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Trail Blazers Already Forging Different Path Under Joe Cronin

Portland’s GM has been honest about his expectations. What should ours be?

Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After a decade living under the yoke of one Neil Olshey, the Portland Trail Blazers have put an end to obfuscation and bifurcation. Put another way, you no longer need a semiotics degree to understand what this team is doing.

General Manager Joe Cronin joined the Jacked Ramsays podcast this week. Cronin was candid and realistic about the current Blazers squad, admitting there was still a lot of work still to be done to get the roster to where he wants it to be.

“You know, we’re trying to build, this isn’t a win-now roster as far as, we haven’t pushed in all of our chips yet. We weren’t signing players based on position over talent. We’ve been choosing talent over need, basically throughout this whole process.”

“We knew there’d be some positional redundancies and some positional holes and we’re OK working through that because we’re trying to build our talent base, trying to build this culture we’ve been talking about. And also we haven’t pushed all of our chips in as far as, we haven’t made a big move yet, like using future draft capital or anything like that.”

“And this comes with a lot of discussion with Damian about trust in where we’re heading and trust in what Chauncey and I are telling him. We are building, we do want to win, much sooner than later and to do so we’re going to have to develop some of these guys that are going to have to help us hopefully sooner than later. But there are certain 19-year-olds who won’t be ready until they’re 23, at which point, where are we?”

“I acknowledge that it’s reckless but I also think we’ve got to get some of these right before we can take that next step.”

There’s a bit to unpack here but how should that make Blazers fans feel about the remaining 80 games? Short answer is: you can feel whatever way you want to.

For me, not only were the words refreshing but the fact that the interview took place was pleasing. Olshey, not even during win steaks, would have put himself out there like that.

Once his core of Lillard and CJ McCollum were solidified, it seemed his strategy was to say little, confuse, drop a large part of the team’s payroll on the duo and use what little remained by adding serviceable and sub-serviceable players around them. Sure, Jusuf Nurkic was a good get, but for all intents and purposes it was a happy accident, with the first round pick joining the big Bosnian from the Denver Nuggets, initially being the prize.

Yes, he was able to draft strongly in the later first and through the second round but because of McCollum’s anvil-like contracts and lack of free agent imagination, this team became mired in mediocrity. He was never letting McCollum — his first real draft pick — go.

His mostly biannual press conferences (media day and exit interview) were absolute farces. I’ll give you a little of my own professional background. After working as a general newspaper reporter in Australia for the better part of a decade I’ve since worked in a string of media relations roles. I’ve seen quite a bit of spin throughout my professional career.

But there’s absolutely no doubt Olshey was the master, despite the fact that everyone knew what he was doing. It was sickening to watch. When asked about starting three undersized guards at the beginning of the last season, he chose to nitpick, claiming that Damian Lillard wasn’t small for his position, ignoring the crux of the question.

When asked about the investigation into the alleged incident involving Chauncey Billups early in his playing career, he snapped back, arguing that it was “proprietary”. That same day taking a swig of his water bottle while signalling to a staff member to change the direction of the press conference.

He was always armed with fastidiously scripted responses to cover up for his refusal to take a chance and give the franchise’s arguably best player a chance to compete.

For those yelling the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Just stop. The team was convincingly swept by the Golden State Warriors after beating an Oklahoma City Thunder squad carrying a washed Russell Westbrook and an injured Paul George and an inexperienced Denver Nuggets team still a year or two away from reaching their peak.

The season after said Western Conference Finals appearance, Olshey claimed the team was going to contend for a championship, subsequently setting the roster and the fanbase for disappointment. That team squeezed into eighth position in the Orlando Bubble before being ousted in five games by the Los Angeles Lakers.

He came across as never willing to admit defeat or mistake, co-opting a position that by its very nature was responsible for explaining its actions to a devoted fan base wanting the best for the team it watched every other night. A community that was held hostage by a “President of Basketball Operations”, always at arm’s length from the people who pay to see the games.

While Joe Cronin served under Olshey during his entire nine-and-a-half-year tenure, it’s very clear the successor has a different take on the responsibilities associated with the lead front office job.

There was absolutely no spin in his comments to Danny Marang and Brandon Sprague on Tuesday, highlighted by his admission that the 2022-23 squad was not in win-now mode. In doing so, Cronin promoted both realistic expectations and hope. In the 10-odd months since taking the reins, Cronin has cleaned up the books and brought in long, athletic players that fit Billups’ preferred style of play.

Gone are McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Larry Nance Jr., Tony Snell. In return they’ve brought in Josh Hart, Jerami Grant, Gary Payton II Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson, Shaedon Sharpe and Jabari Walker. The only oppressive contract on the roster is that of the newly re-signed Jusuf Nurkic who at roughly $17.5 million a year, is still relatively moveable.

But back to the central theme of the above quotes. Cronin claiming this team was not in “win-now” mode does two things, it lowers expectations for this team this season. Who’s to say the Blazers don’t outperform expectations and, with some additions at the deadline, return to the playoffs with half a chance to win a series? Unlikely but not impossible.

It also proves that 32-year-old Lillard is himself on board with the moves, prepared to give Cronin a little more time to shape a contending team around him beyond the 2022-23 season. There is absolutely no way Lillard signs his gaudy extension without being on aboard with the plan. Sure, it was a lot of money but the point guard doesn’t strike me as the type of player who counts coins without regard for team success.

Cronin’s comments about not yet pushing all the Blazers’ chips in also deserve some dissection. Unlike Olshey whose biggest “push the chips in” deal was two first rounders and Trevor Ariza for Robert Covington, Cronin doesn’t seem to be rushing with hasty moves that drain the lake of what little assets remain.

Thanks to Olshey, the Blazers are currently hamstrung by the fact that future first rounders will be hard to deal given it’s obligations to the Chicago Bulls, but there are ways to get around this. It’s unlikely the franchise removes the protections on its 2023 pick, given the uncertainty about this year’s team. But I have full confidence, given what we’ve seen so far, that the right deal will be executed, using the now growing number of assets and value contracts to improve this roster moving forward.

Blazers fans have no reason to second guess anything that Cronin has said because everything he’s said thus far is devoid of hyperbole and misdirection. He has said something and then done it.

Yes, the Blazers could be good but the expectations are low — the Blazers are under promising with the hope that they over deliver, perhaps not this season but definitely beyond. It is reckless. But it’s necessary, because the alternative would have led to more middling success and playoff heartbreak, especially for Damian Lillard who has given everything to this franchise.

By no means am I discouraging fans from building expectations. But for me, it’s cautious optimism that the franchise is heading down a new path with a lot more potential, athleticism and room for improvement.