TUALATIN, OR – The offseason was building to this point. Draft night was expected to be a big night for the Portland Trail Blazers, and it was. But not in the way their star players had envisioned for months through many forms of media. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has been unpopular with his team before, even his stars, as recently as a few months ago.
After the Mason Plumlee trade, Damian Lillard wasn’t the happiest of campers, at least by his normal “everything is cool,” standards. Plumlee became one of the players that Lillard truly trusted, stemming most vividly from night Plumlee got into it with Jimmy Butler early in their first season together. And from the fact he could get Dame the ball late in games. He said they would miss his pal, but they haven’t.
The re-birth of Jusuf Nurkic happened and as Olshey said on draft night, “accelerated this whole thing.”
A season of mediocrity, where a hungry fighter transformed into an overpaid ogre, was saved. Nurkic, it should be noted, is still on the mend after a fractured leg, which he played through before getting checked out. And after.
But there would be no other clear moment of hyper-drive on draft night. The night belonged to another team in Portland’s division. Minnesota stole Butler, who will become a rival of a different variety for at least a few more years. The arrival of another star to their division wasn’t exactly music to the ears of the faithful employees in Tualatin.
But at least when you hear them tell it, Portland got their man too. It wasn’t Paul George, a player their star player CJ McCollum had championed for months. Nor was it any type of veteran player to help their stars who are, by the way, entering their prime.
And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. We should have better memories. Neil Olshey told us he is a draft guy, after all. Armed with three picks in the draft and only the taxpayer midlevel exception to improve the team, on-lookers viewed Portland’s assets and thought they would be ready to make a big move, or at least address their exorbitant cap number. But nothing was done about cap space. Nothing about cap space was even truly addressed. Processes were trusted, at least that’s what we’re told.
Portland made their move trading picks No. 20 and No. 15 to the Sacramento Kings for the No. 10, with which they selected Zach Collins out of Gonzaga. They kept the No. 26 and took another in Caleb Swanigan out of Purdue, who is already one of the most remarkable stories in the NBA.
Mock drafts at Draft Express and NBADraft.net had Collins at 10 and 11 respectively. “There was no way we were getting him at 15,” Olshey said on draft night. Portland had evidently targeted Collins as their guy, but the move was met with a lukewarm reception immediately.
Being that the club and its fans have had a complicated relationship with stretch big man Meyers Leonard, the last big man the Blazers took in the lottery, the selection of another athletic white center with range wasn’t exactly a digestif to pair with the fact Portland traded two picks in a draft loaded with skilled big men. A large number of big men, which the Blazers almost all worked out, save for Collins who was too hot to get in for a workout.
Most serious draft evaluators called this a 10-12 player draft, with Collins often appearing in that group. Before Olshey explained the move and where the league valued him, Collins got on the phone, giving reporters a dash of confidence not seen in many of Portland’s new acquisitions as of recent. The only ones that come to mind with ambitions high as the ones Collins touted on draft night are pillars of the franchise: Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic.
“I don’t see why I can’t be Rookie of the Year,” Collins told reporters on a conference call after explaining. “When I retire I’ll probably live out there, hopefully,” he said of Vegas while sporting the city’s welcome sign on the inside of his draft night blazer. Olshey would later call him a franchise building block.
Swanigan is more than just a good story. He had four 20-20 games last season and made dramatic progress after having something of a reality check at the combine in 2016. His 7-3 wingspan, touch around and away from the basket as well as his basketball instincts and could be a nice fit off Portland’s bench. He transformed his body and his game into an All-American and first round pick. And his story and turnaround with his body and game in such a short time is an indication that at just 20 years old, he isn’t to be underestimated.
Both of them, Olshey said, bring toughness.
“I don’t know if it was missing I just know it’s a great value add,” Olshey explained. “Sometimes you get caught into something specific like, we need a defender, so we get a defender. And you overlook other things. You need to get tougher, more athletic. I think the toughness is a mindset. Not hockey thugs. Guys that are mentally tough. You look at a guy like Caleb, what he’s been through he’s transformed himself physically, mentally, what he’s done with his game, that’s toughness. A guy like Zach Collins, who we know is a chippy player, doesn’t back down."
Olshey also mentioned quick fixes and the problems those things create. It appears that in this region of a new Warriors World, patience and confidence will have to do in the absence of risks. At least for now. Armed with nothing but the taxpayer midlevel exception, Portland is unlikely to get a difference-maker in free agency.
Lillard and McCollum eventually made their introductions with their new teammates. And while both had opined through several forms of media that they wanted some more established help prior, Olshey closed the night by explaining that it had been this way before.
“We sat in this room a long time ago about making a trade at the deadline and I was an unpopular guy at Court 1 over there telling them about the move we made that ended with us peaking at the right time,” he said.
A few days later, Olshey reassured fans as he often does that he is “never content” with the roster. Whether history will repeat itself, as it did with the Nurkic trade, remains to be seen.
Who they will target depends on who they can afford and it appears that either bringing in a veteran looking for another job or a reclamation project on the wings feels most appropriate.
And it would appear that Portland’s two picks in the frontcourt indicate a new direction as well as a little insurance, with Ed Davis (unrestricted) and Noah Vonleh (restricted) entering contract seasons. The Blazers are still waiting to see something from Meyers Leonard, with him under contract for three more years, following what was his most disappointing season as a pro. Also, Nurkic is also entering a contract year and his injury last season laid bare how bereft of quality they are without he or Plumlee in the middle.
The team brass is promising that they will stay vigilant, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the fireworks are over. Summer League will be a chance to for Portland’s non-guaranteed contracts to fight for a spot and for Portland to see their new big men. And as it stands, their big money players on the wings who have become shorthand for the NBA’s cap spike will have a chance to be known as something other than an industry joke around the league.
It’s hard not to get lost in dreams of what could have happened. That’s the draft.
Now Portland waits for the next acceleration.