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What We’ve Learned About Blazers GM Joe Cronin and the Rebuild Trajectory

The way forward has been clarified for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Milwaukee Bucks v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Many Portland Trail Blazers fans were disappointed by a relatively quiet trade deadline day that saw the Blazers make only one small move, sending out a heavily-protected second-round pick for 6-8 guard Dalano Banton. Where was the Malcolm Brogdon trade for picks? Or a deal sending out Jerami Grant? Instead of a veritable shower of future draft picks Portland largely stood pat. Was this an utter failure by Joe Cronin to do his job or part of a well-executed plan?

In Cronin’s press conference after the trade deadline expired he set out the vision in four concise sentences.

We don’t want to take any more steps back. We were looking more to acquire a guy than get off of a guy. But at the same time, I don’t want to speed it up too much. I want to give these guys a chance to grow and develop.

It’s worth taking a closer look at what Cronin said and how his actions (or inactions) support his statement.

We don’t want to take any more steps back.

If it wasn’t clear before Thursday it is now. The Blazers were simply not shopping Brogdon or Grant. Or Ayton. Or Simons. That doesn’t mean that these players were untouchable, but a hypothetical Brogdon trade at the deadline was always going to be centered on a return of picks or possibly young (i.e. not currently good) players. Cronin is making it clear that the Blazers have bottomed out as far as he wants them to bottom out. Barring some stupendous offer of picks or raw youth, any trade at the deadline he was willing to make was always going to be for established players. With nothing like that materializing the Blazers pretty much stayed in neutral.

We were looking more to acquire a guy than get off of a guy.

This underlines the previous sentence. Portland was working the phones but in an effort to try to get someone who could make the team better rather than trade away talent already here. Whether Dalano Banton makes the team better is an open question, but I think it’s fair to say that the Blazers were inquiring about more established players and nothing happened. Why?

But at the same time, I don’t want to speed it up too much. I want to give these guys a chance to grow and develop.

This is where balance comes in. If the Blazers wanted to trade some of their youth they certainly could have gotten better in a hurry. Not great, but better. No matter how enthusiastic you are about the future for Scoot, Sharpe, Camara, Walker and so on these guys are super young and they are making mistakes by the bushelful. Trade some of them for established veterans and the team gets instantly better. Cronin is saying that he’s willing to be patient with the youth and allow them to develop before moving on. While he doesn’t want the team to regress, he also know that patience is required for many of the players to reach their potential, and therefore patience is required for the team to reach its potential.

Those who were hoping for a 76ers’ style “process” are surely disappointed. It’s hard not to cast a jealous eye at the Thunder and their mountain of picks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sitting on top of the pile smirking at us. While the Blazers situation was miles away from the perfect storm of opportunity that the Thunder pounced on, Cronin could have certainly prioritized picks and bottomed out more thoroughly. So why didn’t he?

I don’t pretend to have any insider insight to the working of Cronin’s brain, but I’d be surprised if my speculations are too far off the mark.

First, let’s remember that 76ers were unwatchable for half a decade and still haven’t made a conference finals in the decade-plus since the process began. That’s in spite of drafting Embiid at three and having two first overall picks besides that. Changes to the lottery have made putting all of your eggs in the lottery basket an even riskier proposition than it was for the 76ers, and they had spectacular lottery luck that didn’t pay off. I’d also argue that this city doesn’t have the stomach for a hopeless team for the better part of a decade. Of course there is no guarantee that we won’t find out just how much losing the city can take no matter what Cronin does, but I do think it’s understandable that Cronin and the owner feel like a long and complete “process” is not something that would work in Portland.

Another issue that Dave Deckard really gets into is that you can have too many picks. If you are good team you can potentially use those picks to fill needs by trading them, but if you are a bad team you want to use those picks to hopefully hit a home run. But how many kids can you develop at a time? If the picks are somehow lottery picks, they have a pretty high salary attached with no promise of success. If they aren’t lottery picks, they aren’t likely to change the course of the franchise, and to make room for the new guys you might have to cut guys you haven’t fully given a chance to. Besides, the Blazers have already secured their potential “home run” picks and swaps. Ask any Bucks fan, they are terrified of what the future looks like in a few years. In Milwaukee it’s all about maximizing the present for them. Unless the Bucks pull a rabbit out of the hat the Blazers are already looking at the possibility of some high picks a few years down the road regardless of the Blazers’ record. Adding more picks wouldn’t be a disaster by any means but it might have added complications with a very low likelihood of success. At least that’s the argument.

So does all this mean that Brogdon and Grant (and Simons and Ayton) will retire as Blazers? After all, Brogdon and Grant have both expressed an interest in staying in Portland. Cronin appears to take an interest in the well-being of players, but he’s also shown that he’ll hurt a few feelings if he thinks it good for the team. It’s not that any of those players are untouchable, it’s that they have to return the kind and volume of assets that he values. If any transaction doesn’t meet that standard he won’t make a deal. The trade deadline often involves bad contracts plus picks for a good player. That just wasn’t the profile Cronin was looking for. After the season ends there will be more teams looking to shuffle the deck more, and also more picks free up for teams to trade. That turns into opportunity.

For better or worse, the rebuilding die is cast. The plan is onward and upward from here. For those looking for a huge pile of draft picks, get used to disappointment. Barring some massive offer that Cronin can’t refuse it’s likely to be slow but steady growth. The future looks pragmatic, not dramatic. Stay tuned.