It’s been a busy 2022 NBA offseason, but the Portland Trail Blazers roster isn’t a finished product yet, according to Blazers general manager Joe Cronin. This was the message he reiterated multiple times during a recent appearance on 1080 The Fan morning radio show “Dirt & Sprague” hosted by Andy Johnson and Brandon Sprague. The 22-minute, wide-ranging interview provided several insightful nuggets into Cronin’s vision for the upcoming season and beyond.
From Cronin’s point of view, even with Damian Lillard returning from abdomen surgery, the team isn’t a true contender in a stacked Western Conference.
“[With] a healthy Damian Lillard, you’re always competitive. And then do you put enough quality pieces around him to take that next big step. That’s our challenge and what we’re trying to accomplish. I feel like we’ve taken steps into that direction, but I think we all would admit we’re not there yet.”
The humbled assessment comes during an offseason — Cronin’s first in command — heavy with roster change and transactions. Cronin executed a trade to land power forward Jerami Grant, poached Gary Payton II from the Golden State Warriors, added two rookies from the NBA Draft and re-signed starting guard Anfernee Simons, starting center Jusuf Nurkic and reserve big Drew Eubanks. Even with all those moves, Cronin doesn’t think the team has used all of its chips.
“I don’t think you’ll ever hear me say, ‘We’re done.’ There are points where you use up all your tools — whether it’s exceptions or trade pieces or picks or however you do it. So I don’t think there [are] moments where you can say, ‘Yeah, we’re still going, going, going’ because you just kind of run out of tools. At this point I don’t think we’re out of tools and I don’t think we’re content with where we’re at.”
While Cronin said he wants to remain aggressive in making more changes, with so many new pieces, he wants a look at how the current roster gels together.
“Now at the same time I do want to see this group play together and grow. We just don’t have a lot of common denominators to point to that say, ‘Well, a healthy Damian has played with player X, Y and Z.’ We just have’t seen many examples of that. Really the only guy a healthy Damian’s been with is [Nurkic]. So we have a lot of unknowns on this roster that I’m intrigued to see play out, but at the same time I want to stay aggressive and I want to keep building this the quickest and best way we can.”
In the interview, Cronin addressed some of the team’s biggest question marks and perceived gaps in the roster heading into the 2022-23 season. One of those question marks is the small forward position, which has been considered a sore spot in Portland’s rotation.
Heading into July’s NBA Draft, it was reported Portland tried to shore up the starting spot by trading for Toronto Raptors small forward OG Anunoby. Instead, Portland used its seventh pick on 19-year-old Shaedon Sharpe and the forward rotation appears to be standing pat, which Cronin said isn’t the worst thing.
“It’s definitely our biggest unknown, but with that I’d say we’re not especially concerned with it. A lot has to do with can Nassir Little come back healthy which right now he looks great and everything’s on track, so we don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t. Josh Hart can play there, I know he’s more of a two, but Josh plays big. Gary Payton plays big. Shaedon Sharpe is super talented. Jabari Walker has shown us that he’s very capable of coming in and being more than functional. So it’s an unknown position for us where you can’t just slot in specifically 32 minutes at that spot, but at the same time we like the talent level that’s there.”
Another question mark about the roster is size. While the team did make strides to improve on the defensive end and in the toughness department with the Grant and Payton II signings, Portland still lacks length. If Hart and Payton II are slotted at the three-spot, they may “play big” at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-3 respectively, but they’ll still likely be forced to guard bigger opponents. At the center position, outside of the injury-prone Nurkic, the only other true five-man on the roster is 6-foot-9 Eubanks.
Again, Cronin acknowledged the roster isn’t finished at this point in the retooling process. For now, the team will mix up rotations and have players adapt to different positions.
“We understand we’re a little undersized, but at the same time, we didn’t think at this stage in our retool that we would have a perfectly-blended roster. So we’re just more focused on talent acquisition — getting the best players possible, getting the guys that have the right demeanor for what we’re trying to do. Then for whatever inconsistencies we have across the five positions, we’re just going to have to have guys adapt. Maybe we play small sometimes. Maybe young guys step up. Maybe we get funky in our rotations and we have Justise Winslow sliding over, Jerami Grant sliding over, Jabari Walker playing there, Trendon Watford, Drew Eubanks competing for minutes.”
One of those solutions he mentioned, seeing young guys step up, seems more likely with this franchise than in years past. Sharpe is a highly-touted lottery pick. Fellow rookie Jabari Walker and second-year pro Trendon Watford shined at NBA Summer League. Cronin said this front office and second-year head coach Chauncey Billups embrace a philosophy where the best player will play, regardless of age.
“The dream scenario I think across the roster is we would love to have competition at each position, at each spot in the rotation — where we feel like we have enough depth that this can happen. To where, ‘Hey you want a spot in the rotation, come in and earn it. If you’re the best player, you’ll get minutes.’ I think Chauncey’s shown a big willingness to do that, especially last year. He inherited Anfernee and Nassir and immediately embraced them and immediately empowered them and put them on the floor. [He] didn’t care what their experience level was or their age was. He cared more about what they could bring to this team. I know that Chauncey is extremely open-minded toward young players and if Shaedon or Jabari or one of the other young guys comes in and earns it, they’ll get a spot.”
Like an artist studying an incomplete canvas, Cronin knows he has more work to do. Getting this team to contender status is a process that’ll take longer than his first eight months on the job. For now, Cronin said the main goal is to continue to establish a new brand of Blazer basketball.
“I think we’re going to be a very competitive team this year, but I don’t have massive expectations as to, ‘Hey, this team needs to make this benchmark or needs to cross this benchmark.’ I want to see them come out and play the style of basketball that we’re trying to build here — Be extremely competitive, be really defensive minded, play together. I think our talent base if we do those things will take us to pretty good levels and then we gotta keep building from there.”