Portland’s Success Due to Smart Management
When the Portland Trail Blazers were knocked out the 2011 NBA Playoffs in the first round by the Dallas Mavericks last May, they were a solid team still with plenty of holes, plenty of questions. Depth at the point guard position, depth of any kind in the frontcourt, and consistent play off the bench were serious questions, not to mention the futures of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. To top it all off the team fired their general manager, Rich Cho, a month before the NBA Draft, replacing him on an interim basis with Chad Buchanan. In plain terms, seven months ago the Blazers’ future was very, very unclear.
Right after the 2010-11 season ended for each team, HOOPSWORLD did a series titled “5 Steps: Fixing the _____ “and finding five things Portland needed to do was very, very easy. Take a glance back at that link and see where Portland stands now.
To a certain extent Portland did all of those things. They didn’t keep Miller, but the first major decision Buchanan was in charge of as interim GM was to trade Miller to Denver in a deal that netted the Blazers Raymond Felton, who can do many of the same things but is younger. They kept Oden, just to see. They planned to keep Roy, until his doctor told him to retire. They drafted a point guard, Nolan Smith, with Buchanan’s second major GM decision. And the defense? Until Friday’s blowout loss in Phoenix the Blazers were near the top of the league in scoring defense and are (as of Friday’s games) ninth in scoring differential, seventh in rebounding percentage, fifth in rebounding differential, and lead the league in opponents’ three-point shooting percentage at 25.4%. That last statistic in particular is a representative of better defensive rotations not allowing shooters to get good looks.
Let’s take a quick sidebar here: Much of what is in this piece talks about the changes that have occurred to Portland’s roster while Chad Buchanan has been the interim general manager. While most general managers would be able to take a large portion of the blame and credit for roster decisions, in Portland all of those decisions come from a committee that includes Buchanan, owner Paul Allen, president Larry Miller, and a couple other decision-makers (more on that here). That’s the reality of the GM spot in Portland, no matter who holds the job, and a big reason why Portland’s GM “search” hasn’t yielded anything yet despite being tied at one time or another to very qualified individuals. It’s also a reason why Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho no longer hold the title. GMs want autonomy and in Portland that simply will not happen.
After the Blazers rebuilt their point guard position in a day with the trade for Felton and the drafting of Nolan Smith they still had plenty of issues. (Point guards? Check). They needed big man depth because very little was on the roster behind starters Marcus Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge and they didn’t know what they would get from Oden, if anything. They needed another scorer off the bench, especially after the abrupt retirement of Brandon Roy following the lockout. They needed more veteran voices to mix with the youth and they needed players who would fill key roles, players who could be relied upon to bring it every night.
First on the list was a backup center. Camby is almost guaranteed to miss at least 15 games every year in a normal season, so a condensed season with 66 games in only four months makes a solid reserve even more important. Saddled without cap space, the team signed the oldest player in the league, Kurt Thomas, to a two-year deal at the veteran’s minimum. Last season in Chicago Thomas filled in ably when both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer had to miss time with injuries. So far Thomas is averaging 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds in 16.3 minutes a night – and shooting 72% from the field. His presence has allowed Camby’s minutes to drop to just 24.0 a night, and he’s still posting 3.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.4 blocked shots a night (that horrendous 28% shooting needs to come up). His 3.3 offensive rebounds per game is the second-highest of his 16 NBA seasons.
Backup center? Check.
Next on the list was a backup for Aldridge, who last season developed in a legitimate star and the focal point of the team’s offense. The only other legitimate power forward on the roster was Chris Johnson, who has a similar body to Aldridge but not much experience. What to do? Portland signed Craig Smith, a player who can clear boards, run the floor, and take up space in the paint at the four. Averaging just 2.0 points and 2.6 rebounds in 9.8 minutes a game Smith’s contributions don’t seem like much, but Aldridge’s minutes are down 2.6 per game so far this year because Coach Nate McMillan feels comfortable putting Smith on the floor and giving his star a break.
Backup power forward? Check.
Portland’s last glaring need was bench scoring. Thomas and the Smiths aren’t players who can be relied on for scoring, which left Nic Batum and rookie Elliot Williams. Williams is actually a second-year player but missed his entire first season with injury. He is talented and uber-athletic, but on a team built to win now they just didn’t feel comfortable. Batum has been up and down his entire NBA career, but he’s still not a “scorer.” Roy was supposed to fill this role (or Wesley Matthews, if they inexplicably decided to start Roy), but with Roy’s decision to retire they used the Amnesty Provision on his contract and found themselves with the full Mid-Level Exception to spend (before using Amnesty they had only the mini MLE). Free agent Jamal Crawford, lately of the Atlanta Hawks and an experience bench scorer with a Sixth Man of the Year award on his resume, wanted to come to Portland. A scoring shooting guard willing to come off the bench, with lots of experience, and who is familiar with many on the team already? Portland signed him to a two-year deal for the full MLE.
Scorer off the bench? Check.
Are you keeping track at home? If you are you will notice that under Buchanan’s watch – whether he made all the decisions or not – the Blazers quietly filled every single hole they had when the bowed out of the playoffs last May. They strengthened their bench at four positions. They got younger at point guard which has led them to being a little more uptempo. The defense has improved drastically and minutes are down for key players while maintaining similar production. The new pieces have all integrated well, including starting small forward Gerald Wallace who is now an integral member of the team after coming from Charlotte at the trade deadline last February.
Most importantly the Blazers have started this season 5-2, including big wins at home against the Los Angeles Lakers and on the road in Oklahoma City before Friday’s poor showing in Phoenix. They will be in a tight race all season in the Northwest Division with the Thunder and Denver Nuggets – even the Utah Jazz are currently over .500 and Minnesota is much improved – but it’s starting to look like every move Portland has made both immediately before and since the lockout has been the correct one.
Paul Allen re-iterated in an interview a few weeks ago Buchanan isn’t a candidate to be the official general manager, but the argument can easily be made that under his watch the team has made all the right moves. Even if the decisions are not wholly his, it’s clear he fits in the decision-making structure the team employs.
And who knows, maybe at the end of the season Portland’s results will justify Buchanan as a candidate for Executive of the Year. He may not get the votes because people know the reality of the role, but when his name is in the GM slot, the decisions are successes, and the team wins games, then why not?
Has an interim general manager ever been this successful? Nope. Interim GMs rarely get this much time in the spot, and if they do and do the right things, that interim label goes away. It really is time for Portland to do the same thing for Chad Buchanan.