Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts took questions from the media regarding Portland’s 2013-14 season, Stotts’ recent contract extension, the team’s salary cap situation going into the offseason, whether they might make a move to obtain a draft pick and which players improved the most from last season. You can listen to their comments by pushing the “play” button above or you can read the transcript below.
Neil Olshey: Thanks for being here. Clearly I think we had a great season. We exceeded a lot of public expectations, I think we achieved a lot of internal goals. If they weren’t expectations, they were goals. One of the things I want to point to is the support of our owner. Nobody has been more supportive than Paul Allen with everything that we wanted to do starting with every transaction we made, free agents we pursued, trades we executed, the support of the coaching staff. Terry and I sit here and talk to you guys and unfortunately take most of the accolades, but at the end of the day, there are 43 people that work in this building and there’s another 159 that work at the Moda Center and they all contribute to this. The culture that we’re trying to build, the organization, the stability, the model for sustainability that we’re trying to develop here, Terry and I are out in front, Chris McGowan is out in front down at the Moda Center with the business division. The people that work with all of us on a daily basis don’t get enough credit and they deserve it, because they’re the people in the back of the house that are really getting a lot of stuff done for our players that let them go out and do what they do. For Chris and his staff, the revenue that they generate, the improvements that they make down there, the sponsorships, the way they handle season ticket holders and our fans, that is a part of everything that goes into building the culture we’re trying to create.
On behalf of Paul, I want to thank all of them. I want to thank you guys for the way you covered the team this year. I thought you guys were incredibly fair, you were creative, you were supportive when we deserved support and you held us accountable when we needed to be held accountable.
I also want to congratulate Terry on his contract extension. Clearly, that was much deserved and as much of a no-brainer as any contract extension I’ve ever done. As frustrated as you guys were that I didn’t talk about it during the season, you don’t talk about things like that during the season. And to Terry’s credit, even when it was done, he didn’t want to talk about it until the last game was played because he wanted the focus on the team, and I think that’s a message that is slowly starting to filter out to everybody, that the players and the team come first before anybody else.
Terry Stotts: I really don’t have much of a statement. I talk to you guys everyday. You’ve heard enough from me. I do want to say, obviously it was in the press release, I’m thrilled to have the extension, to know that I’m going to be here for a while. This is an unbelievable situation for me personally. It’s one of the best franchises, if not the best franchise, in the league. We have a great facility. Neil and I work well together. Mr. Allen is a great owner. The players, we bring in players that are not only talented but are good people and fun to work with. We’ve hired good people, as Neil talked about, throughout the organization. For me, I’ve been in this league a long time and honestly I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in the league. I’m really proud to be here.
How much help do you envision coming from the outside or do you think everything pretty much has to come from within?
Olshey: Look, we’ve got some tools. We’ve got the mid-level (exception), we’ve got the bi-annual (exception), we clearly don’t have a lot of roster spots. But I think one of the things we’ve proven over the first two years is that we’re going to be creative, we’re going to be aggressive.
I walked off the court last year we won 33 games and the first thing Paul said was “How are we going to get better?” We won 54 games this year, we’re in the second-round of the playoffs and the first email I got yesterday morning was “How are we going to get better?” We’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to be opportunistic. There’s a lot of ways to improve your team. Clearly we’ve got a great coaching staff, we’ve got talented young guys. We have probably six young guys on our roster in the first two years of their deal that haven’t really been on the floor. We’ve seen them in the gym but you guys really haven’t seen them in meaningful games because of our commitment to winning. I think they’re going to contribute. We’ll be aggressive in free agency. We’ll be opportunistic in trades like we have been. Like I said, it’s my goal and my job basically every year to move the organization forward and give Terry the tools he needs in terms of roster composition to compete at the highest level. Like I said, nobody is more deliberate and nobody is more aggressive in pushing us every day to get better than Paul. We made a 21-game jump this year and he’s looking for a jump again next year. That’s what keeps me up at night is finding ways to make transactions that will give Terry the tools to do that.
Stotts: That puts us at 75 (wins) next year.
Olshey: (Laughs) We’re going to play an MLB schedule.
How much does the acquisition of a draft pick interest you?
Olshey: We’ve got a lot of young guys. I think everybody gets caught up in the draft because that’s what’s sexy right now, right? We’re a month from the draft, my staff is in Chicago right now. In terms of scouting the draft this is probably more complicated that any draft I’ve every been involved in because we don’t have a pick, so we’re not targeting a specific range in the draft. So we’ve got to be prepared for anything. One through 60, you just don’t know when the phone is going to ring, you don’t know when a player if available that you can pursue. I think the reality of having only potentially two roster spots open and available, we’ve got to be judicious with what we add to that because we’re out of the talent acquisition mode. We are out of the asset acquisition mode and now we’re about winning games. I think everybody on the roster, the coaching staff, the front office, ownership has gotten a taste and remembered what it’s like to be in the second-round of the playoffs. And knowing just how close you are to really getting where all of us want to go, which is to still be playing in June, and I think if we can find a player that moves that process forward, then I think we’ll be aggressive. If it’s draft, it’s draft. If it’s free agency, it’s free agency. If it’s trade, it’s trade. But the goal is to have a better team on the floor October 1st that we did this past October 1st.
There’s been so much talk in the past about big cities rule the NBA and how hard it is for small markets, but you’ve got San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Indiana in the playoffs. Is that an anomaly or is that indicative of what you can do in a smaller market now?
Olshey: From a management standpoint — Adam Silver has talked about this since we came out of bargaining — that the goal of the league right now is that any team, if well managed, has a chance to win a championship. And I think, no matter how great the pedigree of San Antonio is and Indiana and recently Oklahoma City, I think what you see is that it’s true. I think there’s going to be more parity, I think it’s going to have a lot more to do with being judicious with who you sign, not giving away bad contracts, having stability, having a system, having faith in your coaching staff that that kind of consistency in a year-in basis will move things forward. And I do. I think it is exciting you’re going to have two small market teams in the Western Conference (finals). As glamorous of a marketplace as Miami is, it’s not New York, Chicago or L.A. in terms of size of market, but they’re clearly well run, well coached and have incredible talent. So I’m excited about being a general manager in today’s NBA, where market isn’t as important as culture.
Terry, will your staff remain the same?
Can you talk about your confidence in them as far as developing talent?
Stotts: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate my staff. They work well together, they’ve developed young talent. We had eight players in their first or second year and I think all of them got better. Some of it you see, some of it you don’t but I know they all have gotten better. They work well with the veteran players, Wes and Nic, Robin and LA. They have done a tremendous job of improving the players we have but beyond that, they’re good people, they have great work ethic, they have us prepared every game, they love the game, they love being on the court, they love being in the gym, they come here on off days and work with players, they connect with them off the court, go to dinner with them. So I couldn’t ask more from my staff. Very fortunate to have them.
Neil, you said the deal with Stotts was done before the season was done. Was that regular season for playoffs?
Olshey: Look, Terry knew he was going to be back. The formalizing a contract, that’s between myself, Terry’s agent making sure Terry’s onboard. That’s paperwork. But the contract extension wasn’t a result of us winning a playoff series. The contract extension was a result of that this organization is heading the right direction. I thought we were one of the best-coached teams in the NBA this year. I thought our young guys were developing. I thought we have an incredible system. The goal of the league — I used to talk about this with my friends in Phoenix that they had the easiest, hardest job in the world years ago because they had a specific system and they knew exactly who would fit in their system and then they just had to go out and find them. And I think you saw that with San Antonio. I think, hopefully, that’s the direction we’re heading and I think we are heading in the right direction. The way we play — we just talked to all the guys in the exit interview — we have a way we play and the goal is now, when you go into free agency or you go into the draft or you talk to an agent, is to say “Look, when you come to Portland, you know how we’re going to play.” And that’s what’s important. But like I said, something people think, for reasons past our understanding, we don’t talk about options or extensions during the year, but there’s a reason you do, because the focus then remains on the team and not on anybody’s individual contractual situation, be it player, coach, front office member.
But what I said was, this would be resolved immediately and I don’t know that it could have been resolved any faster than when Terry was on a plane coming back from our last game.
Is there an area or position you’ll focus most on in the offseason?
Olshey: I don’t know. When you’ve got the midlevel and biannual and two roster spots, I think adding veteran talent is important. Again, right now, you can only look at what we have today. That doesn’t include trade possibilities, that doesn’t include a myriad of options of how to change a roster composition. We’re not going to pigeonhole ourselves into saying we need one specific position. My feeling is, even if it’s a redundancy, if the guy is more talented, just playing that inside the box “Oh we need a big? Get a big. We need a wing? Get a wing.” gets you in trouble because you’ve now balanced the menu, but if you’re not talented enough, it doesn’t matter. I think one of the things Terry has done, being so creative as a coach, is that he puts our best five players on the floor. We had some injuries this year, we went outside the box. We didn’t just play the next guy in line. We went small, we played two bigs, we played multiple guards in the backcourt. And I think that’s where the league is heading. You’re just looking for the five best basketball players you can put on the court and then coaching them within that framework. Like I said, we’re going to be open-minded when it comes to free agency and we’re going to be opportunistic when it comes to trades.
Terry, does having an extension at all change your relationship with the players or does that help at all, them knowing you’re going to be here?
Stotts: I don’t know, I haven’t been in this position before. We’ll find out. Hope not.
Look, we had a terrific year and essentially I was on the last year of my contract. Obviously there was a (team) option. I don’t think that had any effect on my relationships with the players, how I coached the game, how I coached the team. You’d like to think that the players we have on the roster, the coaching staff, it’s about basketball and doing what’s in the best interest of the team and winning games. Over the last two year — last year was a developmental year. We knew that going into it. This year it was about winning and we knew that going into it and next year is going to be about winning. Everybody is on the same page as far as that is concerned. Me and my staff will be the same way. We’ll approach the game the same way.
How would you evaluate Meyers Leonard’s season? What are your expectations of him this summer?
Stotts: When you don’t see Meyers play, you don’t realize that he has improved. Joel beat him out in preseason and Joel played extremely well and the team was going really well, so that put some pressure on Meyers. He got in the rotation in December and January, I thought he played well. But it was difficult, honestly, for me between Joel and Thomas and Meyers, those three guys having consistent minutes. I think he has improved. It takes a while for big guys to make that next step. I think this is a very important summer for Meyers because he has a lot of talent at both ends of the court. Unfortunately for him, when we’re a winning team, he doesn’t get the luxury of playing through mistakes and getting time on the court. I think this is a big summer for him. He needs to play a lot of basketball and it’s a clean slate in October.
Neil, will you negotiate to extend LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract this summer?
Olshey: When the appropriate time comes, clearly. Look, the most important thing is everybody, including LaMarcus, knows he’s the No. 1 priority in the organization right now. When that business needs to be handled and the timing is absolutely right, it’s clearly a goal of ours to keep LaMarcus here long term. LaMarcus knows that, his agents know that, we’re aware of it, and like I said, there’s economic issues in play that make things more complicated. Not on our end, from a collective bargaining agreement standpoint, the timing of players extensions in terms of maximizing their window. I went through this in Los Angeles where you could extend somebody early, but economically, it was better for them to wait an extra year so they could get the longer term deal. So these are all thing that will be worked out with LaMarcus and his agent. I think the big thing is that LaMarcus wants to be here and clearly we want him here. That’s the challenging part. The economics take care of themselves.
First time I’ve had to ask, but the issues with Donald Sterling and the Clippers, is that difficult for you or shocking to you?
Olshey: I’m not going to comment too much on the Clippers. I can say that there are a lot of incredible people there and I’m sorry that they’re going through a rough patch. The team still had a great year, they competed, they went as far as we did. Like us, they probably had goals to go beyond that and, you know what, they’ll get back to the drawing board. Seeing friends of mine that are there suffering is hard for me.
Is there a benefit to waiting to pick up team options?
Olshey: We don’t (have any tam options). There’s a difference. Will Barton’s contract is non-guaranteed until July 31st, so it’s not an option. There’s nothing we actually have to do to pick up if he is not waived on or before July 31st, his contract is fully guaranteed. Robin, also (does not). We’re going to do Cap 101, ladies and gentlemen. Robin’s contract became fully guaranteed for the remaining two years of his contract on July 4th of last year, so his contract was fully guaranteed before we ever even traded for him.
You plan on keeping Will Barton?
Olshey: I’m sure we are. Someone has to lead the Twitter brigade. How do you get rid of someone who sends a text to his coach complimenting him on a great year, congratulating him on his extension and then signs it “The Thrill”? How can you possibly not want that to be a part of your organization? The People’s Champion.
Mo Williams said he’s looking for a three-year deal, a long term deal. Are you amenable to negotiating with Mo?
Olshey: Again, we can’t talk to our free agents or other team’s free agents until July 1st. So when the appropriate time comes, Mo’s a critical piece and we’ll talk about it when I’m allowed to talk about it. But I’m glad to know that he let you guys know what the parameters of the contract were going to be (laughs).
He said he wants good money, a good contract.
Olshey: Is there bad money? I didn’t know there was bad money.
What are you hoping to see LaMarcus and Damian get out of trying out and/or playing for USA Basketball this summer?
Stotts: I think it’s a great opportunity for both of them. Hopefully they both make the team. To be part of USA Basketball, I don’t think there’s a player that has gone through that experience that hasn’t benefited from the camaraderie, playing for your country. It’s tremendous. If they both make it, being able to share that experience together, would be that much more rewarding for both of them. Neil and I will probably be down there for some of that but hopefully they’ll both make it and they’ll both be playing in Spain.
Olshey: On a personal note, Terry and I are both rooting for them because then we’ll be in Barcelona in September (laughs).
Did you learn more from beating Houston or losing to San Antonio?
Stotts: You take different things from both series. I thought the toughness that we showed against Houston, playing with a lead, going down there and getting two wins, it was a different type of series as far as being physical. To clinch it in Game 6 knowing that we may have to go down there in Game 7, for a young team that hadn’t been there before, it was reaffirming. It was something that we needed to go through.
San Antonio, I think, to a man, we all understood that this is where we’re going, this is what we need to get to. They played exceptionally well, they played as a team, they played a much better type of basketball than they did during the season. We split with them during the season or could have beaten them hear, but they played at a different level than what we faced during the regular season. Understanding that playoff mentality against San Antonio and how they did it showed us a lot as well. So we took two different things from both of those series.
Terry, this day is always about getting better and setting goals. Who is the best example of that last year, coming back after the summer and applying what you guys talked about?
Stotts: It’s a tough thing, because I know who I’m going to say, but I want to say that LA coming back and being a better leader and having a career year with all the innuendo over the summer and him coming back as the franchise player and the leader of this year, he took a big step. And Damian building on Rookie of the Year and people waiting for a sophomore slump and coming back and having the year. The fact that Wes and Nic both had career years. So I don’t want to dismiss what those four guys did, but for me, the biggest growth was Will Barton.
Will Barton, from last year to this year, grew as a player, he grew as a professional on and off the court, his basketball IQ. I don’t know if I had seen a player make that big of a jump from one year to the next.
I thought you’d say Joel Freeland.
You know what, Joel made a big jump basketball-wise. From last year, being used to the European game, trying to get used to the NBA game, the speed, the quickness, his body got better, he earned his minutes in the rotation. There’s no question he made a big jump basketball-wise but I thought all-around, Will made it in a lot of different areas.
Would you have said that at midseason this year?
Stotts: Probably not, because midseason, we were 24-5 and Joel was a big contributor off the bench. And I probably answered that question a little too quickly because Joel was certainly in that mix.
What player are you most looking forward to seeing improve this summer?
Stotts: We’ve got eight guys in their first or second year in the league. It’s easy to point to CJ and Allen as rookies and seeing the jump that they’re going to make, Thomas having been a year with us and seeing the jump that he’s going to make. But we’re at a stage where, regardless of what happens with our roster and what we do with it, those guys need to make a jump. Whether it’s a jump like Joel made last year, somebody like Meyers, I think all those guys have an opportunity to improve and see what happens in October. We need them all to get better. One of the things I want to do as a coach is utilize the bench better, and to do that, the guys need to get better, not just one guy.
Did player the Spurs inspire you to want to use your bench better?
Stotts: Well, yes and no. I think, when you look at the Spurs, I think what gets lost in that is that, you look at their contributors off the bench, they’re veteran guys. Marco Belinelli and (Manu) Ginobilli and (Boris) Diaw, those guys coming off the bench have been around for a long time and they’ve found their niche and they know what they can do in this league, Pop knowns what he’s going to get when he puts those guys in the game. I think it’s unfair to our guys to compare them to San Antonio’s bench.
Does the defense due to playing a much larger rotation?
Stotts: First of all, our defense did get a lot better this year. We went from 26th to 16th. Our goal was to be in the top half of the league and we were almost there. I think playing in a playoff series, understanding the every possession mentality throughout the course of the season, the experience we got being a 54-win team and going to the second-round of the playoffs is going to make us a better defensive team.
Any concern at all about two players playing until September 14 with Team USA?
Stotts: No … USA Basketball is different than playing for … When Dirk had to play for the German National Team and he had to play 40 hard minutes for them to compete. It’s different with USA Basketball. It’s not as strenuous. The French team is starting practice two months before the championships and they’re doing two-a-days. So it’s a different mentality. I think it’s a great experience for them and it’s a good way to get good competition. You’re playing against good competition every day, you’re staying in shape. It may be mentally fatiguing by the time it’s all done but I think it’s great.
You’ve got a guy on the French team. Concerned?
Stotts: If he does — I don’t know if he is going to play or not, that’s his decision. I’d be more concerned about that, yeah. When you expend that much mental and physical effort over the summer, especially when you play in the playoffs, that would be a concern for me.
Which players will you have on the summer league team?
Stotts: Right now we anticipate CJ, Allen, Will, Thomas, Meyers and Joel.
Some say that it takes a few years to get defense down when implementing a new scheme. Is the hope that with more time it will get better and did you see that over the course of the season?
Stotts: Again, I get back to the fact that there’s no question we got better defensively. A lot of that was — I shouldn’t say a lot — part of it was Robin coming in, part of it was our guys adding a year of understanding the league. I think making a jump defensively is more difficult in this league than it is offensively. Having a year under their belt made Damian and Joel and the rest of them better defensively. I don’t want to sit here and say I’d be content next year to be the 16ht defense, but we need to make incremental growth next year defensively.