Most of you know by now, I cut my teeth in this business as a sports reporter, for many years covering the Portland Trail Blazers and the National Basketball Association.
One of my favorite events to cover each year was the NBA Draft, the 2017 version takes place Thursday. I rarely use this space to opine about sports topics, but if you will indulge me this week, I would appreciate it.
Those of you who are fans of the Trail Blazers know all too well that Portland has a rather fickle relationship with the NBA Draft. Sure, there have been success stories. The Blazers won their only NBA championship in 1977 with a team led by Bill Walton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft.
That Blazers’ title team also featured guard Lionel Hollins, the 6th overall pick in 1975, forward Bob Gross, a second-rounder in 1975, and Johnny Davis, a second-rounder in 1976, among other Portland draftees that made good on the faith the team showed in selecting them.
When the Blazers made it to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, their success was once again the result of some shrewd selections. Clyde Drexler was the 14th overall selection in the 1983 draft. Jerome Kersey was a second-round selection in 1984. Terry Porter was the 25th overall pick in the 1985 draft and Clifford Robinson was a second-rounder in 1989.
Even the current Portland team can attribute its modest accomplishments to its success in the draft. Damian Lillard was the 6th overall selection in the 2012 draft and fellow backcourt mate C.J. McCollum was the 10th overall pick a year later in the 2013 draft.
But, for every draft success story Portland can boast of, Blazers’ fans know all too well the franchise’s misfortunes in the annual selection process. Who can forget Portland making LaRue Martin the No. 1 overall pick in 1972? Or, the Blazers’ decision to draft Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan in 1984? And then there’s the selection of Greg Oden first overall in 2007, ahead of the 2017 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant.
So, you can see why Blazers’ fans are cautious with their optimism heading into the draft each year. At this point, Portland owns three first round picks in Thursday’s draft — the 15th, 20th and 26th overall selections. On paper, it would seem like ideal assets for a playoff team to improve itself by continuing to interject young talent on its promising roster. However, there is a fly in the ointment.
Last summer, the Blazers made some serious mistakes, awarding hefty contracts to four players. Portland lured free agent guard Evan Turner from Boston at the price of $70 million over four years. The Blazers then retained three of their own free agents, also at eye-popping price tags. Allen Crabbe was given $75 million over four years; Meyers Leonard got $41 million over four years and Moe Harkless was the last to cash in, getting $40 million over four years.
Now, less than a year later from making those decisions, long-time Blazers Insider Jason Quick (Comcast SportsNet) reports that Portland is looking to part with two of their three draft picks just to rid themselves of those bad contracts. Talk about a monumental lack of foresight and vision.
Portland General Manager Neil Olshey, the guy who doled out those bad contracts last summer, would seem to have a sizable amount of pressure on his shoulders this summer. Olshey spent several seasons positioning the Blazers for last summer. He kept the payroll lean knowing at that point Portland would have the salary cap space to go after some top-tier free agents.
However, Olshey’s strategy backfired. He discovered that the top-tier free agents don’t want to come to Portland, no matter how much cap space the Blazers have. Olshey is fortunate his attempt to sign forward Chandler Parsons to a max deal failed. The oft-injured Parsons is now Memphis’ problem, rather than Portland’s.
While Olshey has a substantial list of failures in the free agent market, his track record in the draft is much, much better. In fact, throughout his days with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Blazers, you could put Olshey’s batting average in the draft up against virtually any general manager in the league. Sure, the selection of Leonard with the 11th pick in the 2012 Draft was a big swing and a miss, but he has a lot more selections that have overachieved than those that have underachieved.
Which gets me back to this year’s draft. I want Olshey to take three more cuts at the NBA Draft. It’s what he’s best at. I’m confident he will make good selections, and who knows, he may hit another one out of the park like he did with the picks of Lillard and McCollum. But, if he has to give up those opportunities to make his team better just to erase mistakes that he made in free agency last summer, then Thursday is going to be a very disappointing day for Blazers’ fans.