After the lockout robbed NBA loyalists of a true offseason last summer, Blazers fans were given all the drama they could handle this June and July. As the season fizzled in Portland (feel free to replace ‘fizzled’ with ‘imploded,’ ‘sputtered,’ or ‘blew up like two 18-wheelers full of dynamite crashing head-on at 80 miles an hour’), the immediate future in the Rose City was looking far from rosy. With no general manager directing the vision of the franchise, Nicolas Batum facing restricted free agency after a contentious and public midseason battle for an extension, and the history of continuously striking out on big name free agent signings, Blazers fans had a justified pit in their collective stomachs.
For the first time since the ‘07-’08 season, the Blazers would be watching the playoffs from their expensive imported couches in the comfort of their beautiful homes. The players that knew they were coming back next season said everything they should say about how badly it hurt to miss the playoffs and how hard they will work to get back to postseason play next spring. While it is comforting to hear that Wesley Matthews doesn’t take offseason vacations so he can focus on improving his game, that type of proclamation did little to excite Blazers fans about the team’s immediate future. Blazers fans yearned for an exciting offseason and for a renewal of hope.
Besides the gaping holes at point guard and center, the Blazers had a colossal gap in the front office. The first big news of the offseason came on June 4th when the Blazers announced they hired Neil Olshey away from the Los Angeles Clippers to serve as the team’s general manager. Seen as a smooth-talking salesman, Olshey left a seemingly dreamy situation in Los Angeles for a rocky one in Portland (although he traded one headline-grabbing owner for another). After his first press conference as the Blazers GM, it was apparent that the polished Olshey knew what to say and how to say it. His enthusiasm and charisma immediately drummed up some much needed excitement for the franchise and an outline of a plan was beginning to take shape.
Before Olshey even had a chance to sample a delicious Portland microbrew, he was dropped off at the practice facility to begin evaluating draft prospects. With two lottery picks and an early second rounder in the 2012 draft, Olshey was faced with his first major test in less than a month on the job. Knowing how badly the Blazers needed a starting point guard, the city of Portland paid extra attention to a special solo workout on June 15th when Damian Lillard from Weber State University left the Blazers brass with their jaws on the hardwood floor. With unnamed Blazers sources saying “It’s the best workout we’ve had since Kevin Durant,” Blazers fans and NBA writers began
pencilling Sharpieing Lillard’s name as the number six pick in the upcoming draft, giving Portland the point guard they so desperately needed. When his name was called on draft day, another previously foggy part of the Blazers plan became a little more clear.
On June 30th, while Blazers fans were busy watching YouTube videos of Lillard lighting up the Big Sky Conference, Olshey was on a plane to the east coast to meet with Indiana Pacers center (and restricted free agent) Roy Hibbert. As soon as the clock struck midnight, news started to leak that the Blazers and Hibbert had agreed to a maximum contract. The immediate reaction among Blazers fans was bridled excitement. Yes, it would be great to land a young All-Star center, but nobody truly expected the Pacers to let the giant Hibbert leave Indiana. So when the Pacers announced they would match the offer, Blazers fans went back to their Lillard highlight videos and anxiously awaited Summer League. However, even without landing the big prize, Blazers fans slept soundly that night knowing their new general manager was willing to think big in order to turn the franchise around.
Meanwhile, while the Hibbert situation was playing out and the Pacers were coming to grips with the new hefty price tag on their franchise center, the Blazers were facing a similar situation. Those pesky Minnesota Timberwolves had $50 million burning a hole in their pocket and decided they needed a shiny new small forward to join their squad. Olshey announced early and often that the Blazers would match any offer given to Nicolas Batum, and despite a comedy of errors effort from David Kahn, Olshey kept his word. Before the league mandated moratorium on signing free agents could end, Batum’s agent went to the media to explain just how very badly his client wanted to play for Rick Adelman in Minnesota. “But his heart is in Minnesota!” he said. “His talents were wasted in Portland because they just stuck him in the corner to shoot threes!” he said. “If you truly care about him, let him go!” he said (okay, he never said that one). Olshey remained unflappable and the Blazers retained their guy, although the price tag was steep and Batum had a bit of smoothing over to do with the Blazers fans. Batum celebrated his gigantic contract the same way we all would: he delivered the most accurate testicle punch in the history of Olympic basketball.
In the midst of the Batum drama, Lillard was making news for a completely different reason in Las Vegas. Lillard dominated Summer League play. He played with incredible poise and tempo and put to rest any doubt that his small conference college stats would translate poorly to the NBA. He dazzled the gym with posterizing dunks. He had scouts smiling with his decision making ability in the pick-and-roll. He nailed clutch shots and led his squad like a true floor general. If there were still any doubters that he was worth a number six pick, they were seriously reconsidering their stance after he left Vegas in his wake with a co-MVP trophy in his hand.
The Blazers certainly made up for the lack of an offseason last year as excitement, disappointment, and drama colored the summer in Portland. By drafting Lillard as the franchise point guard, hiring Olshey as the new boss and Terry Stotts as the head coach, the Blazers were able to quench three of their four most nagging thirsts. The Oden-sized hole at center is still there, but the modest signings of J.J. Hickson and Joel Freeland (along with the uber-athletic and extremely raw rookie Meyers Leonard) will keep the position interesting this season. Will the Blazers once again watch the playoffs from their homes this coming spring? More than likely. Will the outlook of the franchise look as gloomy as it did last May? Not a chance. The Blazers took the necessary steps to begin the process of improving and hope has certainly reemerged in Rip City. Under Stotts, the Blazers will play an exciting brand of basketball and bring some fun back to Portland.
Be patient, Blazer fans, and enjoy the ride.