Following a busy summer under the national spotlight, it’s been a rollercoaster of a week for Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Joe Cronin.
On Wednesday, Cronin traded arguably the franchise’s greatest player in Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks after spending three months navigating a difficult trade request from the seven-time NBA All-Star. Cronin received generally positive reviews for the move, as he sent out Lillard, starting center Jusuf Nurkic and forward Nassir Little in exchange for center Deandre Ayton, point guard Jrue Holiday, rookie forward Toumani Camara, a future first-round pick and future first-round pick swaps.
On Saturday, Lillard posted a goodbye letter to the franchise in which he thanked an exhaustive list of team employees, notably omitting Cronin’s name. The goodbye letter was almost immediately followed by an extensive piece from Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes detailing a contentious summer relationship between Lillard and Cronin in the midst of trade negotiations. Haynes reported at one point, Lillard asked to rescind his trade request, but Cronin had refused. The report sparked a firestorm of criticism from the fanbase on Twitter directed at Cronin for his treatment of the beloved franchise star and divided Blazers faithful on how to respond to Cronin’s reported handling of the situation.
Then on Sunday morning, Cronin executed his next transaction, moving Holiday to the Boston Celtics in exchange for guard Malcolm Brogdon, center Robert Williams III and more future first-round picks. Just like that, media and fans alike were singing Cronin’s praises once again. When looking at both moves together, Cronin kickstarted a rebuild around talented young guards, headlined by No. 3 overall pick Scoot Henderson, and restocked the war chest with assets. One pundit even already called Cronin his pick for Executive of the Year.
After that whirlwind of a week, full of transactions and drama, praise and hostility, Cronin took the podium this morning for Trail Blazers Media Day 2023 to talk about it all.
Before looking forward to the new future of the franchise, the first thing Cronin did when he took the podium was address his recently departed star.
“I want to open up thanking Damian Lillard for 11 incredible seasons with us,” Cronin said. “Obviously, [he’s] a Blazer legend and we’re very excited to see what he’s got in store next, and we’re rooting for him.”
Naturally, questions came in from the media about the reporting in Haynes’ piece. In regard to Lillard’s attempt to return to the team for the upcoming season, Cronin had a slightly different version of the story than the one that Haynes reported.
“I told him I personally thought it was a bad idea,” Cronin said. “The trade request had not been rescinded and for me, I didn’t want that to go into the season. I thought, ‘well, let’s find something now instead.’”
Later Cronin clarified what he meant: “I thought [the trade request] would be consistently hanging over our heads — that this trade request was still active and that wasn’t going to change.”
Throughout the press conference, Cronin reiterated something he had voiced from the moment Lillard’s trade request went public in early July: He was trying to do what was best for the organization this summer and bring in the type of players who best fit the mold of the direction the franchise wanted to go in.
“That was my approach. Again, just to do what’s best for us and find the best deal where hopefully we could all be happy,” Cronin said. “We feel like we accomplished that where the Trail Blazers, we’re really happy where we are, and we think [Lillard’s] got an incredible opportunity to compete at the highest level in Milwaukee.”
Looking back, Cronin acknowledged he wished the trade process between Lillard and the organization had gone smoother. However, he said the result of the trade was most important, and he was happy with the return. Going forward, he said he hopes the franchise is able to maintain a good relationship with its all-time leading scorer.
“In the moment, I don’t know if it’s ever super pretty, but I hope that there’s not enough baggage left over over time,” Cronin said. “I know he loves the city, and I know he loves this organization and the fans. Hopefully, he’ll be able to be one with the organization whenever that next page is turned.”
‘A New Direction’
After first giving a shoutout to Lillard, the next thing Cronin discussed in his opening address was the major transactions made in the past week. Cronin said the moves aimed support a new vision for the team — one of athleticism, defense and ball movement.
“[We] made numerous transactions that you’re aware of over the course of the last week, which we think has pushed us in a new direction,” Cronin said. “Our goal was to get way more athletic, be more physically capable, better defensively, a team that’s gonna play really fast and up-tempo and share the ball and trust each other and play together and stay connected — the brand of basketball [Head Coach Chauncey Billups] wants to play.”
Cronin said the new acquisitions to the roster, for the most part, are young enough to grow with the new young nucleus of the team, but capable to contribute right away. Cronin said Ayton has “a chance to be a dominant center,” while he called Williams “one of the best defensive big men in this league.” Then Cronin touted Brogdon’s pedigree as the 2023 NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
There has been speculation about if the Blazers truly planned to keep Brogdon after Sunday’s trade. At the podium, Cronin said Brogdon was here to stay for the time being, highlighting the 30-year-old guard’s leadership skills.
“Player-wise, we want to have Malcolm come in and be a part of this ... He’s obviously a really capable player and could bring some good on-court intangibles for us, but also as a veteran, as a leader. It’s something we’re gonna need.”
Cronin expanded: “We were too young last year, we’re even younger this year. I want to make sure that there’s enough veteran leadership around these guys, so that Chauncey and [Jerami Grant] and any of the older players we have don’t have to carry that whole load, so we’re very open-minded to Malcolm.”
As far as expectations or goals for the upcoming season, Cronin didn’t mention the playoffs or wins and losses. Instead, Cronin said he was looking for “daily improvement.”
“We have to develop a lot of players,” Cronin said. “We have some guys that are going to take some time to grow into their own, so for me, it’s really enjoying the journey — these day by day improvements, the night that we’re really electric, where we see this is what we’re capable of if we can put this together on a consistent basis.”
Cronin said he likes the talent on the roster, but said this team is going to take time to come together and the front office will continue to evaluate as the team grows.
“There are a lot of unknowns with our roster, and I think the only thing we know for certain right now is they’re just really talented and capable,” Cronin said. “The rest is gonna need to play out and that’s where we’ll ask for your patience.”
Looking back on the frenzy of the past three months, capped off by an even more hectic last five days, Cronin called it a “heavy process” that even came with some “heartache.” But, all in all, he was happy with the outcome.
“It felt like a long one, but a productive one that was worth all that effort and all that noise and all of the bumps and turns and dips and extensions along the way.”