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Olshey shows GM chops in rebuilding Blazers on the fly

Portland's decision-maker is our pick for Executive of the Year

POSTED: Apr 15, 2016 10:53 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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In the offseason, Neil Olshey found the perfect pieces to compliment star guard Damian Lillard in 2015-16.

If Neil Olshey didn't have better things to do, with his Portland Trail Blazers bearing down on their third consecutive playoff appearance and the continuous-improvement demands of his GM position filling his days, he could compile a pretty sweet list of "experts" due for some nyah-nyahs and told-ya-sos.

Before the season, Las Vegas oddsmakers put Portland's over/under for victories at 26.5. A story on SBNation.com shrugged off the team's ambitions long before 2015-16 got started: "Assuming the Blazers do win fewer than 30 games this season and pick within the top 7 or 8, history strongly suggests..."

And then there was the Washington Post, which headlined its in-depth feature thusly: "Portland Trail Blazers plummet back into irrelevance after losing LaMarcus Aldridge." After sifting through what it essentially described as rubble from a convulsive offseason, the Post sniffed: "It will likely result in a rare lottery trip..."

The gap between what most folks expected from the Blazers this season and what actually has transpired is the reason Olshey is NBA.com's choice to be named NBA Executive of the Year.

Proving skeptics wrong isn't part of Olshey's job description, but not giving in to tough circumstances, not grabbing at handy excuses and not falling in line with modern "big ideas" like tanking as the path to franchise revival are, implicitly at least. Particularly in a market such as Portland, where free agency can't be waved like a magic wand to attract the game's most talented stars.

The Association: Portland Trail Blazers

The Association gives you an all-access pass to Portland for the Trail Blazers' playoff push.

When Olshey and the rest of the organization swallowed hard and accepted that Aldridge, its cornerstone player and four-time All-Star, was going to sign elsewhere last summer, they got pro-active. They traded Nicolas Batum and Steve Blake, and didn't stop Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez or Arron Afflalo from leaving as free agents.

The demolition went deeper then than losing four-fifths of the starting lineup from last season's 51-31 squad. It meant saying goodbye to 53 percent of Portland's point total from 2014-15 and 55 percent of its minutes-played.

Now? The Blazers rank as arguably the NBA's biggest surprises of the season. They're assured of finishing at or above .500 (take that, Vegas!). Despite seven players among their top 10 in minutes played who are either new or in new roles.

Olshey rounded up quantity, if not proven quality, focusing on players who would be in sync with 25-year-old point guard Damian Lillard's career trajectory. Among those acquired, with the idea that several if not all would become valuable contributors: Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis.

Olshey also signed center Enes Kanter to an offer sheet last summer (which Oklahoma City matched). At the trade deadline, he made use of Portland's position below the salary cap to facilitate Cleveland's Channing Frye/Anderson Varejao trade and snagged the Cavs' 2018 first-round pick (top-10 protected for two years).

Lillard and backcourt sidekick C.J. McCollum have provided much of the Blazers' scoring, but the other parts -- with no small effort from Coach of the Year candidate Terry Stotts and his staff -- have come together nicely -- and ahead of schedule. In its first 39 games, Portland was 15-24 and got outscored by an average of 2.0 points per game; in the next 39, the Blazers went 26-13 and flipped that scoring differential to 3.2 points per game in their favor.

Keeping things competitive around Lillard was crucial -- sure, his five-year, $120 million extension runs into 2021 but lesser NBA players have balked and forced their way out of dreary situations, had Portland's veered in that direction. But Olshey and his crew have managed to serve that master while attending to the Blazers' chemistry now and flexibility in the future.

"I don't want to get carried away," Olshey told reporters after the trade deadline. "We want to stay with the same narrative, which is growth, development, making sure this roster is still heading in the right direction and we're maximizing what we have, and Terry's got a chance to win at the highest level with the group he wants to go coach. And that's where we are today."

Olshey, who finished third in the balloting of fellow NBA executives in 2014, will have competition from several peers, including these four:

Rich Cho, Charlotte Hornets: Had someone told you Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would play only seven games this season before requiring shoulder surgery and Al Jefferson would appear in just 41 (and start 17) of Charlotte's first 66 games, you might have figured the Hornets to be on the low seed/lottery bubble. Nope. They're 14-4 since the start of March, rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and still could land as high as third in the East. Credit Cho for using all the tools in his belt -- trading for Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb and most recently Courtney Lee, drafting Frank Kaminsky, signing free-agent Jeremy Lin, unloading Lance Stephenson -- to fashion a roster with which coach Steve Clifford could overachieve.

Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons: Van Gundy has one advantage over the other four men here, in that he both shops for the groceries and cooks the meal, as the saying goes. The benefit of that, though, mostly comes in the coaching. Detroit's double-threat still had to roll up his sleeves to overhaul his roster (only center Andre Drummond remains from when Van Gundy took over in May 2014). Among his decisions that have Detroit on the brink of ending a six-year playoff drought: Trading for Marcus Morris (for a 2020 second-round pick!) and Steve Blake, giving point guard Reggie Jackson an $80 million vote-of-confidence extension, and flipping Ersan Ilyasova with Brandon Jennings to Orlando for forward Tobias Harris, with whom Detroit is 14-7 when he starts.

Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors: Funny, but Ujiri's biggest move to upgrade this season's roster hasn't had nearly the impact he or Toronto fans desired: Free-agent acquisition DeMarre Carroll has been out since Jan. 3 (knee surgery) and now has some folks wondering if his return might be more disruptive to the Raptors' rhythm than helpful. The other move that gets talked about is one that never came -- hopes of upgrading the frontcourt with Thaddeus Young or Ryan Anderson at the trade deadline were dashed. But lower-profile additions Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola have caulked in nicely around Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson.

R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs: If losing Aldridge and how the Trail Blazers adapted to that helped to build Olshey's case for this award, you would think signing the top free agent of 2015 might do the same for Buford. Accepting David West's willingness to take an eight-figure pay cut was another nice "move." And Buford won the Exec prize in 2014 by signing Marco Belinelli and reupping a stable of Spurs role players. But the franchise's track record and reputation, its core of grown-ups on the roster and the Spurs' prospects for continued success are too self-fulfilling now to divvy up a specific slice of credit to Buford -- unless it's a lifetime achievement award.

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Editor's note: As the 2015-16 season winds down, NBA.com's writers give their picks for the various end-of-season awards.

Below is our schedule of stories:

April 5: Executive of the Year

April 7: Coach of the Year

April 11: Kia Most Improved Player

April 12: Kia Sixth Man of the Year

April 13: Kia Rookie of the Year

April 14: Kia Defensive Player of the Year

April 15: Kia MVP

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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