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PORTLAND, Oregon – Following a month-long workplace conduct investigation, the Portland Trail Blazers sacked longtime president of basketball operations Neil Olshey Friday morning.
Now comes the hard part: figuring out where a disruptive franchise goes from here.
To understand where the Blazers could go, you need to understand where they have been. The past six months have seen a fourth first-round playoff outing in five years, with Olshey-led coaching hiring criticized for downplaying sexual assault allegations against Chauncey Billups, a summer of rumors about the discontent of the superstar Damian Lillard for roster management, assistant coach on leave after being indicted in insurance fraud scheme, the departure of CEO Chris McGowan last month and an 11-12 start to the season , not to mention a lot of empty seats.
That’s before we even get to the informal exit of Olshey, which comes the morning after an embarrassing 114-83 home loss to 7-13 San Antonio Spurs. It also follows the team’s announcement on Wednesday that Lillard will be out for at least 10 days as he deals with an abdomen issue that has been bothering him for several years.
It is in this context that the organization must now find how to fix a team that has stagnated and who will be the one to chart the way forward.
Joe Cronin, a lifer who has worked for the organization since 2006 and is in charge of managing the team’s salary cap, was promoted to acting chief executive on Friday. The team said in its statement announcing the decision that it still plans to seek a permanent head of basketball operations.
Whoever that person is ultimately will have a series of tough decisions to make.
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Since the start of training camp, Lillard has been fairly adamant about his desire to stay in Portland for the long term despite persistent rumors to the contrary. Throughout, he insisted there be “urgency” at the front office to reshape the roster into a true championship contender. With Olshey now out of sight and a new set of eyes evaluating the list, previously held ideas about what was commercially possible could be overturned.
After Thursday’s loss to a slightly more half-filled Moda Center crowd, Billups unequivocally called the effort of what has become a depressing and listless bunch to watch every night. Their 10-game home streak before Thursday was offset by a 1-10 road record, and the team are still 29th in the league in defense despite Olshey’s insistence during the offseason on the fact. that their difficulties in this regard were due to training and not to his alignment.
Cronin is expected to speak to reporters in the coming days, which could give fans an idea of ââwhere he plans to take the team until a permanent replacement is named. Theoretically, everyone besides Lillard should be on the table in the upcoming efforts to upgrade the roster.
That includes Jusuf Nurkic, the sometimes hard-hitting but incredibly inconsistent starting center that is set to hit free agency in July. It could mean youngsters Nassir Little and Anfernee Simons, starting to break out just when they’re ready for new business.
It could also mean CJ McCollum, Olshey’s prized draft find. A McCollum swap has always been the obvious decision for a meaningful upgrade, as his association with Lillard has repeatedly proven to have a hard cap.
Olshey always refused to think about it, preferring to swap a Maurice Harkless for a Trevor Ariza or a Derrick Jones Jr. for a Larry Nance Jr., rearranging the deckchairs on a ship that was perpetually heading for a seventh seed and exit. in the first round. .
Perhaps the long speculated McCollum-for-Ben Simmons deal becomes a serious possibility now that the Blazers chief decision maker won’t put his full professional reputation on the line in that backcourt.
âWe give up the size every night,â Billups said last month before a home win over the Toronto Raptors. “We are a small group, especially at 1, 2 and 3. They are all about 6’3” tall. “
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The size issue with Lillard, McCollum and Norman Powell in the starting lineup is an issue many around the Blazers have long pointed out, but an issue Olshey in June called a false media account that “Lady is frustrated by you guys talking About. “
It’s too early to seriously assess the job Billups did in his first season as a head coach, good or bad. Olshey put him in a difficult position by throwing responsibility for the team’s poor defense and disappointing playoff results at the feet of former coach Terry Stotts rather than seriously revising the roster. Billups knows that too. Maybe the next GM will give him some training that will make him stand out as a coach.
It’s been evident since the death of longtime governor Paul Allen in 2018 that the Blazers needed big changes to build a true title contender around Lillard. This was never going to happen with Olshey in charge. Unless Allen’s sister Jody sells the team, Olshey’s exit is the biggest move that could have guaranteed at least a chance to give Lillard a team worthy of what he’s built at. Portland.
Now it is up to the new management, which is not yet established, to take care of it.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He graduated from the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B / R app.