As Trail Blazers' Disappointing Season Comes to a Close, Joe Cronin is On the Clock
One way or the other, the summer of 2023 will be one of the most pivotal in franchise history.
PORTLAND, Ore. — As is customary in the last game of the season, the Trail Blazers sent a player out to center court pregame to deliver a thank-you message to fans. This year's choice, Nassir Little, was considerably lower-profile than last year, and so was his message, thanking fans for a "great season."
A year ago, it was Damian Lillard standing in that spot reassuring fans that had sat through three months of some of the worst NBA basketball imaginable that the losing "will not continue." It did, in fact, continue. The organization has clearly learned its lesson in not making those kinds of promises, so the pregame address was a little lower-key.
One of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, one that began with a newly healthy Lillard and big contributions from newcomer Jerami Grant and newly re-signed Anfernee Simons, came to a merciful end in a non-competitive effort against the Warriors that featured three players in uniform who were on the roster in training camp and five players signed within the last 12 days.
This wasn't the ending anyone envisioned. Since the start of training camp, general manager Joe Cronin has downplayed the organization's goals for the year and stressed that the plan was less contending for a title and more evaluating which of their players were long-term fits next to Lillard and under Chauncey Billups. But even with those managed expectations, a team with arguably the best version of Lillard we've ever seen and decent talent around him should have been in the play-in at worst.
There's no single reason they couldn't even clear that low bar. Some of it was undoubtedly injuries, but that's something every team deals with throughout any given season. Some of it, particularly the blown double-digit leads, was lack of experience, both on the court and on the bench. Lillard was the only over-30 player on the roster, and Billups will be the first to tell you he's still learning the job in his second season as a head coach. Both of them have lamented the lack of veterans on the team throughout the year. The defense, which has been their biggest weakness in recent years and which last summer's additions were supposed to address, was fourth-worst in the NBA once again.
The roster was flawed from the beginning. In another timeline, the talent level between Lillard, Simons, Grant, Jusuf Nurkic and Josh Hart could have been enough to overcome the lopsided construction. Cronin admitted back in July that they were undersized. The honesty was refreshing but doesn't change the reality that when Nurkic went down in February with a calf injury, they were doomed in most matchups with no one over 6-foot-9 in the rotation. For reasons largely out of his control, Cronin's first major free-agent signing of Gary Payton II was a misfire and he was forced to take a mea culpa and send him back to the Warriors at the deadline.
In the 17 months since he took over as GM in December of 2021, Cronin has been transparent about his goals and the obstacles in his path, and he's largely followed through on what he's said he'll do. He needed to clean up the Blazers' books after a half-decade of shortsighted trades and signings from his predecessor, and he's done that. He's professed to prioritize talent and upside in the draft, and it's hard to argue he didn't do that in taking Shaedon Sharpe seventh overall last June. He wanted to give himself flexibility for whenever the time comes to make the trade, and he's positioned himself well to do that this summer.
Cronin's next stated goal—turning what is currently a lottery team into a serious contender—is the toughest of all, and he's running out of time to do it before it's too late to give Lillard an honest chance to compete for the title he so badly wants to win in Portland.