After 25 Games, Trail Blazers Face Injuries And Front Office Changes

by Casey Holdahl
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There seems to be a lot going on right now in Rip City, though not much of it is especially pleasant.

Portland has won just once on the road this season and after starting the year almost unbeatable at home, they have now dropped their last three at Moda Center and six of their last seven games overall. And in the meantime, Damian Lillard has been sidelined by an abdomen injury that has dogged him for the last few seasons. His replacement in the starting lineup, Anfernee Simons, made it a little more than one quarter into Lillard’s absence before rolling his right ankle, an injury that has kept the 6-3 guard out of the lineup ever since.

Nassir Little, one of the bright spots of Portland’s up-and-down play so far this season, has missed the last four games with a left ankle sprain and now CJ McCollum, who missed Monday’s loss to the Clippers with what was originally thought to be a rib contusion, is out until further notice after a CT scan showed pneumothorax in his right lung. And then there’s Cody Zeller and Ben McLemore, who are both questionable due to minor injuries for Wednesday’s game versus the league-leading Golden State Warriors.

The sheer number of injured players would be difficult for any team to overcome, but that’s especially true for a team struggling to play with consistent effort while also being ranked dead last in defensive efficiency under first year head coach Chauncey Billups.

But that’s just what’s happening on the court. Off the court, the decision-makers on both the basketball and business sides of the Portland Trail Blazers have changed in the last month.

First it was Chris McGowan, who left the organization at the end of November after nearly 10 years of serving as the Trail Blazers’ President and CEO. He was replaced by Dewayne Hankins, who joined the team shortly after McGowan took over business operations in 2013, as Portland’s President of Business Operations. Hankins has been involved in most of the team’s business initiatives over nearly the last decade, from negotiating jersey patch and broadcast deals to ticket sales and sponsorships, and will continue to do so in his new role at One Center Court.

But while McGowan leaving -- he has since been named president and CEO of Ilitch Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, among other properties -- and Hankins taking his place are certainly important to the health and wellbeing of the franchise, they’re the kind of changes that typically only the most hardcore fans (though in Portland, that’s not an insignificant number) would typical find notable. However, the recent changes on the basketball side of the organization could very well result in changes to the product on the court this season.

After spending the last nine-plus years as the Trail Blazers General Manager and President of Basketball Operations, Neil Olshey was dismissed last Friday after a lengthy investigation into workplace issues at the team’s practice facility in Tualatin found “violations of the Portland Trail Blazers’ Code of Conduct.” The team has since named Joe Cronin, who has worked in various roles in Portland’s front office for the last 15 seasons, as the team’s interim General Manager.

Cronin, who has a masters degree from the University of Denver, has worked for the Trail Blazers since 2006 when he joined the team as an intern in the Basketball Operations department. He’s served in various roles for the team, from pro scout to Director of Player Personnel, though his main charge in recent years has been functioning as the team’s expert on all things salary cap related. While he might not be a household name, he is both respected and well-liked within the organization due to his affability and expertise, both of which he’ll need in order to navigate what seems to be shaping up as a transformative period for the franchise.

Some of the issues, both in the long and short terms, that he and the organization are facing? There’s the futures of starters Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington, both in the last years of their current deals. Then there’s Anfernee Simons, now in the last year of his rookie deal, who is looking more and more like a future starter, though at a position in which the Trail Blazers already have the likes of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell. And with the team salary roughly $3 million over the luxury tax, there's a debate to be had on whether the team should proceed as-is or make one or more moves in order to get below the line.

But there are plenty of non-contract issues to suss out as well. Has this iteration of the roster run its course? Is it time to breakup the backcourt? Will the team continue in win-now mode or pivot to a rebuild, or something akin to it? Does this roster have the ability to play even average NBA defense, an issue for at least the last three seasons, and if not, what does that mean from a personnel perspective going forward?

How well Cronin is able to traverse these issues could very well determine whether he’s able to shed the interim tag -- he will have an opportunity to apply for the position, though the team is also conducting a formal search.

So that’s the current state of the Trail Blazers after 25 games. There’s no lack of work to be done, both on and off the court, between the issues winning on the road, playing passable defense at home or away, injuries, questions about the long term viability of the current roster and potential hiring of new executives, so how the team proceeds over the next few months will go a long way toward defining the next era in Rip City. Stay tuned.

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