As the Western Conference re-loaded and re-tooled its rosters for the upcoming 2017-’18 season to combat the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors, the Portland Trail Blazers could only watch. I’m sure it looked something like this.
It’s not like the Blazers didn’t want to make any moves or that they didn’t try. It’s just that they couldn’t. General manager Neil Olshey made sure of that in 2016 when he went all in on Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, and Meyers Leonard, signings that put Blazers so far over the salary cap that not even winning the minimum Powerball amount would absolve.
The landscape of the West altered dramatically when Chris Paul left to join James Harden and the Houston Rockets. And, when Paul George went to the Oklahoma City Thunder to be Robin to Russell Westbrook’s Will Arnett version of Batman. The Denver Nuggets got Paul Millsap. Even the Minnesota Timberwolves got significantly better with the acquisition of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague. Side note: I do not want to play the Timberwolves next season.
The Northwest division made leaps and bounds over the Blazers these past few weeks. If not for the Utah Jazz losing Gordon Hayward this week, the Blazers would have been the only team to not make any significant improvements heading into next season, though I’m not sure the Jazz still isn’t a better team than the Blazers because they play something called defense.
In Portland’s pursuit to not lose any key role-players last summer, it made sure it wouldn’t be able to sign any game changers this season. Now, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will basically have the same supporting cast as last season, besides the welcome addition of Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers are stuck in NBA purgatory, a realm the organization has visited many times before.
From 1993 to 1998, after the Blazers lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals, the Blazers fizzled out in the first round six years in a row. In the dark times of 2001 to 2013, the Blazers either lost in the first round or didn’t make the playoffs. Olshey has put the Blazers in great position to repeat this mundane history.
Olshey put in all his chips on a mediocre hand and lost. The Blazers have the third highest payroll in the league and are not even close to contending for a championship. Portland might not even break .500 as far as Vegas is concerned.
Even If Nurkic continues to act the role of the Bosnian Beast and even if Zach Collins, a draft pick I really like, shocks the NBA and competes for Rookie of the Year, the Blazers are no better than the very bottom of the playoff standings. This is the worst spot an organization can be in; You can’t get any better, but you won’t get any worse.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for a new leader, because our current guide just had its eyes poked out by an errant Leonard elbow. We need a general manager with a clear path on how to build a contending team in this let’s-all-be-friends-and-play-on-the-same-team environment that the NBA finds itself in. We need someone to make the hard choices, hard choices like not signing players who score 10 points a game to $70 million dollar contracts.
Olshey came to the Blazers in 2012 on a high note, coming directly from the LA Clippers. He brought in Paul, considered then to be the best point guard in the league, to a then-flailing Clippers team and helped turn them into perennial winners. He apparently couldn’t equal that magic here in Portland.
His best get in Portland might very well be Nurkic, a trade that at the time didn’t garner much fanfare. But, Nurkic was a different player here in Portland than he was with the Nuggets. He re-energizing the Moda Center crowd and the organization as a whole.
Nurkic was the inside presence the Blazers had coveted for years and played beautifully alongside Lillard. His solid frame complimented with a deft touch around the rim is something we haven’t seen since the days of Arvydas Sabonis.
But, Nurkic will not be enough. What is Nurkic to do against the Warriors where big men like him become almost irrelevant? Or even the Houston Rockets, whom I’m sure Harden and Paul will be flopping like fish on land as soon as they make eye contact with Nurkic in the paint. Start practicing those threes, Nurkic!
We need a general manager who sees the NBA for what it is now and what it will be in five to ten years. Is there a way to combat these new super teams that seem to be popping up in the West? Does Portland have a plan other than to simply wait it out with a 40-win team every year?
If last year was any indication, Olshey’s plans fell apart and he pushed the panic button. Now, that panic button has become a prolonged pause button on Portland’s development into a top-tier team.
Teams above and beside the Blazers have gotten better. Teams below them are improving steadily, primed to lap the Blazers in a year or two. Soon, even the Lakers will be a threat in the West again. But, who can lead the Blazers out of the doldrums of mediocrity?
Somehow, I don’t think it’s the guy who got us here.