At the tail end of a disappointing 2022-23 campaign, the Portland Trail Blazers are struggling to establish an identity. They’re not distinct among their NBA peers. Their direction is undefined, their steps seemingly headed along multiple, divergent angles. Transitions in the front office, on the bench, and on the court have cascaded into a tidal wave of ambiguity and head-scratching, leaving analysts and experts stumped when it comes to Portland’s priorities and endgame.
Like the gradually-boiling frog, Trail Blazers fans have learned to live with increasing uncertainty, a condition seemingly exacerbated rather than resolved with every move and press conference.
In a two-part series, we’re going to uncover some of the questions surrounding the Blazers right now, not to resolve them, but to lay out how pervasive the ambiguity is. This first post will deal with the management and coaching layers of the organization. The second will look at on-court questions facing the team.
Though we don’t yet know what the final record will be, we can already sum up the season—and the state of the team—in three simple words: I don’t know. There simply isn’t a better answer available right now. Here’s why.
Are the Owners on a Clock to Sell?
Ever since Jody Allen inherited the Blazers upon the death of her brother Paul in 2018, speculation has swirled around her passion for, and continued ownership of, the franchise. To this point, there’s no indication a sale is imminent. But the question keeps rising like Linus’ Great Pumpkin. It’s not just a matter of how invested Allen is in the franchise, but for what purpose. Is she committed to growing and improving the club, or waiting for it to reach peak value before she offers it on the market?
In a homely sense, this could be claimed of every ownership group. But it’s fair to say that Portland faces more ambiguity at the ownership level than most. For better or worse, we understand who governs the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers, and Miami Heat, for better or worse. Even teams in flux like the Minnesota Timberwolves have light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not sure anybody is 100% sure what the long-term direction for Portland’s owner will be, or even who it will be.
Where Does the Buck Stop?
In the shadow of the technical ownership question comes a functional one. Who makes decisions about the club on the highest level, and what, exactly, are the priorities?
Paul Allen cultivated an prominent, albeit somewhat reclusive, public image as an owner. Even if he didn’t step in front of microphones often, he retained the ultimate “yes or no” decision-making power. He also provided the central voice to set organizational mission.
Even during Mr. Allen’s reign, the waters got muddied by the involvement of Vulcan. Inc., the umbrella corporation set up to manage Allen’s sports holdings. The corporation was rumored to set boundaries and brakes on team managers.
Absent Paul Allen’s interest and public figurehead status, the picture has become far less clear. Questions about rebuilding or contending, exceeding or keeping below the luxury tax loom large for Portland right now. The ultimate responsibility for those lie above the head of the General Manager. Whose desk do they fall upon? Who gets to greenlight acquisition or divestment, and does the priority lean more towards winning or profit?
Obviously Portland’s system works somehow. They have executed trades. They’re making decisions about their future priorities as we speak, as evidenced by the late-season shut-down of the roster.
But I’ll be danged if anybody can name with any certainty the who, how, or why of these decisions. Is Jody Allen hands-on? Is Bert Kolde or some other Vulcan executive in charge? Can the Blazers go into the tax? Is their mission to take on or dump salary in the off-season? Are they going all-in with Damian Lillard or are they rebuilding?
Reading tea leaves, we can lean towards every possible answer to these questions with relatively equal certainty. A million directions lie open, while the Blazers appear to be spinning in circles, not taking any of them, hoping that a thunderbolt from the sky (huge trade, winning the NBA Draft Lottery) will make that decision for them.
The cumulative effect is like a family trip where mom urges dad to check for directions while dad says, “There must be an exit up here somewhere...” Except here, we don’t even know whose hands are really on the wheel.
Is Joe Cronin a Good GM?
The past two seasons in Portland have been a process of dismantling old assumptions and structures in preparation for a refit that will bring greater success. The dismantling has been accomplished. CJ McCollum, Robert Covington, Norman Powell, Larry Nance, Jr., and even Josh Hart are gone.
The return for those players has been, to this point, modest. The team has not progressed to the playoffs, let alone shown ability to succeed there.
Restructuring takes time. Cronin hasn’t had enough yet to prove his strategy. That would be easier to live with if we had a single sign that a cohesive plan was in place.
The General Manager’s oft-stated objective is to build a contender around Damian Lillard. Lillard’s age and patience mandate near-immediate action and demonstrable progress towards that goal. Yet the Blazers have gone the opposite direction, trading for young players, draft collateral, and marginal cap savings. They are doing something far different than they’re saying.
Fans are anticipating summer activity to make this all clear. Right now the hole is so deep that those June/July moves would need to be dramatic, changing the course of the team by their mere existence. That’s a higher bar to clear than taking incremental steps in an ongoing plan. It’s also treacherously difficult to pull off.
Until that kind of move happens, the Blazers are in limbo. So, too, the assessment of Cronin’s capability. At this point in the process, the only fair answer to questions about his fitness and vision is, “I guess we’ll see.”
Is Chauncey Billups a Good Coach?
Chauncey Billups was hired two years ago with no head coaching experience at any level. He spent his rookie year leading a tanking team, developing young, relatively unknown players while collecting losses on the way to the NBA Draft Lottery. His second season started in more promising fashion, but ultimately devolved into the same procedure. Despite isolated, positive signs, Portland’s defense, depth, and record all remained shaky.
No coach could have turned around the torrent of suckiness washing the Trail Blazers down this path. Without talent and experience, you’re going to lose. That’s been Billups’ fate.
On the other hand, Portland had a reasonably deep lineup during the first half of the season, yet devolved into .500 ball even before the roster fell apart.
Is Chauncey Billups a good coach? We didn’t have a clue when he joined the franchise. Two seasons on, we’re still not 100% sure. It looks like he might not be, but if he were, we’d never know it. It looks like the plan right now is to give him one more year to find out...another issue kick down the road in what is beginning to look like a “Just Married” car with the cans on the wrong end.
For those counting, every level of this organization—ownership, high management, front office, and coaching staff—is infested with ambiguity. The only uniting vertical factor is that we’re not certain about any of them.
The distance between the public and the inner sanctum of every NBA franchise accounts for some of this, but not nearly all. Successful organizations project surety and confidence from every layer. The Blazers aren’t even close right now.
This is unprecedented in the history of the franchise. Even during the early 2000’s—widely considered the low point of their history—the mission was clear: keep acquiring players between 2000 and 2003, divest completely and start over after. Nobody liked those directions as they were happening. Few people praised the executives and owner that led the charge in each. But at least they were directions, obvious to see, made by defined people with a clear end goal in mind.
This all-encompassing ambiguity at the top isn’t good for the organization or its public image. That, in itself, is a challenge the Blazers will need to face this summer.
And we’re not done yet. Portland also faces plenty of on-court question marks, which we’ll list in our next post.