Trail Blazers are team, organization in 'transition,' execs say
The three leading men of the Portland Trail Blazers met with the media on Thursday, Dec. 9, for a "conversation," not a news conference, and coach Chauncey Billups lightened the mood immediately.
It's funny, said Billups, who has been on the job for five months and 26 regular-season games. He's the longest tenured among the three.
The Blazers recently fired Neil Olshey as president of basketball operations after an investigation into his workplace behavior and replaced him with Joe Cronin on an interim basis.
Dewayne Hankins has recently taken over as president of business operations upon Chris McGowan's resignation.
It's clearly an organization in transition. Attendance has been down because of the COVID-19 pandemic and NBA protocols — vaccination/negative test and distancing and mask requirements — and the team has struggled out of the gate at 11-15, including 1-11 on the road and three consecutive home losses.
Fans are waiting to see what happens with star Damian Lillard, who's up for a max-player extension and much of the national media has been speculating about his departure from Portland. But, Lillard, again on Wednesday, reiterated his stance that he wants to be in Portland and be part of the solution.
And then, there is the speculation about what move the Blazers could make, including a possible deal for Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. CJ McCollum for Simmons, perhaps?
But, specific news wasn't going to come out of the "conversation" with media members in-person and on Zoom. Other than the revelation that Billups and Cronin each grew up in Denver, and Billups' George Washington High team beat Cronin's Horizon High team in the state championship game in 1994. And that Billups knew Cronin's sister.
While Billups went on to NBA stardom, Cronin can take pride in Billups calling him a "beast" of a player.
"I've been waiting for this for a long, long time," joked Cronin, of being Billups' boss.
Each of the three men had some interesting things to say. Here are some of their comments:
Cronin, on GM job: "It's a lifelong dream of mine to get an opportunity like this … (and owners) trusting me to help this organization transition forward. One of the main goals early on is to improve this culture. I've spent time with Dewayne lately, we want to integrate business and basketball better."
Cronin, on Billups: "As great as he was as a player, I think he'll be a better coach. He has a unique skill set … the way he gets the best out of people. I'm encouraged by what I've seen so far. I know we have challenges with this roster. I like this team. We're committing to being aggressive, take on risks, be creative and forward-thinking. We talk about what it takes to win, what winning basketball looks like."
Billups, on front-office synergy: "All the really, really successful organizations in our league have synergy throughout the organization, they're vertically aligned. It's really important to be aligned and on the same page, from a business perspective. We need each other. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. I'm excited we'll start to have that as an organization."
Cronin, on team's improvement: "The core challenge facing us is it's extremely difficult to go from good to great. We had a solid team for years, but we had a ceiling. How do we bust through that ceiling … and walk through that door with swagger that we're one of the best teams in the league and have a legitimate chance to win this thing? I don't know if we have that swagger."
Billups, on formula to win: "It's pretty consistent around the board in the league of what wins. Having a competitive spirit about your team. Having pretty high basketball IQ about your team. Our roster is our roster, we have some talented players, when we're playing well and together, we're pretty damn good. We can be pretty bad, too. You need help in this league. You gotta find a group that has synergy."
Hankins, on attendance: "Some fans, no matter how safe we make the environment, don't want to come to games." He added that there are people who remain unvaccinated and don't want to attend because of vaccination or negative test requirement. "We have done a great job with single-game ticket sales. … It's only attendance where we're seeing challenges."
Hankins, on comparative attendance: "We're about the same where we were prepandemic, in the top 10 (in NBA). A lot of teams are hit with challenges." He added that other teams have less strict vaccination/negative test and distancing/mask requirements in their states and "it's easier bringing people back."
Cronin, on talks with Dame and CJ: "I've had multiple long talks with each of them. We like our team, we need to get better, how do we do that? They're happy with Chauncey and his staff. We know we need to do things with the roster, and we will."
Billups, on Lillard wanting to stay: "It means a lot to me. This is my first time as head coach, and I'm going to make a ton of mistakes on a nightly basis. Dame and all the guys have been in there, being patient with me. Having a player like him, saying he believes … is really important. I still can't believe he has to continue saying and professing love for the city and organization and he wants to be here, but that's the world we live in. He's been clear about his intentions. In-house we know the deal. But to press his issue around the country, I don't think he needs to do that. That's the social media world we live in."
Hankins, on Cronin's interim tag: "Ownership has said they're in the first quarter (of GM search). Having Joe here, it's made them feel comfortable."
Cronin, on cap flexibility: "Our books are in really good shape. We don't have any negative contracts or bad money contracts. Our books are really clean as far as the ability to transact or be creative that way. I feel good about our cap situation."
Billups, on media criticism: "I don't read what you write. I hear about things. The job I'm doing is a tough job. If I don't stick to the job, and listen to background music, I veer off. I'm so happy to have this job, enthusiasm hasn't changed on bit. I'm excited about this new crew (in management)."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.