The Portland Trail Blazers are officially free of Neil Olshey following a refreshing press conference with three men who will take the franchise forward, at least in the short term. Head Coach Chauncey Billups, President of Business Operations Dewayne Hankins and Interim General Manager Joe Cronin conversed with reporters in a convivial and honest discussion Thursday morning.
While it was great to hear from all three, the star was Cronin, who while still relatively unknown, has been with the Blazers organization since joining as a basketball operations intern in 2006.
Cronin was the headline act for two main reasons. First, he currently has the power to change the team’s recently-dismal performances on the court. From comments made over 40 minutes, it appears Cronin has a pretty long leash to do deals and field inquiries despite the “interim” caveat on his official title. And why not? The last Portland interim GM Chad Buchanan pulled off the deal that landed Damian Lillard in Portland.
“My understanding is yes, go out and do your job, find deals and participate as if you are the GM.”
But secondly, and perhaps more telling, was Cronin’s demeanor, his personality and how it contrasted with his former boss, Olshey.
For nine years, Olshey ruled his rare Blazers press conferences with aggression, avoidance and gaslit retorts. We now know his approach wasn’t exclusive to the media and the Portland fanbase, but also reigned within the confines of the organization itself.
Cronin appeared on Thursday almost as the anti-Olshey: softly spoken where Olshey was brash and bombastic, collegiate were Olshey seemed vindictive, considered where Olshey was often volatile, and finally genuine, a word seldom used to describe the former television actor.
Interestingly, Cronin was honest about the roster’s shortcomings...shortcomings Olshey previously blamed on former coach Terry Stotts.
“We know we have some challenges with this roster, we like our team, we’ve had some high moments and we’ve had some low moments this season. It’s been a unique year so far for us but we’re committed to being aggressive to be willing to take on risks, to being creative and forward thinking. Chauncey and I, we talk a lot about what it takes to win and what we believe winning basketball looks like and I think we’re super aligned in what type of product and what type of team we need to have in order to reach the levels that we’re trying to reach.”
“The core challenge I think we’re facing is it’s extremely difficulty to go from good to great. To take that next leap that extra whatever percent it is, five, 10. We’ve had a solid team for years, we had a ceiling, how do we burst through that ceiling in order to really compete, and when we say really compete we mean walk into the gym every night and have that swagger to know that we are one of the best teams in the league, we have a very realistic chance of winning this whole thing. I don’t know if we have that swagger now or that confidence, sometimes you just know it, you have that pop in your step. It’s evaluating what we need to do, what pieces we need to add, what changes we need to make in order to take that next step.”
When given the chance to throw shade at decisions made by his former boss, Cronin chose to take the high road. He also spoke about his mandate to address cultural issues without mentioning Olshey’s issues.
“Throughout a front office you always have different views and you have similar views, you collaborate and you discuss players, whether it’s a draft pick or a trade and there’s many things you agree on because you were part of it, you voted for it. And there’s other things you disagree on, maybe it was a draft pick where one person liked one player and one person liked another. And you might not be fully aligned on that player but you definitely are once you go into that room and make that selection and then have that player on your roster and you’re together on that. There’s a lot of agreement and some disagreement.”
Cronin also spoke about the dynamic between himself and ownership, naming Jody Allen and Bert Kolde and the process required when executing trades.
“I’m going to get the deal to the one-yard line and then I’m going to take it to Jody (Allen) and Bert and then they make the final call and they’ll have our recommendation as to what to do.”
“Ownership has been very upfront with me and they’ve told me that they believe in me and obviously by giving me this role, they trust me to transform this organization.”
Finally, he spoke about the perceived urgency to make a trade to address obvious flaws but interestingly spoke of being creative. Given Cronin’s reputation as a cap specialist, I’d be curious to see if some out-of-left-field deals emerge.
“I want to be patient and I don’t want to be reactive, but I do feel urgent to, at least, find out what’s out there and what’s available. “Now I want to be patient in evaluating and making decisions. The urgency is more making calls, talking to people, being creative, thinking out of the box on deals, I have a big urgency to do that and I do want to be aggressive but at the same time I want to pull back and have a really smart and collaborative look at things. But we’re not afraid to do something if we need to and we’ll do whatever we need to in order to take us to the next step. But I do want to be patient and I don’t want to panic about losing a few in a row and hitting a little rough patch. We want to have a bigger picture in mind.”
It doesn’t feel like the franchise is in a great rush to name a permanent, full-time General Manager. Cronin, Danny Ainge, Dennis Lindsey, Tayshaun Prince, Scott Perry, Marc Eversley and Chad Buchanan have all been mentioned in speculation about the position.
To be honest, while I can understand the want to get that long-time appointment done, there’s also a reassurance from hearing Cronin speak. He’s a safe pair of hands.
He also has his work cut out for him, facing questions about retaining franchise player Damian Lillard and securing the best possible return for key rotation players like McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington. Sitting idle doesn’t seem like a viable course.
At least after Thursday’s performance, the Blazers Universe will breathe easier giving Cronin a chance to show what he can do.