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Trail Blazers’ New Leadership Converses With Press

It feels like a new day in Rip City.

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers’ organization held a press conference featuring interim general manager Joe Cronin, head coach Chauncey Billups, and president of business operations Dewayne Hankins on Thursday morning. The difference in tone was striking from the start, as the group noted it was meant to be a “conversation,” not a press conference.

Dewayne Hankins led off the conversation, thanking Chris McGowan for his mentorship and acknowledging that the business side of the organization is facing its own challenges due to the continuing pandemic. Hankins recognized that the organization continues to be data-driven and focused on innovation. He lauded the Trail Blazers’ organizational efforts towards diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Joe Cronin spoke next. Like Hankins, he thanked several people in the organization, including Hankins, Billups, and owner Jody Allen. Cronin said that one of his main focuses is on listening to what people need in this moment. He is looking to improve communication and build a better working culture in the organization. Cronin and Hankins share a mutual goal in integrating the business and basketball sides of the Blazers’ operation further.

Billups addressed the efforts of the team and of the players, discussing how he wants to create a culture where hard work pays off. He is excited for what the future holds for the organization and the team.

Asked about what Jody Allen has asked of him, Cronin said that his goal was to “hit the ground running.” He addressed the need to assess the culture, to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, and to figure out what changes need to be made in order to achieve that. Cronin emphasized listening. Aaron Fentress of the Oregonian asked about what authority Cronin had been given, and Cronin said “ownership has been very upfront with me.” He spoke about the trust placed in him by ownership. Ownership has told Cronin that he has an opportunity to prove himself as a general manager. Cronin said he was focused more on improving the organization.

Sean Highkin of Bleacher Report asked about trade deals and what authority Cronin has to make a deal. Cronin explained that yes, he could construct deals, but like other general managers, the final call would reside with Jody Allen and Bert Kolde. Cronin said that his instructions are to go out and “find deals.”

Cronin acknowledged that it is difficult to go from “good to great,” acknowledging the ceiling the Blazers have had over the last several years. He spoke about the “swagger” the team needs in order to be successful and take it to the next level. Hankins added that Portland has a particular passion for sports, acknowledging the local roots of Ben Golliver and Chris Haynes, and said that he wants to recapture that passion for the Trail Blazers.

Aaron Fentress of the Oregonian asked about Cronin and Billups’ view of the roster. Cronin said that there are things that the front office and coach may agree and disagree over times, but that when selections and choices are made, both sides need to be supportive of the decision. Billups stated that the roster can be very good when players bring the effort, but that the team struggles when they don’t show up, and injuries have taken a toll.

Mike Richman of Locked On Blazers inquired about conversations with players and how much that will impact his decision-making. Cronin said that it would impact his decision-making “a lot.” Players emphasized the need for communication and the need to feel heard, which Cronin acknowledged. Cronin stated that he has received several calls from folks around the league.

Jason Quick of the Athletic questioned Dewayne Hankins about game attendance. Hankins said there are two sides to it in that there are fans who do not yet feel safe enough to attend a game, while there are also fans who do not want to comply with the testing and vaccination requirements that are in place. Hankins revealed that single game sales are up.

Nick Krupke of KPTV inquired about who Joe Cronin’s mentors are. Cronin said that he had called Chad Buchanan, who formerly worked for the Trail Blazers. Buchanan advised Cronin: “Just be yourself.” Cronin spoke about the different perspectives available to him around the organization and league.

Regarding communication with franchise stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Cronin said he had had very productive conversations with both about how to take the team to the next level. He focused on how the organization could help the two improve off the court. Cronin said that he was “very encouraged” by his communication with both.

Highkin asked about ROOT Sports and its streaming availability. Hankins said that ROOT reaches twice as many households as previous providers. He acknowledged that it is on Fubo and that the organization does not have much control over partnerships between ROOT and streaming platforms.

Holdahl questioned Cronin about his history with the franchise. Cronin said that he feels that he is regarded as a team player who is trustworthy to those in the organization, and that he has pushed himself to learn and be better. He shared an anecdote about how Chauncey Billups beat him in the state championship in Colorado. Billups acknolwedged that Cronin was a “really good player.”

Asked about the consistencies between various general managers that Cronin has worked under, Cronin said that it was really more about “inconsistencies” between the managers he has worked under, noting that they have all had different styles.

Highkin inquired about the possible extension of Damian Lillard’s contract. Cronin said that while he would love to talk about it, it would be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

Regarding Lillard’s faith in Billups, Billups said it meant a lot to him as he recognizes he will make a lot of mistakes as he learns to be a head coach. Billups noted that Lillard has been very clear about his love for the Trail Blazers and for Portland, and he shouldn’t have to keep saying it.

Hankins responded to a question about sponsorship from Business Journal to say that the team’s sponsors have been very supportive of the organization. Hankins mentioned that the only metric that is down for the organization is attendance; viewership and engagement on social media are both up.

On injuries and its impact on the roster, Billups said, “I liked what we were building on.” He acknowledged that starters had inconsistent minutes in the preseason and that it has been hard to achieve consistency due to the injuries. “They’re still learning me, knowing what I like and want.” Cronin recognized that there have been highs and lows over the start to the season.

Krupke asked about who they were taking in the MLS Cup, and Billups asked, “Really?” Billups said he was supporting the Timbers.

Asked about a timeline for the remainder of the season and their jobs, Hankins said that they don’t have one.

Cronin spoke about the contracts the Blazers currently have, saying that the “books are really clean,” noting that it was helpful in their ability to do deals. He said he “felt good” about the salary cap and where the Blazers are in relation to it.

Billups said he doesn’t read the press, and that helps keep his stress levels down. He only hears about what is said in the press when people call him to ask about it. He equated it to “background music” and that he doesn’t need the distraction. Billups said he has a lot to do and a lot to learn, which leaves him with little time to worry about anything else. “I’m just so happy to be here, just so happy to have this job.”

AJ McCord of KOIN asked Cronin about the urgency to improve. “I want to be patient, and I don’t want to be reactive,” Cronin said in response. He wants to focus on being intelligent about deals while also being aggressive, acknowledging the need to look at the big picture.

Joe Becker of KATU inquired about attendance and its comparison to other teams in the league. Hankins said that attendance is in line with pre-pandemic numbers, and that teams with fewer state restrictions have had an easier time getting fans back into the arena.

Overall, the press conference felt very different than previous pressers put on by organization leadership. Cronin struck a positive, empathetic tone, while Hankins acknowledged some of the difficulties the business side has faced throughout the pandemic. Perhaps it is a new day in Rip City after all.