The Portland Trail Blazers are in the midst of a vibe revival, one that’s been slowly building for the past 10 months.
The changing of the tides can be traced back to one event in particular: Dec. 7, 2021, general manager Joe Cronin’s introductory press conference — if you could call it a press conference.
At the time, the franchise sat in rock bottom, sunk in a PR hell that engulfed both the basketball and business side of operations. That offseason, the hiring of new head coach Chauncey Billups sparked public uproar about his personal history and the organization’s vetting process. On the court, the team’s body language and record were so bad, the Inside the NBA crew called for a roster teardown on national television. Franchise superstar Damian Lillard, who usually compensated for Portland’s mediocre play with superhuman abilities, was injured and couldn’t save the day.
To pour gasoline on the fire, in early November, the organization launched an investigation into general manager Neil Olshey’s workplace conduct. Blazers CEO and president Chris McGowan jumped ship a week later. On Dec. 3, Olshey was fired for fostering a toxic workplace environment during his 10 years on the job.
Vibe check? Six feet under with no shovel in sight.
Cue Mr. Cronin — the man tasked with fixing that monumental mess — and his first media appearance. Still in an interim role, the new GM sat in front of local media alongside first-year head coach Chauncey Billups and newly-promoted Trail Blazers president Dewayne Hankins. The three men dressed casually: Cronin in a button-down with the sleeves rolled up and Billups in a striped long-sleeve shirt. Hankins was done up the most, sporting a blazer, but the shirt underneath was plaid with the top buttons undone, like a man ready to cut loose at a wedding reception. Each held a mic in their hand and no podium separated the speakers from listeners, eliminating a physical barrier as much as a metaphorical divide.
The format was a direct rebuke to the tense press conferences of the previous regime. No stiff suits and ties. No combative back-and-forths. No stifling water bottle sips. Instead, the air was light, spotted with laughter about Oregon Live reporter Aaron Fentress’s tardiness and a high school basketball rivalry between Cronin and Billups. It played more like a relaxed town hall meeting than a formal presser — and the Blazers marketing team advertised the event as such, titling the video on YouTube, “A conversation with Joe Cronin, Chauncey Billups, and Dewayne Hankins.”
Some of the appearance was smooth PR, but also Cronin’s words and tone sounded different from his predecessor, a former soap opera actor who oftentimes came across brash. Goodbye, Hollywood Neil and hello, Joe Colorado! Down-to-earth, soft-spoken, friendly, humble.
In his opening remarks, the first message Cronin addressed wasn’t about trades or championships, it was culture.
“One of my main goals, especially early on, and this will continue throughout, is to improve this culture,” he said. “...I think we can move forward and continue to ramp up communication and make some positive fixes and integrations and build a better overall feeling around here.”
10 months later, the new GM has delivered on that goal, simultaneously improving the Blazers roster, restoring humility to the front office and revitalizing the organization with the power of vibes.
Dec. 7 was a solid first impression from Cronin, but anybody can paint a rosy picture with words, especially coupled with a fresh start. So how has he put words into action?
That answer starts with roster reconstruction.
Media personality Danny Marang is plugged into the Blazers and has been for the last nine years, working in the past for NBC Sports Northwest and Blazer’s Edge. Currently, he covers the organization on the radio for 1080 The Fan and his popular Blazers podcast Jacked Ramsays, which is still featured on this site. After Portland’s 2021 first round playoff ousting by an injury-ravaged Denver team, Marang said most media members thought the chemistry of that roster was broken. It was a not-so-secret realization that only Olshey seemed unable to comprehend — or refuse to adjust to — as he doubled down on his creation for a doomed last stand.
“The vibes were a train wreck...That bond that was there, it was gone, across the board,” Marang said. “Dame to CJ [McCollum]. CJ to [Jusuf Nurkic], [Robert Covington] to CJ. [Norman Powell] to everybody.”
Cronin’s first order of business was shipping out his crop of discontented veterans and replacing them with a fusion of versatile competitors who pass the chemistry test. Wing Josh Hart, acquired in the McCollum trade package back in February, is a “Vibes-Guy Gold medalist” who “every team wants,” according to Marang. In free agency, Cronin poached locker room favorite Gary Payton II from the Golden State Warriors, much to the reigning champs’ displeasure. New power forward Jerami Grant was snagged from Detroit on a team-friendly trade and gives Portland its most talented forward since LaMarcus Aldridge.
Powell and Covington are gone. So is McCollum, who Olshey clung to tightly for eight years. Cronin traded the all-time Blazers great within his first three months on the job. His absence — while bittersweet to many — brings new possibility to a core that hit its ceiling during a 2019 conference finals sweep.
The veterans Cronin did keep, he paid. Jusuf Nurkic is back in the middle on a four-year, $70 million deal. Lillard will return healthy after a long physical and mental break. After all the unrest and rumors about a possible departure last season, Cronin signed the All-Star guard to a massive $122 million extension, aiming to keep him in Portland for another five years. One can argue whether the deal was the right analytical move — and many have — but from a vibes standpoint, matrimony between franchise and star appears peaceful again.
Along with the veteran renewal, Cronin has unlocked a youth movement by creating a runway for in-house development. Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little — who spent years waiting on the bench for their chance to shine — will both likely be starters. A year after Portland’s Summer League roster featured a collection of over-the-hill veterans, this year’s squad won the Las Vegas title with legitimate young talent like Trendon Watford, Keon Johnson and Jabari Walker. That’s all without mentioning new-prized lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe who barely played due to injury.
“The vibe has definitely changed,” said Brandon Sprague, a radio personality on 1080 the Fan and Marang’s co-host on Jacked Ramsays. “I can’t credit it all 100% on Joe, but him forcing the issue of major roster shakeup is a big part.”
Cronin has at once addressed deficiencies like defense, forward talent and youth, while balancing the books and prizing mental makeup. He may not have majored in Chemistry, but he at least audited some classes.
“There’s a renewed sense of hope,” Marang said.
Alongside his moves, you must consider Cronin, the man. Starting with the Blazers in 2006 as an intern, he has studied the ins-and-outs of the position in various departments. He’s worked his way to the top under five general managers — Steve Patterson, Kevin Pritchard, Rich Cho, Chad Buchanan and Olshey. While he’s touted as a salary cap expert, his last boss provided him with perhaps his most valuable lesson: a cautionary tale in how not to act.
“I think [Cronin] is patently aware of the perception of Neil Olshey. He would be a fool not to be,” Marang said. “So the playbook is to do the exact opposite of what Neil Olshey did and it’s smart because it will buy him time.”
According to Marang, there was a long-known divide between the front office and basketball side of Blazers Inc. The relationship between Olshey and McGowan was fraught. So Cronin has focused on building bridges. Part of this has been aligning with Billups on play style and the type of players to bring in. Part of this has been filling out the front office with well-received hires like Mike Schmitz and Sergi Oliva. And part of this has been Cronin working with Hankins to build a connected brand between basketball and business.
From day one, Cronin has established a united front between head coach, GM and president that didn’t exist one year ago.
Chad Doing, a radio personality on Rip City Radio 620, told Blazer’s Edge, “From the people I have spoken with inside the organization, there is definitely a different vibe under Joe Cronin and Dewayne Hankins’ leadership. I was told the atmosphere is much more upbeat and positive.”
Business Basketball— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) August 8, 2022
"You have the business side, you have the basketball side...when you can work together on those things & have community support...the way that we're organized sets us up well for that."
Keep an eye out for the full sit-down in the coming days. pic.twitter.com/GyJb4xf8yB
Since former owner Paul Allen’s death in 2018, the Blazers ownership situation has been murky: overseen by Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, and his company Vulcan Inc. There’s worry about whether the group is embracing a winning mentality or attempting to clean books before a future sale — a major factor affecting Cronin’s potential.
“I think the real concern is the leadership of Jody Allen and (Blazers vice chair) Bert Kolde having a first-year GM and a Team President going into year two, along with a young head coach in Chauncey Billups,” said Doing.
Doing’s concern is legitimate, but so far, Cronin’s aggressiveness provides some peace of mind that Portland isn’t being gutted purely for ownership purposes. Even if Vulcan isn’t 100% on board, Cronin and Hankins lend hope there’s some competence within the franchise’s braintrust. Before Dec. 7, that hope had worn paper-thin, which again brings the conversation back to Olshey.
In the eyes of the public, Olshey was slammed in the end for being an arrogant salesman of empty promises, never willing to accept blame for failures.
During his tenure, there’s a series of notorious Olshey-isms one can spotlight: his complaining about Portland’s lack of valet parking; his near-annual offseason hype about newfound roster depth; his claim that Portland’s 29th ranked defense in 2020-21 wasn’t “a product of the roster” which heavily played Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter and three small starting guards.
In the summer of 2019, the Blazers held a preseason dinner in Lake Oswego where they loudly declared they were championship-ready. That year’s roster snuck into the playoffs as an eighth seed and got smoked in the first round.
“They were sold a bill of goods by their general manager that never should’ve been touched,” Marang said.
As a polar opposite, Cronin has brought a refreshing honesty and transparency to his process. Of course, there’s some spin to what Cronin says. It’s the name of the game as an NBA business. But there’s a way to play that game without gaslighting your fans or slapping them across the face. Cronin knows how to do it, coming through more human than corporate.
It’s not a one-off PR stunt. It’s a pattern.
At his trade deadline press conference, fresh off controversial trades that sent out Powell, Covington and McCollum, he didn’t fend off criticism with defensive jabs, even when reporters questioned if he should’ve gotten more in return. Again with Hankins and Billups by his side, Cronin explained the thought process and humbly said, “The bulk of the work still remains. The hard part begins here.”
Back in July, following the the offseason transaction spree, Cronin did a 20-minute sit-down on 1080 The Fan radio show “Dirt & Sprague,” hosted by Sprague and Andy Johnson. In the biggest example of the changing of the guard, Cronin reiterated multiple times how the team wasn’t a contender yet.
“[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,” Cronin said. “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.”
Looking back on the interview, the impression Sprague got was a “guy being honest about where his team is at.”
“He isn’t content and he seemed really keen on doing what it took to win and position this team better in the next couple seasons,” Sprague said over text.
To Sprague, the fact Cronin even took the interview was impressive and another tell-tale sign of friendlier media relations. The last time Olshey made a local radio appearance was in 2014 on the Blazers’ network NBC Sports Northwest.
“Thankfully, [Cronin] was willing to jump on and do something the previous GM hadn’t done in eight years: talk to local, non team-affiliated media,” Sprague said. “That in itself benefits the fans greatly.”
The appearance is part of a more engaging public approach that was again spotlighted last week by Hankins. He went live on Rip City Radio 620 with Doing and co-host Dwight Jaynes to walk back a controversial decision to keep broadcast teams at home during road games next season.
With Cronin and Hankins, they bring to the job an earnestness and greenness — Billups joked at the opening presser how he was the longest-tenured of the three — that makes them appear less capable of corruption. Cronin has worked his way up the company ladder with over a decade of preparation, but the public speaking part of the job is new. Marang said it’s where Cronin is least comfortable, which partially explains the laid-back nature of his first appearance. After Olshey, that “weakness” is more disarming than alarming. He’s the farthest thing from an actor one could be, but don’t mistake that lack of showmanship for timidness.
“The second you get him out from behind that desk and off the record,” Marang said. “He communicates in a way that makes you want to run through a wall for him.”
Marang, who has openly discussed how he and Olshey weren’t on friendly terms, isn’t the only person Cronin has won over. There’s been kudos about better media treatment from other reporters through tweets and editorials. If you look at the comment sections on Blazer’s Edge posts summarizing Cronin’s media appearances, you’ll see praise with words like “honest,” “refreshing,” “authenticity” and “genuine.”
Billups, who, keep in mind, can largely thank Olshey for winning the Portland job, seems to enjoy his partnership with Cronin more.
“I’m actually more excited with this new crew,” Billups said at the Dec. 7 presser, while motioning to Cronin and Hankins.
Cronin has seemingly won over Lillard, too. At the press conference announcing Lillard’s extension, the star was asked what sold him on Cronin.
“The responses that I got, I didn’t look at [Cronin], like, ‘Oh, he’s just telling me this,’” Lillard said. “I was able to trust what I was hearing from Chauncey and Joe and I think I’ve got a good nose for when somebody is blowing smoke or BS’ing me.”
Recency bias has helped everybody in Portland develop a stronger nose for detecting smoke. From Portland’s super fans to its superstar, Cronin is passing through with flying colors.
Marang summed up the Cronin effect well with this statement:
“He hasn’t minced words and said ‘I’m gonna do this’ and not done it. He hasn’t said ‘we’re a championship team.’ He said ‘we’re gonna keep working.’ …He has done all of the things he has set out to do and I think backing it up with action, on top of being just a genuinely good dude, is a way to win back fans.”
At the end of the day, how much are good vibes worth?
Positive press? Five extra wins? The building blocks of something greater down the road?
Every season, the Vibes Monster consumes at least one team. For recent examples, look no further than last year’s iterations of the Blazers, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz. Teammates grow sick of each other, the coach loses respect, the ball doesn’t zip around anymore, teams crash.
So if bad vibes are disruptive enough to make a talented team underperform, then it’s plausible good vibes are powerful enough to help a less-talented team punch harder than its weight class. Cronin admitted this team isn’t a heavyweight yet, so vibes will be valuable juice. A championship is far-fetched in the 2022-23 season, but the Blazers can build momentum. They can regain that “swagger” or “pep in their step,” to quote phrases Cronin used at his introduction.
For this new front office regime and retooled roster, that’s the mission before the mission of winning a championship.
Cronin could fail. Most front offices do. There are still question marks and tests to pass. You can’t say his tenure has been perfect either. The potential lottery pick from the New Orleans deal didn’t convey and lost value. Portland was probably hoping its own 2021 lottery pick — garnered by a historic tank job — turned out better than seventh, evidenced by Lillard’s hilarious live reaction. The roster is better-constructed, but still unbalanced and in need of size.
Maybe Cronin should’ve demanded more for Covington and Powell. Maybe the Lillard extension will haunt this franchise down the road. And maybe he can’t swing the big trades that’ll truly launch this franchise into contention.
Growing pains are to be expected with this inexperienced trio of Cronin, Hankins and Billups.
“How will this group handle adversity when it strikes?” Doing asked.
The answers to these questions will come soon enough. Like Cronin said, there’s more work to do. As for now, during the dog days of the NBA offseason, vibes in Rip City are hopeful once again.
The new GM has done this all while demonstrating authenticity and serving as a positive role model for the city.
Win or lose, that’s worth something.