The 2023 NBA Trade deadline came with no fireworks and plenty of controversy for the Portland Trail Blazers. Some fans and journalists are calling Portland’s returns “fine” and claiming good value. Others are lambasting general manager Joe Cronin’s patient acquisition of assets and failure to execute win-now power moves.
Just hours ago news broke that Gary Payton II failed his physical with the Golden State Warriors, putting a four-team trade in limbo.
The events of the last 48 hours have led many to wonder: What’s going on in all this chaos and what’s the front office’s plan?
Cronin took the podium to address those questions and Portland’s performance at the trade deadline in a live press conference this afternoon.
In his opening statement, Cronin admitted Portland was aiming to make aggressive moves to build around franchise centerpiece Damian Lillard, but couldn’t get any across the finish line.
“The goal that we set when I started this job was to build a championship roster around Damian Lillard, so over the past year we’ve been transacting with that goal in mind. The goal going into this trade deadline was to be extremely aggressive. We had identified several players who for us were difference-makers. ... [We] worked it super hard and came up empty.”
Once those high-impact moves fell through, Cronin said the plan shifted to a future perspective: attaining value in order to execute one of those “difference-making” moves down the road.
“Our new path if we came up empty was to be super opportunistic in the transactions we were looking to do. Look for good value either way whether it meant adding a player or losing a player and we just transacted accordingly. Our main goal throughout those transactions was how do we build for future rosters, future seasons’ rosters. It goes back to some of the stuff that we did at the last trade deadline: Accumulate as many assets as possible in order to make a big push for high-end talent. ... We were in asset acquisition mode. Get picks, get young players we like, get guys that hopefully can grow and build with us in this season and beyond.”
There’s been some rumblings directed toward the front office perpetually telling fans to wait until the off-season or next trade deadline for the big swing to come. In fairness, this is the second consecutive trade deadline Cronin said the team was building toward next year’s roster. (Also in fairness to Cronin, he did get Jerami Grant this past summer). Cronin addressed those critiques, saying he and the organization we’re also getting “anxious to push their chips in,” but he has to operate with smarts rather than haste — at one point he mentioned an impact deal was on the table, but the asking price was too high.
“We’re borderline anxious to push all of our chips in. We cannot wait for that moment to happen, it just hasn’t come up yet. It’s my job to be the voice of reason, to be very diligent to not make a big mistake, to not get the wrong guy, to not overpay, to not give up on somebody that could eventually become a really good player. I’ve got to be really smart about this because it’s trying to thread a really thin needle here. We don’t have room for error, we need to get this right. We wanna maximize Damian’s time.
“I know it’s hard when I come out, like, ‘Oh, well, we’re looking forward to this summer,’ or ‘have faith we can get something done.’ It feels a little empty like it’s false hope or unrealistic promises, but hopefully our track record has shown that we’re willing to be really aggressive.”
If there’s any suspicion that the front office isn’t attempting to build a contender around Lillard, Cronin tried to put that speculation to rest, along with saying Lillard is understanding of the roster-building process.
“We feel extremely obligated to put a great roster around Damian Lillard. When I say ‘we’ that’s from the top. [Blazers owner Jody Allen] and I have had a lot of conversations about how important it is for us to do right by Damian and we plan to do that. You can ask Damian this but he understands this that it doesn’t always fall into place immediately. We understand the timeline is short as far as we want this runway to be as long as possible for him, but at the same time, as long as the intentions are in the right place, we’re willing to wait it out for that terrific opportunity to present itself.”
As far as where the roster stands today, Cronin said the organization is happy with the team’s offense and the partnership of Lillard and Anfernee Simons. He said their main focus is adding more size and length around the backcourt duo.
“We’re trying to support these guys with real defenders, with real size, with real length, so we’ve been incrementally building toward that. ... This is something that’s going to be a continual push from us and you’ll definitely see me leaning way toward that side. I think it would take quite a bit for our offense to break, so transactionally we’ll be really focused on adding guys that compliment those two guards on the other end of the floor specifically.”
Portland’s biggest acquisitions on the trade market were 6’7 forward Cam Reddish from New York and 6’5 defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle from Philadelphia. Even with both players falling out of the rotation on their former teams. Croninn likes what the duo brings to the forward rotation.
“Not too many guys [with Reddish’s] skill set, age and size that you come across in the league. ... With Cam, it’s definitely not a question of talent, sometimes it’s just a question of getting the right opportunity. ... Matisse Thybulle [is] a flat-out elite defender and as you heard me talk earlier that’s something we’re really emphazing. For us, Matisse has always been a target and we were really excited to get him at a pretty good price.”
Cronin also addressed the latest news about GP2’s failed physical, defending the organization for their handling of the situation, despite reports that they failed to disclose information about Payton’s health issues.
“Player safety is super important to us, it’s a super important thing around the league. We were playing him, he was playing. He had been cleared. We were confident that he was healthy when he was playing. We would not have brought him back if we thought he wasn’t healthy or he was at risk, so you trust that we did the right thing, and you trust that our process was correct. And these reports, I think... The clearance process was proper, so I’ll have to rely on that.”
Time will tell whether the new additions mesh in Portland and whether the front office pushes their chips this upcoming off-season. At the present moment, Cronin said the team isn’t ready to pull the plug on the current season, while acknowledging they still aren’t championship-ready.
He is once again asking for patience.