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The Clippers Most Important Free Agent is Neil Olshey

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When the Clippers held a press availability the day after the team was swept from the playoffs, the assembled media wanted to know about the status of coach Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro had been rumored to be on thin ice in March when a solid season-closing run supposedly saved his job, at least temporarily. Still, with an option for next season that must be picked up by June 1 (that's this Friday, by the way), Del Negro's situation remains very much an open question. When he was hired in 2010, the Clippers had Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon and some other intriguing young players, and the team was looking for some sustained growth towards respectability. All that changed when they traded for Chris Paul last December. Expectations for the team have gone through the roof, and mere respectability is not nearly enough. This team needs to compete for a championship, and do it sooner rather than later, in order to interest Paul in a long term commitment. Del Negro might have been a decent choice for player development and some baby steps on the road to contender status -- but he's probably not the right choice to be coaching a team that aspires to so much.

In that press availability, Clippers General Manager Neil Olshey deflected all questions regarding VDN's status by saying:

We're going to let it breathe for a little bit. Vinny and I decided, my contract, Vinny's contract, the trainer's contract, Gary Sacks' contract, those will work [themselves] out.

It was a good answer to defer the Del Negro question. But lost in the focus on the coach was another issue: did Neil Olshey just refer to "my contract"?

The Clippers have not typically locked up their General Manager with a long term contract. Heck, when you get right down to it, the Clippers don't even have a General Manger. Olshey's title is VP of Basketball Operations. And as was the case with Elgin Baylor for years, Olshey worked this season without a contract, as an "at-will" employee.

Which makes his situation different than Del Negro's. The Clippers have an option for a third year on Del Negro's contract, but the important distinction is that VDN is not in demand. With multiple high profile coaches currently on the job market, from Jerry Sloan to Nate McMillan to Mike D'Antoni to Stan Van Gundy, it's not as if another team is going to be trying to lure VDN away from the Clippers. Olshey on the other hand just completed a season in which he traded for Paul, signed Chauncey Billups off of amnesty waivers, signed Caron Butler, and stole Nick Young at the trade deadline. Olshey was third in the NBA's Executive of the Year voting this season, and probably should have been first. And he's a free agent. Any team with a GM opening (and there are a few) would be remiss not to at least interview him.

And apparently that process has begun. According to Ken Berger, Olshey met with Paul Allen, the owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, in London recently. This is a follow-up interview of sorts for Olshey with the Blazers -- the Portland GM position has been vacant since Kevin Pritchard was fired on draft day in 2011, and Olshey originally sat down with the Blazers last September during the lockout. Portland actually played this season without a GM, so Olshey and Allen are discussing the same job that they discussed last year.

The prospect of potentially losing Olshey so early in the CP3 era is daunting. It's not that he's infallible. If it seemed he could do no wrong during his last year on the job, remember that his batting average was much worse during his first year, when his big free agent signings were Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Brian Cook, he used the eighth pick in the draft to select Al-Farouq Aminu and then he traded away a draft pick that became first overall in order to get out from under Baron Davis' contract. My general impression of GM's is that they are never as good or as bad as they are purported to be at any one time. Joe Dumars wasn't a genius when the Pistons were flying high, and he's not a moron now (though he's probably closer to the second than the first). The same applies to Olshey. He's quite good at his job, but he's by no means irreplaceable.

What worries me about the possibility of Olshey being poached by the Blazers or someone else is simply that I have little confidence in the Clippers' ability to hire a competent replacement. It's difficult not to feel like the organization lucked into having a GM who happens to be so good at his job. The Clippers have only had three GMs in the last 25 years, and it's been that long since they hired one from outside the organization. When Elgin Baylor was fired in 2008, head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. took over the official title of GM, a role he'd been playing unofficially for several years at the time. When Dunleavy was let go in March 2010, his assistant Olshey became GM and eventually lost the interim title. I think Olshey has done a great job with the Clippers, but the primary force in him getting the job was inertia -- the franchise did little proactively to make it happen. As attractive as the job might be at present to any number of candidates, I don't have a warm and fuzzy feeling about what the organization would do to fill the position; not without Olshey himself around to conduct the search.

Would Olshey bolt the Clippers for greener pastures in Portland (where it does rain more, so things are indeed greener)? There are loads of factors of course, but assuming the Clippers are willing to at least be competitive from a contractual standpoint, probably not. Kevin Arnovitz, in his excellent profile of Olshey earlier this month, was actually quite prescient on this subject even before Olshey met with Allen:

The Clippers reiterate that Olshey is a cornerstone of their future, but if Olshey wanted to peddle his wares for a competitor, he could be on the next plane out of Los Angeles to a new job.

What's more likely to happen is that outside interest in Olshey will prompt the Clippers to secure his service for the long term. The Clippers have traditionally been a franchise that prefers to call rather than bet. They let the market set the price on talent, then decide whether they want to match that number.

The Portland Trail Blazers included Olshey in their executive search last offseason and he received positive reviews. Still, Los Angeles has been good to him. His wife is from California, and his two young sons attend school in Manhattan Beach. More than anything, the prospect of morphing the Clippers from a punch line to a paragon is his passion project.

What advantages might the Portland job offer for Olshey? Well, few owners have deeper pockets than Paul Allen, so that might be one. However, the Blazers tried outspending everyone for years which got them nowhere, and Allen has seemed reluctant in small market Portland to venture near the luxury tax for many seasons now. Meanwhile, with massive setbacks in the form of career-ending injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the Blazers are more or less starting over, building around LaMarcus Aldridge who's already paid like a superstar, but isn't a Chris Paul level building block, or even a Blake Griffin.

Sure, he'd have some nice draft picks to work with in Portland, but he's already made the transition from "interesting young team with a ton of assets to work with" to "potential contender" with the Clippers -- does he want to try to thread that needle again? Besides, if the biggest downside of the Clippers job is dealing with an eccentric and meddlesome owner, then Paul Allen is not the upgrade he's looking for. Allen may be genuinely more philanthropic than Sterling (Allen's charitable contributions tend to go to real organizations doing real good in the world), but he meddles more than Scooby and the gang -- just ask Pritchard.

Hopefully this all gets resolved soon. There are dominoes lined up here, and it's difficult to know which ones are the most important, but it would be best not to leave the process to chance. The deadline on Del Negro's extension is Friday; Olshey is presumably a key voice in deciding on Del Negro's future and would be crucial in identifying a new coach; with Paul likely to become a free agent next summer, input on a new coach is one of the biggest carrots the Clippers can offer in convincing him to stay; Olshey is the guy who pushed the Paul trade through, and the two of them appear to have a very positive relationship, so who knows how losing Olshey might affect Paul and/or Griffin in the future.

Olshey has provided an expert hand on the tiller of this Clipper ship for the past year -- now is not the time to wander rudderless into uncharted waters.