Aside from the 2012-13 ROY Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers fans did not have a lot to get excited about last season. They badly whiffed on the playoffs after losing their final 13 games to finish a dismal 33-49. But during the off-season, GM Neil Olshey didn’t sit idly, content with a starter-heavy roster that collapsed down the stretch. The Blazers totally refurbished their bench, and now they’re one of many teams hoping for a place in next season’s Western Conference playoffs.
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Things didn’t start well this summer in Portland. There were rumors that LaMarcus Aldridge was looking to force a trade to Chicago, and Cleveland even dangled the No. 1 pick for his services. Aldridge has since denied the rumors his agents were looking to get Chicago interested, but it said something that people even entertained the notion Aldridge wanted out.
Olshey didn’t panic trade Aldridge after reports surfaced he was unhappy, though. Instead, he set about reconstructing his team so their core starters, Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and [insert center of your choice: J.J. Hickson, or Meyers Leonard] weren’t playing catch up after the league’s worst bench came off the floor.
Hickson signed with Denver, and so the 5.3 points per 100 possessions the Blazers gave up with him on the court, per NBA.com, was extricated from the center position, something he was unprepared to handle at just 6-9 and with the paint-averse Aldridge sharing the front-court. Meyers Leonard remained, but Olshey had a plan. He traded the rights to rookie Jeff Withey plus cash to the Pelicans, who were in the process of bringing Tyreke Evans on board with a four-year $44 million contract that’s still leaving NBA followers scratching their heads. Olshey knew Dell Demps was under the gun from owner Tom Benson to get better, and with Anthony Davis as New Orleans’ front-court player of the future, he made a smart offer for Robin Lopez.
While Lopez doesn’t put up the numbers of his twin in Brooklyn, he is a solid center with the size and the tenacity you want near the basket. The rangy fro of Lopez stands at 7-0, and he doesn’t mind bruising down low, something Aldridge can’t, or won’t, do. Bringing Lopez to the Pacific northwest allows the Blazers to get a solid rebounder and defensive presence to pair with Aldridge.
But Olshey wasn’t done upgrading Portland’s disastrous bench, and the next move he made really stuck it to the GM most consider one of the brightest in the league.
Houston GM Daryl Morey was desperate to clear enough cap room so when their Houston Hall-of-Fame contingent pitched Dwight Howard on becoming a Rocket, they’d have the money to sign him to a four-year max contract. The only way to do that was to trade a top-five pick in the 2012 draft, power forward Thomas Robinson. Olshey gave up two future second-rounders and the draft rights to Kostas Papanikolaou and Marko Todorovic to bring Robinson to Portland. It was a cagey move to acquire a top-five talent from just a summer before. It also doubled as a way to spell Aldridge, or pair the young Robinson with Aldridge as a de facto front court presence if Lopez needed a break and Portland wants to go small.
The Robinson trade might have been the best move of the summer by Olshey and the Lopez deal might be the most under-appreciated; seriously, Lopez moves a lot better than his brother does on defense and while he’s not exactly a low post presence on offense, he understands space and sets smart screens. For a team that finished in the bottom third of the league in offensive rebounding last season, his presence will also be huge while Aldridge drifts outside the paint for those mid-range jumpers he loves.