It was just a few days before the NBA trading deadline and Trail Blazer President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey was looking to add something to a healthy team that -- with Jusuf Nurkic, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum rolling -- had a chance to make a postseason run.
Little did he know, at the time, what injuries would do to his roster. And he couldn’t have known what a big role Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter would play, getting the Trail Blazers to Sunday afternoon’s one-game showdown for a berth in the Western Conference finals.
Coach Terry Stotts was asked, where would this team be without those trade-deadline acquisitions?
“At home watching television,” Stotts said. “Rodney and Enes, what they’ve given us in both the Oklahoma City series and this series, we wouldn’t be where we are without them.”
“We made a mistake last year,” Olshey said. “We had a 50-win team, but we weren’t deep enough to handle the injuries going into the playoffs.
“So what we really looked at this year was, where can we fortifying the roster where we’re not bringing in somebody that, if we remain healthy, they’re superfluous, but could be an upgrade from current guys getting rotation minutes that fit our style of play?”
First came Rodney Hood, acquired in a deal with Cleveland on Feb. 4 for Wade Baldwin, Nik Stauskas and two second-round picks.
“We had a very short list of perimeter guys and the key was, it had to be a guy who could play the two and three, in order to get enough minutes to justify the acquisition,” Olshey said. “We did not want a one-position player. We wanted somebody that we had comps of guys who had played in Terry’s system who had flourished.
“The way that Rodney scored is the way that a lot of our perimeter players have scored in the past. We were used to posting Wes Matthews and posting Aaron Afflalo and posting Evan Turner. We were trying to replicate that. Instead of trying to find a niche for something we might be missing, we decided, let’s go that way.
“The reason we were able to get Rodney for less than a first-round pick is he was willing to give up his Bird rights. So Cleveland got fair value for a guy on a one-year qualifying offer who was likely to walk at the end of the year for nothing.
“Kudos to Rodney – we had multiple conversations with Rodney and his representatives about if he was going to be giving up his Bird rights, what the opportunity was going to be, how many minutes he would get, the success of the perimeter players we’ve had who have gone on to major paydays -- either from us or other teams.
“It was a robust market for Rodney at the trade deadline and we were very lucky in that recruiting battle that he chose us.”
Hood says it was an easy call after those conversations.
“I had no idea I would end up here in Portland,” Hood said. “Portland was one of the last teams I talked with and once I talked with Neil and once my agent talked to Neil, it was kind of a no-brainer.
“There was a need for me here. It was an opportunity for me to kind of get back on track. It went both ways – I think I’ve helped the team and being here, really helped me.
“I had a good relationship with some of the guys on the team and I always liked how they played. I like the feel of the city.”
Olshey was looking for the Utah version of Hood, and that’s what his team has gotten.
“This is not an out-of-body experience,” Hood said. “I’m the same guy I’ve always been. This is just the right place. This system fits me – it fits a lot of good players. The ball moves.
Olshey said the organization is building credibility with agents and players for stability and keeping its word.
“Because we now have seven years, we are a perennial playoff team and they know that we’re an honest organization,” Olshey said. “After the time we’ve been together, I can speak for Terry. If you come, I can assure you this is your role, this is how we play.
“We trust our culture and we trust in guys like Dame,” Olshey said. “It’s a nurturing environment. Obviously, Rodney’s confidence was affected by what happened in Cleveland last year.
“But look at some of the reclamation projects we’ve had here. Guys with high-end talent like Moe Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, a guy like Seth Curry who had been out for a year with an injury, the success we’ve had with guys who have been overlooked or undervalued by other organizations who have maximized their talent by being in our culture. That was really comforting for Rodney, also.”
Kanter arrived on Feb. 14, a free agent after being bought out of his contract with the Knicks. Olshey had to recruit Kanter away from several teams chasing him, including the Lakers, who were still in a playoff hunt.
Again, Kanter and his agent chose a role – backup center to Nurkic with guaranteed minutes and the promise of being a starter in the event of an injury. And that’s worked out extremely well, even though other teams offered starting roles.
“He’s playing against perhaps the best center in the league and he’s had two shoulder separations in the last couple of weeks,” Olshey said of Kanter. “He’s out there playing with one arm.”
Kanter is another player who fell in love with the culture in Portland after he got here. Did he expect what he’s found with the Trail Blazers. Did he even know the team was this good?
“I’ll be honest with you – no,” Kanter said. “I knew they were a very good team on the court, but I didn’t know that this group of guys were that good of a people off the court. Really good friends, real good chemistry and a real good, professional organization.
“I had no idea. But once you get here, you know, man, this is something special.”
Whether Kanter or Hood return next year is pure conjecture. Portland cannot go over the salary cap to sign either player and at this point has only the taxpayer exception of under $6 million to sign players.
Olshey won’t get into possibilities but won’t slam the door, either.
“As of today, we have limited tools at our disposal,” he said. “Maybe there are some cap gymnastics we can pull off to create some more cap flexibility. That’s an offseason conversation. But also, it’s a fair bargaining. These guys came in here, one without Bird rights and the other on a buyout for a pro-rated minimum, and these guys capitalized on it. God bless them,
“That’s how this is supposed to work. They’re giving us a chance to win and we’re giving them a platform to showcase themselves prior to their unrestricted free agency.
“Look, if we can pull something off, we will try our best to pull it off but if not, then our job is to go out and find other versions of them next summer.”