Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Joe Cronin faces a Herculean task in the summer of 2023, finding a good trade for Damian Lillard under adverse circumstances. That’s nothing new for the sophomore executive, though. He’s been hard at it, while trying to shelter from storms, since he took over the franchise a year and a half ago.
Due to the Lillard trade request, Cronin now finds himself in a spotlight he didn’t ask for. Plenty of Blazers fans are questioning his abilities, some in harsh terms. One of the gentler versions has become the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag,
Well here we are. I never expected Dame Lillard would ask for a trade. I’ve seen you talk so much about him though. I want to hear about the other side of the equation. I know it’s early, but where do you think Joe Cronin ranks among Blazers GMs? Do you think he’s doing a good job right now?
I suppose we’d have to rank General Managers in order to answer that question. I’ll do a sketch version for you, based on my own opinion, of course. Since the chain of command hasn’t always been clear, I’m going to limit the list to the big names, executives who were prominent during their era, regardless of official title. I’m also going to omit interims and executives who stayed just one year.
Bucky Buckwalter 1986-1996 (various capacities)
Though Bucky Buckwalter served in various capacities—including under official GM’s Jon Spoelstra, Geoff Petrie, and Bob Whitsitt—he was one of the prime architects of the Clyde Drexler era from his ever-evolving executive seat. He inherited a talented, though offensively-minded—roster in 1986 and helped turn it into two-time NBA Finalists. His “diamond in the rough” gets included Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, and Cliff Robinson. He also innovated, drafting Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic before international players were all the rage. The Blazers ascended pretty steadily during his tenure, using nothing more than mid-range draft picks and trades.
Harry Glickman/Stu Inman 1970-1986 (General Managers)
The OG pair, Glickman and Inman gave the Blazers Geoff Petrie, Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Clyde Drexler, and an NBA title. They made some mistakes along the way too: LaRue Martin drafted first overall and Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. But these two established the Trail Blazers as a legitimate NBA team. Your sense of Blazers fandom today owes a huge debt to the work they did behind the scenes 40-50 years ago. Most would probably rank them first overall.
Bob Whitsitt 1994-2003 (General Manager/Lead Executive)
Bob Whitsitt came into Portland as the hottest young executive in the league, fresh off of taking the Seattle Supersonics to the NBA Finals. He left maligned for his distant attitude and for ruining team chemistry. In between, he brought Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Brian Grant, and Steve Smith to Portland through a never-ending series of deals. He also found Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph, and Bonzi Wells in the NBA Draft. His teams made the Conference Finals in 1999 and 2000, finishing one quarter short of a return to the NBA Finals in ‘00. He also presided over the Drexler trade to the Houston Rockets and burned bridges with players from that era. Whatever you think of his methods or the conclusion of his reign, Whitsitt at least left a track record of success in the win-loss column.
Geoff Petrie 1990-1994 (General Manager)
Before Geoff Petrie rose to greater fame in Sacramento, he had a “no harm, no foul” four years with the Blazers, alongside Buckwalter, who by then was Vice President of Basketball Operations. On Petrie’s watch the Blazers brought in Danny Ainge, Robert Pack, and Rod Strickland. They notched a franchise-record 63 wins in 1991 and returned to the NBA Finals in 1992, following their prior 1990 trip. Much of that high-level success was inherited, but Petrie did a reasonable job stewarding the franchise through the peak years of the Drexler Era.
Kevin Pritchard 2007-2010 (General Manager)
Kevin Pritchard appeared as a junior executive during the waning years of the Jail Blazers era and was reportedly instrumental in the decision to draft bright, new additions Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006. Pritchard also drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007, a seemingly-logical move at the time, as the Blazers already had Aldridge in the fold and lacked a center. Oden was a generational legend with, as it turned out, chronic injury problems. That, plus his inability to make further moves, spelled doom for Pritchard, but not before he gave the Blazers Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and a new, feel-good era.
Neil Olshey 2012-2021 (General Manager/Lead Executive)
Olshey took over a team that had just lost its identity, and grand hopes for the future, when the knees of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden quit in the early 2010’s, long before the players were ready to. Almost immediately, Olshey demonstrated his most bankable skill: finding and drafting excellent guards. Damian Lillard was the first and greatest example, to be followed by CJ McCollum and later Anfernee Simons. In a 6’5 and under league, Olshey would reign over a perpetual world championship. Drafting and retaining big men remained a chronic problem throughout his tenure, as did making significant moves to bolster the frontcourt. Jusuf Nurkic was his greatest triumph in that vein. As time went along through Olshey’s tenure, the Blazers got older, more expensive, and retained fewer future assets. The highest moment arrived in 2019, when they reached the Conference Finals. The lowest came when he was dismissed in 2021 for violating team policies on ethical conduct. In between came plenty of flash and promise, but only modest results.
John Nash and Steve Patterson 2003-2007 (General Managers and Team President)
Executives John Nash and Steve Patterson were brought in to be bad guys. By 2003, The Bob Whitsitt regime had fallen over a cliff. Portland’s salary cap ledger was out of control, wins were diminishing, future assets were dwindling, and public relations were at an all-time low. Resetting finances was the first priority of the duo. Putting the roster list through a wood chipper was the second. They discarded veterans, traded promising (yet underperforming) players, and created a buffer between the media and owner Paul Allen, at whose behest all this was being done. If this sounds like Evil Executives hired to liquidate and/or turn around struggling corporations, well...there you go. Nash and Patterson bungled a couple drafts, pinning hopes on point guard Sebastian Telfair in 2004, trading down when they could have selected Chris Paul in 2005. Nash was fired soon after and Patterson took over for a year, presiding over the Roy/Aldridge draft before he, too, was dismissed. They probably weren’t great GM’s, but they also didn’t have much of a chance. In the end, their scorched-earth approach cleared the way for Pritchard and the late-2000’s Resurrection Era.
Reviewing the list, you can see that the Blazers have bounced back from doom plenty of times. Whitsitt, Prtichard, and Olshey all accomplished it reasonably well. Even Inman and Glickman pulled Portland out of the disastrous Bill Walton divorce. Cronin is presiding over a dramatic transition between eras, just as those executives did. Though it looks bleak now, he has a chance. Recovery is possible.
At the same time, Cronin’s starting situation is far more like that of Nash and Patterson than Buckwalter, or even Pritchard. Cronin has been forced to dismantle the dregs of a failed, expensive game plan before he could start his own. He expected lift-off last season, but a second-straight disastrous record and Damian Lillard’s trade demand put the kibosh on those plans. Instead he’ll preside over the last, grand demolishment of the Lillard era, then into a rebuild.
It’s too soon to judge Cronin based on actions. It’s far too soon to place him anywhere on this list. But looking at context and understanding how these systems often work, there’s a non-zero chance that the assets Cronin is accumulating today will be used by a different GM in a few years. That could be true even if Jody Allen retains control of the team. It’s doubly possible if the Blazers are sold to new owners in the next couple years.
We’re not there yet, though. The best we can say is that it’s hard for Cronin to soar when he has to spend most of his time and energy laying scaffolding to climb out of the pit. The Lillard trade request just caused a major cave in on top of everything else.
All we can do now is watch as Cronin reassembles his platform and the team. But I’d say the chances of him being able to do what Whitsitt did, let alone reach the rarefied air of Buckwalter, Inman, and Glickman, are small. He may not be a bad executive. Circumstances might be conspiring to make his good moves look worse than they are. When that happens, history does not often judge kindly.
Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to answer as many as we can!