Savvy Olshey knows personnel
Dunleavy gives thumbs-up on hiring of new Blazers GM
Tuesday, June 5, noted team President Larry Miller as he introduced Neil Olshey as the Trail Blazers' general manager, was the 35th anniversary of the sixth and final game of the NBA finals during Portland's championship 1976-77 season.
"So there is something else to celebrate today," Miller said.
Well, at least it was cause for celebration that the Blazers finally made a decision that was a long time in coming.
Time will tell if Olshey's hiring was a good thing for a franchise needing just that in a very bad way.
First impressions were positive all around, though, on Olshey's first day on the job.
The man most responsible for the quick turnaround of the Los Angeles Clippers is smart, well-spoken, glib and at ease in front of a microphone and cameras. It's easy to see why he impressed owner Paul Allen during the interview process.
Olshey is savvy to what the business is about. He started at the bottom, as an assistant coach at a high school in Lakewood, Calif., before establishing a player development program in Santa Monica, working with such prospects as eventual NBA player Jason Kopono.
Olshey was then hired by super-agent Arn Tellum to run a pre-draft camp for his agency, SFX, where he began to develop relationships with eventual NBA players such as Gerald Wallace. That led to a spot as a coach at Sonny Vaccaro's ABCD camp for high school players, which put him in direct line to meet NBA coaches and front-office staffers.
Among those impressed by Olshey's organizational skills and deportment was Mike Dunleavy, the former Trail Blazer coach. When Dunleavy became the Clippers' coach in 2003, he hired Olshey as director of player development.
"I liked his work ethic, the things he did, how he handled things the right way," Dunleavy says.
Dunleavy became a mentor to Olshey, who sat next to him on the plane on road trips as Olshey did his best to soak up knowledge about the NBA.
"I talked to him and showed him things," Dunleavy says. "I felt like he has this great aptitude for players and the personnel side. He knew all the young players. As we talked about different guys, it felt like he was right on target and we were on the same page."
After one season, Dunleavy elevated Olshey to an assistant coach position. Soon Dunleavy decided Olshey was better-suited for a front-office post.
"His real calling is personnel," Dunleavy says. "Neil has a great work ethic. You go to Timbuktu to see a player, he'll be there, too. He has a good eye for talent. He's a smart guy. He picks up things very quickly."
Though Elgin Baylor owned the title of the Clippers' general manager, Dunleavy was in effect handling the team's personnel decisions. He pushed owner Donald Sterling to hire Olshey as director of player personnel in 2006. From there, Olshey became assistant general manager under Dunleavy (who assumed a dual role as coach/GM in 2008), and took over as interim GM when Dunleavy was fired in 2010.
Olshey set about changing the Clippers' well-earned reputation as the most sorry franchise in the NBA, one players should avoid at all costs. He began to cultivate a relationship with executives at Creative Artists Agency, which steers its clients to the league's most desirable locales. Olshey was bold enough to make a run at LeBron James when the superstar went through free agency in the summer 2010.
The Clippers didn't land James, but they got an interview and a pathway to more respect as a destination free agents might consider in the future.
"The situation there had been a joke for a long time," says Mark Heisler, who served as NBA columnist at the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years. "Neil was instrumental in changing that."
Things began to fall into place. The Clippers signed free agent Caron Butler from Dallas, re-upped with restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan and landed amnestied guard Chauncey Billups through waivers. Then there was the celebrated free-agent signing of point guard Chris Paul, with some help from NBA Commissioner David Stern.
What followed were in-season deals that brought on veteran role players Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin and Nick Young, solidifying a team that went 40-26 and beat Memphis in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals.
Olshey did his job with not a lot of help. The Clippers' front office was basically a two-man show with Olshey and Gary Sacks, the director of player personnel.
Contrast that to Portland, where interim GM Chad Buchanan worked with a director of NBA scouting (Mike Born), a salary-cap expert (Joe Cronin) and a pair of assistant GMs (Bill Branch and Steve Rosenberry).
Something else will be different for Olshey here. He won't be working for peanuts, at least comparatively speaking. After his contract as assistant GM (and then interim GM) expired with the Clippers last October, Olshey was paid on a month-to-month basis as an "at-will employee" for what is believed to be about $250,000 a year. His contract with the Blazers -- three years, with a team option for a fourth -- might be triple that figure.
Olshey insists the contract wasn't an issue, that Sterling -- with whom he held a good relationship -- would have matched Portland's figure if the owner had gotten the chance.
"The money was a wash," Olshey says. "It wasn't about that. It was really about that proactively, Paul and Larry and the (Blazers) organization were willing to make a commitment to me. Once Portland came in, (Sterling) was willing to put any resources together. The financial part of it wasn't an issue.
"I told Paul, 'If you make the offer and it's fair and equitable, I won't go and get a counter-offer (from Sterling).' Paul needed to hear that from me to know I was committed. At some point, money doesn't trump integrity. I wanted to be here because Paul wanted me here."
Dunleavy, Portland's head coach from 1997 to 2001, phoned Olshey on Monday when he heard the news of his hiring.
"I congratulated him, told him Portland is a great place to live and to raise a family," says Dunleavy, who now lives in Brentwood, Calif., and is out of basketball. "At some point, we'll go to dinner with our wives and talk about the ins and outs of living there."
Dunleavy was involved in a group that recently sought purchase of the New Orleans franchise.
"Tom Benson made a halfcourt shot with no time remaining on the clock to get the team," Dunleavy says. "I'm still looking for opportunities. I would love to be involved in coaching or management again."
Dunleavy calls Olshey "a great hire for the Blazers" and admits he would love to be the club's next coach.
"We would work well together," Dunleavy says.
Heisler considers Olshey's hiring a good thing for the Blazers, too.
"Neil is as good as there is among young guys in the business," says Heisler, who now writes for the website Sheridanhoops.com. "He is bright. He has an idea about what to do with a franchise. He is very good with the draft. He has a lot of contacts among agents."
Not everyone holds such a high opinion of Olshey.
One L.A.-based reporter calls him "a liar" who undermined coach Vinny Del Negro and had to be convinced to trade for Paul because guard Eric Gordon -- a centerpiece in the deal with the Hornets -- "is going to be an All-Star."
Ah, you can't please everybody.
What's not debatable is Olshey got a lot done with the Clippers, and that he could have stayed with them had he so desired.
"This isn't a lily pad to land on," Olshey says. "I had a home in Los Angeles. I had the same security financially and contractually that I'm going to have here.
"I wanted to make sure Paul and I were on the same page. As long as we share the same vision -- and clearly Paul gives you unlimited resources to execute that vision -- then there's not going to be any issue."
There will be no issues as long as Olshey produces what he preaches -- a team in championship contention during a five- to seven-year window. We can all agree on that.