Lillard, GM have Blazers on track

Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey stepped onto the court with Damian Lillard before Thursday night’s tip-off and the crowd, a crowd that hasn’t had much to celebrate the last few years, let itself be heard.

The moment was meant to present the point guard with Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors, but the meaning behind the quick, intense burst of applause was as much about the future as it was about November.

During a 16-game stretch to open the season, which announced his arrival in a league already bursting with dominant point guards, Lillard averaged 18.4 points, 5.9 assists and 1.38 steals per game. And now, with their latest potential savior being honored before playing the Denver Nuggets, the crowd grew surprisingly intense.

Lillard, a highly touted question mark when he was taken with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, has turned his short NBA career into a burst of positivity for a franchise largely defined by serious busts, bad knees and terrible choices.

At least so far, the best rookie in the league is a sign that maybe, just maybe, all that hollow hope could be behind the Trail Blazers and their fans.

Through 24 games, including Thursday’s night’s 101-93 win over the Denver Nuggets, Lillard has been the best rookie in the league. He’s averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 assists per game. His youthful poise and leadership is a big reason this team is hovering around. 500 despite a very bad defense, woeful bench play and the distinction of having the fewest assists in the league.

Lillard’s playmaking ability for his teammates is, needless to say, sorely needed.

Even on off nights like Thursday, when he shot just 3 of 14, he still led an offense without injured LaMarcus Aldridge that found a way to beat a tenacious Denver team. Lillard finished with 12 points and 10 assists for his third double-double of the season. The Weber State product had two plays down the stretch — a huge 3 and a monster dunk – that willed his team to the win. It didn’t hurt that Denver went 0 for 22 from the 3-point line. Yes, 0 for 22.

Thanks largely to Lillard’s excellence, the Trail Blazers are 12-12 on the season. That record’s not a revelation, exactly, but it’s a solid mark given the thin state of this team’s roster and the distance it still has to go to compete in the grueling Western Conference.

Fact is, this is a point-guard led league, and it seems Portland now has a gem of one. Along with Aldridge and small forward Nic Batum, Lillard is part of an encouraging nucleus around which to build. Lillard’s speed, shooting ability, natural feel for the pick-and-roll and an advanced feel for the game and for winning have turned this lottery selection into a boon.

That’s obviously excellent news for the Blazers and their fans. But the real luck may not be that Lillard has worked out so marvelously. The real luck might be that the man who selected him is here at all.

Portland’s good fortune could be that the Los Angeles Clippers’ toxic culture forced the architect of that team’s good fortune to bolt for Portland.

In June, after his smart moves and canny instincts helped turn the laughingstock of the NBA into one of its best and deepest teams, Olshey resigned.

You don’t step away from a team that has Blake Griffin locked up for five years and Chris Paul likely to sign a similar long-term deal. You don’t leave a market such as Los Angeles, where stars will flock, for a place like Portland, where they won’t. You don’t turn your back on a championship-caliber team you put together to start over for a two-year-or-longer rebuilding project.

Unless a place is so poorly run, with a culture so difficult to function in and an owner so unpleasant to work for that it drives away successful people. But the Clippers’ amateurism may very well be the Trail Blazers’ good, and lasting, luck.

It’s certainly an organization that could use some.

The selection of Brandon Roy in 2006? Pretty good, considering he won Rookie of the Year. At least until a knee injury destroyed his career and Portland’s well-laid plans.

Ditto having the No. 1 overall pick the following year, and passing on Kevin Durant to take sure-thing Greg Oden. Made all the sense in the world, until Oden’s knee injuries wrecked his career, too.

This is an organization plagued by false saviors, one in which even its successes come with doses of what-could-have-been. Sam Bowie as the No. 2 pick in 1984 instead of Michael Jordan speaks for itself. Bill Walton as the No. 1 pick in 1975 helped them win a title in 1977, but his own injuries negated much of what had been expected from him and that team.

Perhaps Lillard — and Olshey — can be the start of more winning, the way the Blazers did in the early 1990s when Clyde Drexler helped take them to two NBA Finals.

Olshey’s tenure with the Clippers was short and had its own share of good luck. He was an assistant GM when they took Griffin as the no-brainer first pick in 2009. But he orchestrated the Paul trade last December without draining the franchise of all its complementary pieces (unlike, say, the New York Knicks), allowing him to hold onto Eric Bledsoe, now the best backup point guard in the league.

Then Olshey built around that core group by getting Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler and wisely matching Golden State’s offer sheet for DeAndre Jordan.

That’s good work.

You could argue everyone but Portland lost out when Olshey left the Clippers, Olshey included. There will be no top-five stars hoping to force their way to Portland, and if this team is ever bad enough to land another No. 1-overall, franchise-saving pick like Griffin, Olshey is unlikely to still be here to make the selection.

No, this effort will be much, much harder. But if Lillard is any indication — and the guts it took to use that pick, acquired from Brooklyn last year for Gerald Wallace, on a player who did not face top-tier talent while at Weber State — then Portland got their man.

Check that.

They got their men.

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