry, you yell some more. “The refs are winning this game” is one of your favorite things to say on game night. And you’re not wrong. The refs win every game. They’ve never lost, not ever. And that’s the definition of winning. And as fun as it is to blame the only people on the court who are not actively involved in the competition at hand, they are not to blame. They make mistakes, sure, but they also get a lot of things right.

And here is where I will lose so, so so many of you.

So does Neil Olshey. 

He does get a lot of things right. It’s easy to point the finger at him when things aren’t working, but we tend to release that frustration when things are going well. And let’s be completely fair here – things go well in Portland most of the time. I get why most people don’t like him, he spins things like a politician and doesn’t seem to land the players he claims he has the ability to get. But he has his moments also. Something we all need to remember – including Olshey – for a lot of players, especially the big names, Portland is just one destination, not the destination. We like it here, but I – that is to say we – understand why others might not see it as the place to be. Let’s take a look back on Olshey’s history that really started on draft night in 2012. 

Portland held the #6 and #11 picks. Olshey took a big swing with drafting both Damian Lillard of Weber State at #6 and center Meyers Leonard of Illinois at #11. Olshey passed on more “household” names at both spots, ignoring UNC stars Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller. The gamble on Lillard has paid off tremendously well; the gamble on Leonard did not, although there were some good times among all the struggles. Olshey also picked up Will Barton, who would be a key shooter off the bench in Lillard’s first few years. 

Portland missed the playoffs in 2012-13, but it did not come without its rewards. In the 2013 NBA Draft, Olshey used the #10 selection on CJ McCollum of Lehigh, who would help Lillard form one of the top backcourts in the league in the coming years. Portland made the playoffs in 2013, had an amazing series win over Houston, only to be sent packing by the Spurs. 

Portland traded away their pick in the 2014 draft, and at the 2015 trade deadline, Olshey sent Barton, Victor Claver, and Thomas Robinson to the Nuggets for Arron Afflalo, Alonzo Gee, and a 2016 1st-round pick. Despite the roster shuffling, the team still made the playoffs, although this would be the end of the Aldridge era in Portland. In the 2015 Draft, Portland traded away their rights to the #23 selection along with Steve Blake to the Nets, which brought them center Mason Plumlee and 2nd rounder Pat Connaughton to team with Lillard and McCollum. 

In the summer of 2015, Olshey helped dismantle the roster that many of you fell in love with. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez. This team never got the “chance” to prove what they could do. Well, they may have been ready to go their separate ways even if another GM held the position. 

Lillard was a third-year player, on the verge of superstardom. Matthews was on an expiring contract and had recently ruptured his achilles tendon, Batum was a great all-around player, but injury prone and in the third year of a four-year mega contract Portland had to offer him or he was going to Minnesota for nothing. Aldridge was on an expiring contract and wanted to play for a contender with an elite center, and that told us what we already knew about Lopez (also on an expiring deal)  – that he was a player who gave great effort, but struggled against elite players at his position. He wasn’t the right guy for Aldrige or Lillard.   

So Olshey made, or in a very real sense, allowed wholesale changes. He let Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez walk in free agency. He traded Batum to Charlotte (we won’t even talk about what he got in return, not important), and added some quality rotation players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Moe Harkless – each of whom would become fan favorites for their effort on defense. 

With emerging talent McCollum now starting at shooting guard, the team surprisingly went 44-38 in their first season as the new look Trail Blazers, their season-ending in the second round of the playoffs. 

That summer, Olshey made bold remarks in the media that Portland was pursuing Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons, neither of whom signed with Portland. Instead, Olshey matched a ridiculous offer for Allen Crabbe, and signed free agent Evan Turner to his own mega deal. The salary cap in the proceeding years was expected to expand greatly, but this still felt bizarre. Before the season started and with no offers on the table the public was made aware of, Olshey gave Harkless and Meyers Leonard mega deals to stay, even though they were still under contract for the next season. 

Portland took a step back, putting together a losing record through December. But they regained their footing from a trade Olshey orchestrated with Denver that brought Jusuf Nurkic to the Trail Blazers, giving them the big man they sorely needed. Portland went on a terror after the All-Star break and ended with a .500 record, getting swept out of the playoffs by the Warriors. 

That summer, Olshey added Zach Collins in the draft, and the Blazers again posted a winning record at 49-33, but were swept out of the playoffs by the Pelicans.

Following consecutive first-round sweeps, Olshey made it clear and public that he wanted to add players with playoff experience to help the young going on veteran roster. With most of the premium talent being collected by elite teams, Olshey signed guard Seth Curry (younger brother of the Warriors Steph Curry) and Nik Stauskas.  I’ll just save you the research and tell you – neither player had deep playoff experience at the time. In fact, neither had any playoff experience. Both ended up being very valuable to Portland, however. 

Before the trade deadline, Olshey sent Stauskas to Cleveland in exchange for forward Rodney Hood, and he also signed center Enes Kanter, who had been released by the Knicks. Both players would prove to be essential to the Trail Blazers (as did Curry), as they helped the team reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the 1999-2000 season and posted a record of 53-29. They were again swept out of the playoffs, but this time it was in a round they had not reached in nearly two decades. 

Entering the 2020 season, with a limited amount of salary cap to spend, Olshey sent Leonard to the Heat and Harkless to the Clippers in a multi team trade that brought center Hassan Whiteside to Portland. Kanter, who was on an expiring deal, opted to sign with Boston after being given a very brief deadline to accept an offer to stay in Portland. Hood was signed to a new two year deal, Curry left Portland to sign with Dallas, and Olsey signed forward Mario Hezonja. Olshey also dealt Turner to Atlanta for Kent Bazemore.  

Early on in the 2020 season, the Blazers began to pile up injuries, as Collins (shoulder), Hood (Achilles), and Nurkic (injured late in the 2019 season) were all on the shelf. Olshey signed Carmelo Anthony in November, and with Portland limping to a losing record, he traded Bazemore and Anthony Tolliever to the Kings in exchange for Trevor Ariza, Wenyan Gabriel, and Caleb Swanigan. 

The NBA season was suspended indefinitely in March, with the Blazers standing at 29-37 and in 9th place in the West. 

The season resumed in July, and the Blazers (now healthy for the most part, other than Hood), went 6-2 in the new NBA bubble in Orlando, earning the 8th seed in the West. In the first play-in game in modern NBA history, the Blazers beat the Grizzlies and advanced to the first round series with the Lakers.

Portland won a back-and-forth game one and appeared to be the “dark horse” in the playoffs. Of course, it all went downhill after that. Portland lost a lopsided game two by 23 points, then lost a much closer game three. In game four, Portland put up a hard-fought battle but still lost, and lost Damian Lillard to a knee sprain. In game five without Lillard in the lineup, Carmelo Anthony led the way, but Portland still lost and was eliminated in five games. They may have lost, but they found something – they didn’t get swept- a first for Portland since the 2015-16 season.

Sure, Olshey deserves some frustration from fans for not being able to put together a team that can compete in the conference finals  and NBA Finals, but let’s be fair – he’s not completely to blame. This team has a lot of talent, and a lot of star power, and something to remember is that only four teams make it to the conference finals each year, and only two advance to the NBA Finals. For us to expect Portland to be among the top 4 teams in the league – perhaps that’s a bit unrealistic. For them to be a winning team and to be fun to watch each game? That’s something they are doing for us right now. It would be fun to see them win a championship, but lots of teams don’t win championships. And a lot of teams are not as fun to watch as Portland is. That’s a championship in a way, isn’t it?

This isn’t LA. This isn’t just somewhere, but it’s not LA. 

Olshey needs to remember that, but so do the rest of us. We have had some great moments with this team, and while that hasn’t included championships, we should still celebrate what we have. 

For a team that has overachieved nearly every year Lillard has been on the roster (his rookie year being the lone outlier) they deserve our praise.

And you know what? So do Terry Stotts and Neil Olshey. We can hardly praise the guys on the court for what they accomplish without also recognizing the coach and the guy organizing the roster. 

This may not be the best team in the league, but like many of you, they are my favorite. They may not always win, but they do win a lot, and they are fun to watch. 

Thanks to the Portland Trail Blazers for a memorable albeit extremely strange season, and we look forward to seeing what you accomplish next season, whenever and wherever that may be.

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About Casey Mabbott 231 Articles
Casey Mabbott is a writer and podcast host born and raised in West Philadelphia where he spent most of his days on the basketball court perfecting his million dollar jumpshot. Wait, no, that’s all wrong. Casey has spent his entire life here in the Pacific NorthWest other than his one year stint as mayor of Hill Valley in an alternate reality 1985. He’s never been to Philadelphia, and his closest friends will tell you that his jumpshot is the farthest thing from being worth a million bucks. Casey enjoys all sports and covering them with written words or spoken rants. He has made an art of movie references, and is a devout follower of 80's movies and music. I don't know why you would to, but you can probably find him on the street corner waiting for the trolley to take him to the stadium or his favorite pub, where he will be telling people the answers to questions they don’t remember asking. And it only goes downhill from there if he drinks. He’s a real treat.