Blazers begin preparations for future

GM says team will be aggressive in building roster

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. — The Trail Blazers appeared for exit interviews, listened to feedback from management and announced their summer plans for the offseason on this continent or another.

On Thursday afternoon, as scheduled flights promised to take players to their desired destinations as well as extricate them from the historically wretched conclusion to the season, general manager Neil Olshey also revealed his plans while envisioning an active summer on the horizon.

“We’re going to be incredibly aggressive over the next two months in building the roster,” Olshey said. “We’re going to get deeper. This roster isn’t talented enough. We’re not talented enough. We don’t have a deep enough talent base and that’s what we need to rebuild.”

With $11.6 million in cap room, four draft picks and other player-asset tools at his disposal, Olshey indicted that the team will focus on landing a starting center who can help defend the rim. So, the first step in this process began early as the team waived veteran forward/center Jared Jeffries.

Jeffries, 31, played one season in Portland and had not appeared in a game since March 10. If the Blazers had not renounced the rights to Jeffries, then soon the team would have been on the hook to owe him more than $1.5 million in a guaranteed contract for the 2013-2014 season. Instead, the Blazers opted to waive Jeffries to clear salary cap space.

“Like we told Jared, we’ll look into it at the end of the summer. If we have a need (and) he doesn’t have a job, it’s something we can discuss,” Olshey said about the prospects of re-signing Jeffries, a locker room favorite. “But right now, where this organization is going, we need every ounce of cap room we can get to create the best roster possible.”

In creating this roster, even the sacrifice of a likeable guy like Jeffries must be necessary in order to make significant strides in building depth from the 6th to the 10th spots.

The Trail Blazers (33-49) started with an unknown rookie point guard and holes throughout the roster but still somehow sparked the season with a cache of wins over playoff-bound teams.

As Damian Lillard (19.0 points and 6.5 assists per game) emerged as the point guard that the franchise has desperately coveted, the team ascended to the Western Conference playoff picture.

Also, with early-season wins over the Lakers, Knicks, Rockets and Spurs, the Blazers peaked at five games over the .500 mark by mid January. However, the team fell out of contention in March, rested injured starters Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum near the end and descended to such low depths that Terry Stotts concluded the season by coaching five rookies on the floor as the team lost its 13th straight game.

Near the completion of the worst losing streak in 41 years, owner Paul Allen sat up from his front-row baseline seat on Wednesday night and exited the Rose Garden one last time with Olshey.

“‘Just promise me we’re going to be more competitive next year,’” Olshey said, recalling Allen’s words.

Olshey’s response: “We are.”

“The guys who are playing last night are competing their tails off and they just didn’t have enough to get it done night in and night out in this league over these last 15 games when we were shorthanded,” Olshey told the assembled media at the Blazers’ practice facility. “My commitment to Paul and to Terry is to make this the most competitive team possible in terms of talent and there’s nobody I trust more than Terry. Once he gets the right pieces in place, we are going to see a huge jump in terms of wins and losses.”

Besides waiving Jeffries, the Blazers could soon wave goodbye to at least three other players. The likely candidates — free agents J.J. Hickson, Luke Babbitt and Nolan Smith — all voiced ambiguous or downright skeptical views on their returns to Rip City.

On Thursday, Hickson responded to inquiries with: “why not come back?” However, the previous night Hickson told The Columbian that he was looking forward to “having the opportunity to get better and make someone else’s team better.”

Hickson, who carries a cap hold of $8 million, played as an undersized starting center on a team that ranked last in the league in defending the interior (47.4 points allowed in the paint).

Babbitt, the third-year forward, discussed a possible return to the Blazers but the team already carries three players with guaranteed contracts at his position (LaMarcus Aldridge, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland).

“It’s always an open door. Obviously not the greatest chance in the world that I’ll be back but it’s not a closed door either,” Babbitt said. “So I haven’t even talked to my agent about it. I haven’t really had any conversations about next year. The season just ended one day ago. I’m sure I’ll know more in the next couple weeks.”

Finally, Smith, the former 2011 first-round draft pick, ended his media session by hugging several reporters. Smith had chatted with Olshey and came to the conclusion that his brief time as a Blazer was over.

“(The Blazers) have a path that they want to go down. It’s pretty obvious that I’m not on it right now,” Smith said. “I’ll have chances to go continue to show what I can do for a team and a situation that better suits my game.”