I've spent some time the last few days thinking about franchises that have ruined their season, or ruined their future, or lost their core of players, because they lost their general manager. After doing some research, digging around and really reflecting on the subject, here's the list I came up with:
Nothing. I'm open to suggestions, so leave a comment if you've got a good example.
When Jerry West left the Lakers for Memphis, many predicted the slow decline of the purple and gold without their long time leader, the talent-evaluating, cap manipulating genius who added Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to the team in the same off-season. And the Lakers did drop off for a couple of seasons there. But then they went to three straight Finals and won two more titles.
The bottom line is that talent wins in the NBA, and the Clippers have some talent right now. Yes, a competent general manager can help you acquire and retain talent, and the Clippers could certainly have a problem if they can't find a competent replacement. But let's keep this in perspective -- this is the general manager we're talking about, not Blake Griffin or Chris Paul. Does losing Olshey affect the team's ability to retain Griffin or Paul? Probably not, but we won't know that for a while.
Now before you accuse me of hypocrisy, given that I called Olshey the Clippers most important free agent just a week or so ago, don't bother. Of the myriad Clipper players who are free agents this summer, I'd consider Nick Young probably the most important to retain -- and yes, I would have rather retained Olshey than Nick Young. But that's because Nick Young is readily replaceable, and Olshey can be replaced as well.
I've said this many times before, but the nature of general managers in the NBA is that they are rarely as good as the media and fans portray them after they've made some good moves, nor as bad as they are portrayed after they've made some bad moves. It was not so many years ago that Joe Dumars was considered far and away the best general manager in the NBA -- then three summers ago he spent $90M on free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and spent the 15th pick in the draft on Austin Daye. Suddenly every remembered that this was the same guy who drafted Darko Milicic and began to question whether he was ever that good.
It was almost exactly a year ago when most of the citizens of Clips Nation were calling for Olshey's head on a platter after the 2011 draft lottery sent the first overall pick to Cleveland, with a draft pick that Olshey had traded away without any protections only three months before. So which is it? Is he the idiot that traded away Kyrie Irving to save some money, or is the genius that the franchise can't possibly survive without? He's neither. As of now, he seems to be a pretty good NBA front office executive, one that is employed by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Did the Clippers screw up in letting him walk? Did team president Andy Roeser or owner Donald Sterling make a grave miscalculation that resulted in Olshey bolting for the Pacific Northwest? Maybe. But there's certainly not any smoking gun here. And yes, I've heard the complaints.
Why was he working without a contract in the first place? It's certainly not standard in the NBA to work without a contract, but it doesn't seem particularly relevant either. Contracts come up for renewal, and Olshey was going to be a free agent at some point. Should the Clippers have given Olshey a multi-year deal back in 2011, after one year on the job, a year in which he signed Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes and traded away an unprotected lottery pick? Imagine the criticism the Clippers would have received had they done. Should they have locked him up in a long term deal once he'd pulled off the Paul trade? Possibly, but bear in mind that he'd already interviewed with Portland once at that point. If, as he has said since landing in PDX, he had his eye on the Portland job already, it's highly likely that he was keeping his options open since the Blazers had yet to fill their vacant GM position. For all we know, the Clippers wanted to sign him and he put them off, wanting to see what happened in Portland.
Sterling is a cheap bastard that refused to pay Olshey what he was worth! It's been reported that Olshey was among the lowest paid NBA executives while he was with the Clippers at about $250K. Then again, he was among the least experienced NBA executives, and did not have the typical background for an NBA executive -- someone had to be the lowest paid GM, and looking at resumes, you might very well have concluded that Olshey would be the guy, so it's far from obvious that he was underpaid. I guarantee you that Neil Olshey was thrilled with the opportunity he was given by the Clippers, and he has now parlayed two years of work in L.A. into a three year contract with one of the most deep-pocketed owners in the league. It's been reported that the Clippers were wiling to match the Portland offer but that Olshey had made up his mind, so it seems as if Sterling wasn't even outbid in this case. But what if he was? Would it really be so surprising that Paul Allen, one of the richest men in the world, might outbid another owner? Did Olshey leverage his negotiations with the Clippers that were reported last Friday to get a lucrative offer from Portland? Well, duh. Wouldn't you?
Sterling is the problem -- Olshey left because he didn't want to deal with him. This may well be true, but it's also speculation. It was of course just the party line and meaningless, but for what it's worth Olshey always said that Sterling supported everything he did. It's not as if Olshey has implied that Sterling was the issue since leaving either. The strange thing is, if the driving factor behind a decision to leave is to get away from a meddlesome owner, then Portland is hardly the best destination. Olshey is the Blazers' fourth GM in less than two years counting interim Chad Buchanan, and the two before Buchanan were fired because they couldn't get along with upper management. So if you're a GM, you don't exactly choose Portland for the job security or the free rein. The perception of the Clippers as a cheap and dysfunctional organization is well-earned, and it starts with Sterling. As long as he's the owner, the perception will remain, and every move the team makes will always be analyzed in that light. There's not much that can be done about that. But there's also not a lot of evidence beyond that perception to conclude that Sterling was a factor in this particular development.
Why did Olshey take the job in Portland over the Clippers job, if in fact the Clippers were willing to match the contract offer? We may never know for sure. At his press conference in Portland, he implied that it was just an organization he wanted to work for. Olshey was a protege of Mike Dunleavy with the Clippers, and Dunleavy spent four seasons with the Blazers. It's worth noting that the job in Portland is significantly different than the job in L.A. right now. Portland is in full-blown rebuilding mode whereas the Clippers have been through the rebuild and need to take the next step -- which most people will tell you is much, much harder. Olshey is a draft junkie -- in the immediate term, he's now got two lottery picks and four picks overall in Portland, where he had one late second rounder with the Clippers. He's also got cap space this summer in Portland, where he'd be working with the mid-level exception in L.A. Maybe Olshey's passion, the thing that really gets him excited, is taking a roster with a couple of building blocks and a bunch of assets and building them into a contender. He just did that with the Clippers, and maybe it was the greatest experience of his life. If he wants to do it again, he can't do it in L.A., but he's got a chance to do it again in Portland.
We don't know why he left, but it's simply not the end of the world folks. It doesn't mean Olshey is evil. It doesn't mean Sterling is evil (Sterling is evil, but we can base that on a lot of other things, not on this). It doesn't mean that anyone screwed up. People change jobs -- it happens for lots of reasons.
What's left is to see who the Clippers hire as the new GM. And to wish Neil good luck in Portland.