The day after Portland’s informal first-round exit at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, the Trail Blazers severed ties with longtime head coach Terry Stotts. But the former Portland head coach is playing a secondary role overall. The real story is about the management that remains in place.
As president of basketball operations for the Blazers, Neil Olshey’s actions are reminiscent of an old business joke / fable, about how management can work their way through issues that might otherwise be blamed on them. Olshey, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English, probably never learned it in school, but almost certainly heard it in the field.
There are many variations, but the story usually begins with something like this:
A new CEO has been hired to run a struggling business. And good news! People are excited and optimistic about the long-awaited exit of the current CEO, causing the share price to skyrocket with high expectations.
Meanwhile, on his way out, the former CEO hands the new CEO three numbered envelopes with notes inside. “Keep them as long as possible, then open the next numbered envelope when you’re in a crisis and do what’s written on the note.” “
Envelope n ° 1: “Blame the previous management”
Like many senior middle managers, Neil Olshey leverages his strengths:
- Divert the blame.
- Speak for ten minutes without making meaningful statements or taking any responsibility.
One of Olshey’s favorite detours? Hint that other decision makers are responsible for the precarious place the Blazers are repeatedly stuck in. (He also likes to blame the media for not providing the narrative he would prefer, but that’s another column.)
The presence of Paul Allen created a unique twist for Olshey to implement. He happily told the media that Allen was willing to spend the money, while occasionally hinting at his practical micromanagement tendencies (like this funny clip where Olshey nostalgically explains how the late Allen would rewrite their draft plans during the event). But in the process, Olshey subtly absolved himself of future blame, creating a “Choose Your Own Adventure” situation for the listener:
- Was a transaction successful? “Go to page 12: Olshey helped Allen make the right decision! ”
- Did the player perform below his contract expectations? “Go to page 30: Olshey reluctantly accepted Allen’s decision. “
By shifting the blame, Olshey can stay out of the fray and let fans argue over which interpretation is correct.
Surprisingly, Olshey finally seemed to realize that he could get away with blaming his own past leadership by simply not naming the party responsible for the current situation. This can be seen in a semi-infamous 2017 interview with Brooke Olzendam of Blazers Broadcasting, where he blames Mason Plumlee’s trade on the “financial realities” due to past decisions, without acknowledging that he himself created these. “Financial realities”. It’s honestly a pretty brilliant maneuver.
This first imaginary envelope was very effective for Olshey. It became his meal ticket, and it stuck in his pocket for years. It’s probably folded, crumpled, and has eight years of stains and stains from old take-out containers. He was happy to pull out the note, slap it on the table like a compulsive gambler’s last dollar in Las Vegas, and hammer out that point every time someone expressed concern. It was the gift that kept giving.
Until the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
With the team owner in attendance for Game 5, each unnamed Trail Blazer “Damian” shot 1-14 in two overtime, scoring just two points in a demoralizing loss. Sometimes you can just blame the coach and move on; this time the players were able to pull it off, but fell. The Blazers suffered a staff failure at a pivotal moment. At that point, Olshey may have adjusted his tie, à la Rodney Dangerfield. The collapse of the team in the fourth quarter in Game 6 simply punctuated the failure.
Deviation and past blame can only work for so long. In this case, nine years. With eyes on team building and salary limitations due to “financial realities”, it was time to open the second envelope.
Envelope n ° 2: “Reorganize”
After the playoffs, the Trail Blazers implemented the only reorganization technique available: rebuilding the coaching staff for the first time since 2012. Olshey doubled in his exit interview press conference, mainly putting the Blazers ‘shortcomings at Stotts’ feet, promising that the replacement of the coaching staff will solve the problems, as well as the annual churn rate.
But he may have waited too long. Management seems happy with his statements so far, but others, namely fans and the media, have had mixed reactions.
After nine years at the helm of basketball operations, all roads lead to Olshey. No one else can be blamed anymore. The Blazers entered the playoffs in a great position, with a relatively healthy squad made up not only of the coach Olshey hired, but also the players he acquired. And they couldn’t beat an opponent struggling with injuries.
If the changes in the 2021 offseason don’t lead to success, Olshey is in deep trouble. Unlike envelope # 1, envelope # 2 is rarely reusable for a general manager. Sooner or later he will have to open envelope # 3.
Envelope n ° 3: “Prepare three envelopes …”
With the departure of Stotts, Neil Olshey has publicly linked his fate to the satisfaction of Damian Lillard. And Lillard must know the power that bestows it: His request to coach was quickly released by Chris Haynes, then later toned down by Haynes and Sam Amick once it went bad. Former Blazers reporter Jabari Young has hinted that Lillard may be waiting, observing the Blazers’ summer activities before deciding on his future. And earlier in the season, Haynes already voiced Lillard’s displeasure. Control of the narrative seems to be paramount to Olshey, and he lost it at a key moment. We can see Rodney Dangerfield moving again with his tie.
The Portland timeline puts Olshey in a precarious position. Even though Lillard is in his prime, he’ll be 31 in the summer of 2021. Modern athletes typically age gracefully, but with that countdown always comes a risk of injury or increased discontent. Can Olshey afford to say no to Lillard’s demands? If a dissatisfied Lillard decides to leave, Olshey will almost certainly have to open that third envelope.