PORTLAND — Turn back the calendar one year and imagine a free agent earnestly explain his decision to sign with the Portland Trail Blazers as a desire to make the playoffs.
Those words would have generated smothered snickers and dramatic eye rolls. Back then, the team stood at the ground floor, looking toward days like Thursday when the Blazers completed a yearlong rebuild with the signing of unrestricted free agent Mo Williams.
Williams said that he had other suitors, even teams where he could have filled in as the starting point guard. However, no destination seemed as tempting as Portland. In his eyes, Rip City is on the rise.
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“I like everything that Neil (Olshey) is doing here,” said Williams, who has averaged 13.8 points (38.6 percent 3-point shooting), 5 assists and 2.9 rebounds in 10 NBA seasons. “When we talked, he was really passionate about making the playoffs and he knows the type of player and person that I am, that winning is really important to me.
"That’s why my decision took a long time because I wanted to make sure that I was in a position to win. That’s what I see here. That’s why I came here because I feel like I can be a piece of the puzzle for this organization, for these young guys.”
The Thursday introductory press conference seemed like a reunion at times.
Olshey, now the Blazers general manager, once served as the Los Angeles Clippers vice president of basketball operations and traded for Williams late in the 2010-2011 season.
Much like the Blazers of today, that Clippers team compiled a bevy of small and versatile guards. Olshey believes the Blazers can replicate that same successful model with Williams, Damian Lillard and rookie CJ McCollum. Launched by their guards, the Clippers advanced to the 2012 playoffs.
“Guards win games,” Olshey said, before remembering the Clippers’ success. “We were in the second round of the playoffs. We just came at people. We had a lot of firepower. We were hard to guard and everybody on our perimeter could dribble, pass and shoot. We opened the floor up and I think that’s the way the game is going.”
As the Blazers courted Williams through free agency, he willingly accepted the secondary role behind Lillard. Though he last started with the Utah Jazz, Williams backed up All-Star Chris Paul. Also, early in his career with head coach Terry Stotts in Milwaukee, Williams sparked the bench. Now in Portland, Williams pictures himself as a reserve-plus one.
“You can look at me as a sixth starter,” Williams said. “I’m not going to be the savior … but I’m a piece and I’m a valuable piece.
“I had a situation to go start but I felt like this organization is on the rise. I felt like I’m in a situation in my career where I still could be a major piece to a puzzle for a team.”
While Williams envisions an improved Blazer team that can advance to the postseason, he did not foresee the fuss surrounding his decision to pick No. 7 as his jersey number.
Not so long ago in an injury-plagued Blazer era, Brandon Roy wore the No. 7. Even though degenerative knees prematurely ended his days in Portland, Roy remains a beloved former Blazer.
Williams was asked if he had any hesitation in choosing that number in this city. Midway through the question, Olshey closed his eyes and laughed to himself. Williams, stone-faced, admitted the question had caught him off guard. Still, he recovered to share a detailed story that explained his choice.
Apparently when Williams learned that his first three choices were already taken (25, 5 and 2), he decided on the sum result of his former jersey — “we’ll put two and five together,” he said.
It also helped that eight-year-old Maurice, Jr. approved.
“ ‘What number do you want me to be, son?’ ” Williams recalled. “He said, ‘you know what, dad? I like No. 7… It’s seven of us. It’s you and mama and it’s five of us.’ ”
“I said you know what? ‘We’ll take seven.’ ”
• ALL DONE: The signing of Williams concludes a busy offseason of deals and trades. The roster now stands at the 15-man limit and on Thursday, Olshey said that the team is now set for the court.
“We’ve got 15 guys. Everybody was brought here for a purpose. We built our roster without jeopardizing any long-term flexibility. We can compete today,” Olshey said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of building our asset pool with younger players that have value around the league, that have a chance to grow with the organization, and we also have a nice mix of veterans.”
So, in conclusion.
“Yeah, we’re done,” Olshey said.
• ON LAMARCUS: Without prompting, Olshey shared LaMarcus Aldridge’s thoughts about the Williams deal.
This summer, several reports indicated that Aldridge, 28, wants out of Portland. However, Olshey painted a picture of a content All-Star.
“I think LaMarcus is going to take a big step forward in terms of leadership and he’s really excited about this signing as well,” Olshey said. “Now we get to the fun part which is guys coming back, getting into Portland, getting in the gym working out. Kind of seeing how it’s all going to work.”