by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - NEIL OLSHEYWhen Neil Olshey met with the Portland Tribune in late January, the Trail Blazers' first-year general manager said a number of things.

Olshey said there would be no quick-fix free-agent signings to help the club make the playoffs. That he intended to maintain salary-cap room -- from between $11.8 million and $13.1 million -- with which to use in player acquisition in the summer. That the Blazers needed more defensive interior presence. That he would build around the "Core Four" -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and rookie Damian Lillard. That the Portland bench was weak, but he intended to add depth to "get to eight or nine players, where we have no letdown during the time (the reserves) are playing."

Ten weeks later, nothing much has changed.

Against odds, the Blazers stayed in the playoff hunt until finally falling off in late March. Olshey added one player at the trade deadline, low-budget point guard Eric Maynor, at the cost of a $2.2 million trade exception. Maynor has had good value as a capable backup to Lillard.

In an interview during Portland's Wednesday night loss to Memphis at the Rose Garden, Olshey appraised the Blazers' season -- referring to it in past sense, though it doesn't end until the April 17 finale against Golden State -- and offered updates on the direction the local quintet is headed.

Tribune: Would you judge this season a success?

Olshey: It went well. We had a good season. We stayed in the playoff race longer than anybody thought. Our young guys have all gotten better. We've won close games, which is a testament to how (coach) Terry Stotts has managed the games. The assistant coaches have done a great job with the development of rookies like Victor Claver and Meyers Leonard. We fell short of our hopes to get into the playoffs. But based on preseason prognostications, for how long we remained competitive with how young we were and how limited our bench was, we had a positive year.

Tribune: If you finish among the bottom 12 in the NBA in terms of regular-season record, you retain your first-round draft pick. If not, you send the pick to Charlotte. As the man most responsible for the team's future, has that left you with mixed emotions about your team's success, given that even if you had made the playoffs, first-round elimination seemed probable?

Olshey: Anybody in this business is in it because he's a competitor. If we are in pursuit of a playoff (spot), I couldn't care less whether we got that draft pick or not. I wouldn't want anybody in this organization -- coaches, front office, anybody -- who didn't want to win every single game. There are certain realities. … but you think any of these guys on the floor right now aren't in this game to win? We're here to build an organization with a winning culture and championship habits. You don't do that by scoreboard watching from a negative (standpoint).

Tribune: Where must you improve the team?

Olshey: I don't think we're talented enough right now. It's not position-specific. The first player acquisition vehicle after the season is the draft. You have to hone into whether (acquiring talent) means using your pick to select a player or to construct a deal that involves the pick. But we have to add talent to this team. We win a certain number of positions each night, but we lose a lot more than we win. We have to shore up areas on this roster through the draft, trades and free agency, where we can compete one through 15 against teams that have more depth in their talent base.

Tribune: What is on your plate in the weeks following the season?

Olshey: After our exit meetings with players, we have the Nike Hoop Summit in town (on April 20). I'll stay for that. Then on Monday (April 22), myself, (assistant director of scouting) Joe Cronin and (assistant general manager) Steve Rosenberry are on a flight to Europe to cover all the European guys. I haven't had a chance to scout them yet, because I've been focused on our team and the American players.

Tribune: You kept the entire player personnel staff after you were hired last June, including Cronin, Rosenberry, assistant GM Bill Branch and scouting directors Chad Buchanan and Mike Born. How has the synergy been there?

Olshey: It has worked well. We all knew each other … from seeing each other on the road, at draft camps, at workouts. From an ethical standpoint, I felt the right thing to do was keep the guys in place, making sure we were going to have a good working relationship -- not just the working with me, but me working with them.

We only had three weeks to prepare for the (2012) draft, but we grinded it out and had a real successful draft. We did a good job at the trade deadline extracting value based on what we were willing to put out. Now we'll have a much longer curve, digging into the trenches, doing Europe, doing the predraft camps together, which we weren't able to do last year. Everybody in the front office is unique and brings something to the table and accepts his role. From a collegial standpoint, there's a good working relationship.

Tribune: Have you made the progress you expected when you were hired?

Olshey: Absolutely. We have four starting spots filled with the development of Damian. J.J. Hickson had a good year and Meyers is developing, but (center) is the one hole left we haven't proactively filled. Victor has shown the ability to be a contributor. Joel Freeland has a chance to contribute, too.

But you don't build a bench before you build a starting lineup. You can't take away your cap flexibility or your assets to build players six through nine until you have one through five set. That's what this offseason will be about. Our starting lineup played with any team in the league this season. Off the bench, we've gone a lot with the young guys, and they've shown the ability they have. That will strengthen our bench next year, even if they move down in the rotation.

Tribune: And you have the means by which to upgrade much further.

Olshey: We have $13 million in cap room, potentially a lottery pick, the mini mid-level (exception, about $3 million), an aggressive owner and some young assets we can put in play as well. I've been here for nine months. … one of the biggest mistakes you can make in this business is to be reactive. Myself, Terry, (president/CEO) Chris McGowan, we can't react to what our predecessors did or didn't do. We have to build the organization we inherited.

We were aggressive with the cap room we had last summer (signing restricted free-agent Roy Hibbert to an offer sheet). it didn't work out, but we also didn't hamstring ourselves by using it prematurely on guys who weren't going to get us where we needed to go longterm. So we deferred (the plan) to this summer.

Tribune: Can you get the center you want with your first-round draft pick or through free agency, or might you move the pick to swing a deal for a veteran?

Olshey: I'm open to anything. Every move we make this offseason has to be made where we maximize our flexibility. Every penny of cap room. … the mini-mid level, our draft pick, our second-round picks. It's not just about adding one player. We're not deep enough right now. We're not talented enough. We have to make moves that increase the talent base at least one through nine. That's what we have to get to, no matter how we go about doing that.

Tribune: What are the chances of re-signing Hickson, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1?

Olshey: We have J.J.'S Bird Rights. He has a very high cap hold ($7.98 million). It's not just a question of whether you bring him back. It's within the context of … what positions would you not be able to bring in if you sign him?

We are the worst team in the NBA in points in the paint and protecting the rim. We've been disguising J.J., who has been a warrior and played hard all year, but there's a certain reality to playing a 6-8 power forward as your 5-man. That's not an indictment of J.J. He has played out of position and done all we've asked him to do. But we've become a 3 (small forward) and rim type of league. We have the 3-man down. Now defensively, we have to protect the rim better.

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