Olshey: Development of young talent won't come at expense of winning
Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey sat down with our own Dwight Jaynes last week for an exclusive interview on Rip City Live, CSN’s pregame show.
Olshey touched on the team’s expectations, offseason signings, personnel development, Portland being a desirable destination and the possibility of sneaking in the upcoming NBA Draft, being that they have no pick at the moment.
It’s rare insight into what goes on in the mind of a successful NBA general manager. Without further ado, Jaynes’ interview transcribed for your reading pleasure. Note: Questions are paraphrased.
What were realistic expectations for this team?
“If we’re going to put a concrete number on it, we felt like a 10 game improvement over last season would be a huge jump. It’s just not done that often in the NBA without a gargantuan move in terms of your personnel. Whether it’s getting lucky with a Top 5 pick or a big free agent or a monster trade. And it’s a testament to these guys and to Terry [Stotts] for what they were able to accomplish. A 10-game jump would have been really impressive and now we’re headed towards what might be a 20-game jump, and I don’t think anybody foresaw that.”
How were you able to acquire Robin Lopez for virtually nothing?
“It’s the old, how do you become a millionaire? First start with a million dollars. So, I think what we had to do was be really optimistic. We had a very specific need and that solidified what we were looking at. We knew the type of player we wanted to bring in and we found two teams that basically had different goals where we could facilitate a transaction between them and we were able to participate in that. A lot of it, Arn Tellem was great to us because Robin really liked the Portland market. Arn liked the situation basketball wise. He also represents LaMarcus Aldridge so everybody involved wanted to make the deal work. And everybody’s goals were met. New Orleans ended up with Tyreke Evans, Sacramento ended up with assets and we ended up with the missing piece for us, which was a defensive-minded center.”
Did you think Robin Lopez would be this good?
“I hoped. I think everyone forgets there was a time, not long ago, when Robin was drafted, where there was a question mark about who got the better player in that draft. Brook [Lopez] has gone on to an incredible career and he’s an All-Star. But I think Robin, because of a couple of injuries, because of depth on the teams he was on, just hadn’t been given an opportunity that we were able to give him which was being a Day 1 starter, not looking over your shoulder and playing next to the best power forward in the game.”
How did signing Mo Williams come about?
“I think guards win games. We all just watched the NCAA Tournament and you look at guard-oriented teams. This is clearly different, our league but guards are just so critical with our game, the new rules, the floor being more open. I had a great comfort level with Mo. I traded for him with L.A., when I was with the Clippers. I had worked him out for the draft before I got into the NBA. Terry [Stotts] had coached him. So much of what we do is predicated on the ability to trust the pass and make shots. And that’s what Mo brings. One of the other goals was we wanted to have somebody that could play on or off the ball. It was so important for us when we looked at what Eric Maynor brought to the table back in March of last year, how efficient our offense was. Knowing how good we can be when Damian gets to get off the ball, not have primary playmaking responsibilities every possession. And Mo does that. He’s leading the league in assists off the bench. I think if you look at it, how efficient Damian is when he gets off the ball and you have two primary ball handlers, our offensive efficiency just goes up.”
How do you explain the improvement from some key guys?
“That’s the coaches. That’s these guys. We’ve got a great staff. Terry has a policy; he meets early with his staff so that before the first players walk in the gym, the coaches are all available. We’ve got guys that are workers too, which helps. Everybody on that roster is a worker. They want to be great players. Wes [Matthews] added a post game, Nicolas [Batum] is rebounding and his playmaking went up, LaMarcus’ rebounding is off the charts. He has expanded his range. He’s got more to go to in the low post. He can play either block and Damian [Lillard] has tracked up, as well. So I agree with you, I think sometimes when people think development, they’re only thinking young guys. And we have guys who were fringe All-Stars that if they just made a 10 or 20 percent increase, it was going to result in a big movement in our win total.”
How do you balance developing young guys while also trying to win as many games as possible?
“That’s what happens, they (young guys) become victims of our success to a certain degree. But we had talked about this. It was important to accelerate this. We wanted to win now. And we’re still committed to developing our young players. It just won’t be at the expense of winning. And I think a lot of the development that’s going on with some of the younger guys on our roster is going on outside the public eye. These guys are getting better. They’re improving. You really saw it with a guy like Joel Freeland who didn’t get much playing time last year and was a integral part of our first 60 games. We see young guys like Thomas Robinson who has made a jump lately. They’ll get more opportunities as their careers goes on, but winning organization rarely have the luxury of playing young guys a lot of minutes. There’s a direct correlation between youth and success in this league. One of things I think is an interesting example is with our young guys, we’re also not asking them to get into games that are playing on teams that are winning 25 or 30 games. When they get in games now, they’re in games where there’s a lot at stake and that changes just how many mistakes you can let them play through. I remember I used this example with CJ McCollum, it’s been hard, it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster. He had a great run back in February. Double-digit game after double-digit game and then his minutes went away. And I said, ‘CJ, look you didn’t get drafted by the 10th pick team anymore. We were a lottery team when we drafted you and now we’re a pick down in the mid 20s. So, you have to look at your contemporaries that were drafted in the 20s, what kind of opportunities are they getting?’ Because teams that are traditionally in the upper part of the lottery aren’t playing their [young] guys because they are trying to win.”
What do you think about LaMarucs Aldridge and Damian Lillard saying they’ll actively recruit players to come to Portland?
“Well, I think it’s a window into what type of people LaMarcus and Damian are. And I think probably even more important than whether or not they can deliver on that promise, is the fact that they are willing to try. And it’s an endorsement of our culture, it’s an endorsement of the things we’re trying to do here. It’s a belief in our mission. I do think that one of the things we tried to do when we got here was a lot of teams face different challenges in their markets in the league. Not every market is based in one of the Top 2 cities in the league on a beach; nightlife and you can’t answer all the questions. But one of things you can answer and can control is the basketball environment. The renovation of the practice facility, things going on at the Moda Center, an incredible fan base, an owner who couldn’t be more committed and passionate about winning, who has a track record of winning and just won a Super Bowl. So I think the belief there is that you want players, not only to be able to retain your own players, which I think is critical with the new collective bargaining agreement, but when you go out to recruit, the ability to say transparently, this is the best basketball environment you can be in for your career.”
With no pick, how does draft preparation unfold?
“Anyone who has met Paul Allen knows there is no area of our business he’s more concerned with and more invested than the draft and young talent. We’ve talked about this before, when you don’t have a lot of assets when you take over, that you inherit, you have to generate assets and you have to be opportunistic. And the draft is a time for opportunism and you just never know what kind of deal will include a pick. You don’t know when you can convey a pick or a future first because there is an opportunity. Last year, we conveyed two future seconds to grab Allen Crabbe because we thought he was that good and he was a great fit for what we were trying to accomplish. All you have to do is go over the track record of the league at draft time and how many times deals involved players for picks, people acquire picks within a deal. I moved picks when I was with the Clippers for future picks in order to get involved in the current draft because it can help the roster. You got to be prepared for that. It’s no different, we talked about this at the trade deadline, and we didn’t make a move. It didn’t mean we weren’t working around the clock to generate opportunities. We just chose to forgo those opportunities because we thought the group, as a whole, was better served chemistry-wise and growth, with what we had brought up to that deadline. And I think the draft is the same thing. We’ll be in here; the season will end whenever it ends, hopefully later rather than sooner. We’ll take a day to do exit interviews and coaching interviews. We’ll be back in and we’ll be at Chicago Pre Draft, we’ll be at group workouts in Los Angeles, we’ll be bringing guys in here to work out. We’ll be watching film and getting our board ready because again, if you don’t do the preparation, most battles are won before they’re fought, you can’t get that phone call and know what you’re doing if you weren't prepared.”
Will Paul Allen stay out of this year’s draft?
“I would think that at some point there’s going to be an announcement from the Portland Trail Blazers [that we] select somebody, somehow.”