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Olshey strategy: Draft talent

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey is thinking big as Portland enters the NBA draft.At the end of the 2012-13 season, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey made it clear his goals for improvement from a 33-49 record aren’t long term.

“Nobody wants to hear about a three-to-five-year plan,” Olshey said. “It’s why we matched Nic (Batum’s offer sheet) last year, didn’t trade any of our veterans, and we haven’t given up one asset. It’s why we are going to be aggressive again this summer.”

The summer work begins with tonight’s NBA draft. Barring an eleventh-hour trade, Portland will have the 10th selection in the first round and three second-round picks.

Olshey hasn’t spoken to the media in nearly a month and has a gag order on all Blazer employees, but he has made it clear that his offseason priority is twofold — acquire a defensive presence in the middle and add depth to a bench that ranked as one of the worst in league history.

If the Blazers wind up with the 10th pick — rather than including it in a trade — they may go with one of the players brought to Portland for workouts.

Of the seven lottery-type prospects, five were big men — 7-1 Rudy Gobert from France; 7-footers Steven Adams from Pittsburgh, Cody Zeller from Indiana, Kelly Olynyk from Gonzaga, and 6-11 Mason Plumlee from Duke.

Another who visited was 6-11 Mike Muscala from Bucknell, who figures to go later in the first round but improved his stock at the Chicago predraft camp and might be a sleeper.

The other two lottery types who came to Portland are guards — 6-6 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of Georgia and 6-3 C.J. McCollum of Lehigh.

With the expectation that center JJ Hickson will be allowed to go into free agency, second-year man Meyers Leonard will be the only true post man returning. Going on the premise of need, most mock drafts have the Blazers picking Zeller or Adams. That assumption seems reasonable.

It’s a weak draft, by the way, especially at the top.

“You can get just as good a player at 15 as you can at 5,” one NBA scout tells me. “There are some good players, but if you’re looking for immediate help, it’s not there.”

Under that scenario, Portland trading the pick — or moving down in the draft — makes sense. That’s especially true since the Blazers, with quality second-year players in Damian Lillard and Leonard, don’t need more rookies. They need veterans who can help now.

After the draft, the Blazers will move into the free agency period, which begins July 1. A trade could be tied into draft day or could come in the days thereafter. However it happens, Olshey’s first goal will be trying to acquire defensive help in the middle.

By renouncing free agents Hickson, Eric Maynor, Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams and Sasha Pavlovic, Portland will have $11.6 million in room under the salary cap ($58.5 million) in which to sign a free agent or use in an uneven trade, taking back more salary than it sends out. Also available is the mini-mid-level exception at about $3 million.

“If there is a player under contract who we can absorb into our (salary cap) room from a team that values a draft pick more than an established player, or they are moving in a different direction and it moves us forward faster, it’s clearly what we are going to do,” Olshey said at season’s end.

If a trade involved strictly a draft pick on Portland’s end, the Blazers could receive a player making up to $13 million in salary next season.

It’s unlikely any team would make such a deal, though, more likely requiring a veteran player in return.

Portland has little such value to offer in a trade. One possibility is a sign-and-trade with the 6-9 Hickson, who averaged 12.7 points and finished seventh in the NBA with 40 double-doubles and ninth in rebounds (10.2).

Olshey could include Batum ($11.3 million next season) or Wesley Matthews ($6.88 million) in a deal, but has indicated he prefers to hold on to those two, plus LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard.

Top-flight free agents are unlikely to sign with Portland. The best center on the market, Dwight Howard, won’t be a Blazer next season.

Then you have the remarkably unreliable Andrew Bynum, offense-oriented Al Jefferson, oft-injured Chris Kaman, Tiago Splitter and Nikola Pekovic, the latter two restricted free agents.

Splitter, an excellent interior defender, is 28 and best fits the Blazer need. Odds are San Antonio will match any offer.

Ditto with Pekovic — the best center on the list other than Howard — and Minnesota.

That leaves Zaza Pachulia, Timofey Mozgov and Samuel Dalembert.

Of those, the 7-1 Mozgov, who averaged 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 41 games with Denver last season, might make the most sense.

Would he be a better player than the 7-1 Leonard? I’m going to say no.

Portland’s best bet would seem to be using its salary cap room to make an uneven trade that would land a center. Problem with that is the Blazers have company. Half of the league’s 30 teams can get into position to create $10 million or more in cap room, including Atlanta and Utah, which both can have more than $30 million available.

Perhaps Olshey will target center DeAndre Jordan, whom he drafted during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. Jordan, who has two years and $22 million left on his contract, could be available, depending on Chris Paul’s future with the club, though new coach Doc Rivers will have his say in that.

Maybe Olshey could pry Nikola Vucevic (two years, $4.5 million) from Orlando or Marcin Gortat (one year, $7.7 million) from Phoenix.

I’d like to see the Blazers take a shot at Milwaukee’s 6-11 Larry Sanders, who ranked second in the NBA at 2.83 blocked shots per game and is in the final year of his contract at $3 million.

It’s not just about a center. Minus trades, Portland will enter the free-agency period with nine players under guaranteed contracts — Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, Matthews, Leonard, Joel Freeland, Victor Claver, Will Barton and the first-round draft pick. That leaves six roster spots.

“We have to increase the talent base from at least (player) one through nine,” Olshey told me in April. “That’s what we have to get to, no matter how we go about doing it.”

For help at other positions, free-agent perimeter players Jarrett Jack, J.J. Redick and Mike Dunleavy come to mind. Guys who can shoot and score off the bench. They’d fit into the Blazer “culture,” too.

Olshey has bold plans and plenty of swagger. The time to back it up with the acquisition of talent is upon him. The next few weeks will go a long way toward determining his future running Paul Allen’s franchise.

kerryeggers@portlandtribune.com Twitter: @kerryeggers