New GM Olshey building Clippers into a winner

New GM Olshey building Clippers into a winner

Published Jan. 16, 2012 5:31 p.m. ET

PLAYA VISTA, CA - With the Clippers in the midst of a another five-game week in this shortened NBA season, they continue to battle the Lakers for first place in the Pacific Division. The Clips are 8-4 with a .667 winning percentage, 1.5 games behind the Lakers at 10-5, as L.A.'s "other team" continues to challenge the 16-time champions this season.

Nothing illustrates that point better than the acquisition of Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets.

The All-Star point guard joined Blake Griffin and Co. a few days after David Stern vetoed a three-team deal between the Lakers, Houston and the Hornets that would have seen Paul sharing the backcourt with Kobe Bryant instead of Chauncey Billups. The NBA-owned Hornets are under the watchful eye of the commissioner, who felt that getting Lamar Odom and other players wasn't enough in return. So, the Lakers not only lost Paul, they had to trade Odom, who was distraught that the Lakers would have the audacity to try and trade him.

The Clippers, meanwhile, ended up with Paul, Billups and incumbent Mo Williams — All-Stars each — and all the publicity that comes with great guards and the phenomenal Griffin. They're no longer a joke in the city or the league, thanks to a man who once aspired to be the next Robert De Niro rather than the next Jerry West.

Clippers GM and VP of Basketball Operations, Neil Olshey, was a working actor in New York City when he decided to scrap the casting calls for a chance to teach basketball. He eventually ended up at Artesia High School as a volunteer coach and began to tutor a young Jason Kapono, future UCLA star and now member of the Lakers.

"All of a sudden, he was just there one day," recalls Kapono, twice the winner of the three-point contest during NBA All-Star Weekend. "We hit it off right away. He helped me improve my game so much that I can tell you I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for him."

"I'm not sure that's the case," said an appreciative Olshey when informed of Kapono's praise. "Jason has always been a great player and a great person, and he would have made it because he's got a skill set that makes him valuable to any team. But we've been friends for a long time, and it's great he feels that I've helped him along the way."

It's not just Kapono whose career has been enhanced by Olshey's techniques.

Following his work at Artesia, the LeMoyne College (NY) grad started a player development company and was eventually hired by SFX Sports Group to run a similar department. Olshey's resume as a developer of basketball talent is nothing short of remarkable, as his tutelage helped produce 15 lottery picks, 25 first rounders and nearly 60 current NBA players.

"I was never good enough as a player," said Olshey. "But I always stayed around the game, working camps and working clinics. Then when I moved to Los Angeles, I started working at Artesia High with coach Wayne Marino.

"Things just kept moving along after that. I met Jason when he was in eighth grade, and I worked with him almost every day right through his college career at UCLA. When he was deciding whether or not to go pro after his freshman year, I worked him out to get him ready for the NBA teams to see him. Jason went back to school, but some people noticed what we were doing, and I was referred to (SFX President) Arn Tellem, who hired me to take over the workout for all their basketball clients. During the five or six years we did that, (former Clippers coach and GM) Mike Dunleavy became aware of me, and when he said he was looking for a player development guy for his staff, I jumped at the opportunity."

Working under Dunleavy, Olshey and the Clippers had the No. 1 pick in the draft in 2009, and the team was bombarded by calls from the other NBA teams, who all desperately wanted a chance to take Oklahoma's Griffin. This is where the culture of the Clippers changed from not-so-lovable losers to a team which is poised to make a deep run in the playoffs this season.

After listening to many offers — some of them "very good offers, too" according to Olshey — he and the rest of Clippers management decided to resist the urge to try and "quick fix" the team. They took Griffin, who missed his entire first season with an injury, but then rebounded to win the Rookie of the Year award last season. It was a decision that has certainly paid off. However, it wasn't easy to turn down the bounty some of the teams were offering.

"It sure wasn't," the GM said. "We could have gotten some good players and picks, but it was important to look at the big picture. It wasn't the right time in our history for us to give up a chance to draft Blake, because we are trying to establish an identity and we were confident he was the guy to do it for us. Yeah, there was a little bit of worry when he (fractured his) kneecap, but the doctors assured us after the surgery he'd make a full recovery, and he certainly has."

Griffin missed all of the 2009-10 season, with the Clippers finishing 29-53, with Mike Dunleavy being fired as GM and head coach and Olshey taking over as GM. The team went 32-50 the following season, in Olshey's first full year as GM, but finished 27-29 after a 5-21 start.

With the emergence of Griffin as a superstar and the Clippers' busy offseason it's easy to spot a change in organizational philosophy. But Olshey remains humble when it comes to taking credit for the team's vast improvements.

"It's really everybody and everything," he said. "It's (owner Donald) Sterling taking money out of his own pocket to build a practice facility that's second to none in the NBA, which changed the perception. We try to get every visiting team to practice here when they play the Lakers, so we can get guys into the building and they can see what's it's like. Chris Paul, Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups have all been (to our facility) before they joined us and they knew what we had here. Having a practice facility like this dispels all the myths (about ownership not wanting to spend money). If someone puts out this kind of money for a place that generates no revenue, you know they're committed. It's important that people know that.

"It's also the commitment to make deals that might be questioned at the time — like trading Baron Davis at the deadline last season, and a few other moves. But when we drafted Blake, it was like getting a Faberge Egg — you do everything you can to take care of it. So, we felt that it was better to get the right type of players around Blake, even if it looked like we were making some questionable moves. We always had a plan, and right now we're executing it. Bringing in Chris, Chauncey, Caron and having DeAndre Jordan and Mo already here with Blake gives us a good team on the floor and in the locker room. But if there hadn't been a noticeable change in the culture, I don't think Chris OKs the deal to come here. It was hard to give up (Eric) Gordon, but we feel Chris is the final element."

Not surprisingly, Clippers management is thrilled with Olshey's performance so far and has given them their full support — something Elgin Baylor and Dunleavy would probably say they never had.

"Neil has done a fantastic job ever since he came to our organization," said Clippers president Andy Roeser. He has fantastic knowledge of not only the players in the league today, but of those in the pipeline to get to the NBA. That gives us a great deal of confidence as an organization. He's a hard worker, he knows how to identify the right deal and then go out and get it done.

"He's done a heck of a job putting this team together and we're all very proud of him."