After enduring a reset in both basketball and business last season, management of the Portland Trail Blazers is looking to the upcoming 2022-23 season as the next step in reshaping the organization.
General manager Joe Cronin and president of business operations Dewayne Hankins, both longtime executives in organization prior to being promoted, have continued to execute their respective visions for the team with the goal of operating in a more open and collaborative environment. After making significant changes to the roster on the basketball side and dealing with the enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business side, both Cronin and Hankins embark upon their first full seasons in their relatively new roles with a cleaner slate, though both readily admit there’s still much work to be done.
Cronin and Hankins recently sat down with tv analyst Lamar Hurd to discuss the changes already made, where improvements are still needed and what to expect this upcoming season.
A New Era for the Portland Trail Blazers Organization
2022 OFFSEASON AND SUMMER LEAGUE
Between finishing with a 27-55 record and losing 21 of their final 23 games, there wasn’t much good news to speak of at the end of Portland’s 2021-22 campaign. But a successful offseason, which saw the team trade for veteran forward Jerami Grant, sign guard Gary Payton II as a free agent and coming away from the 2022 Draft with Shaedon Sharpe and Jabari Walker, has the team on a much better footing going into training camp.
“Last trade deadline in February we tried to create as many possibilities as we could to where we had all these different tools and exceptions and picks that we could put into play,” said Cronin. “It all sounded good in February where, okay, we have all this flexibility and all this potential, but actually filling all those spots that we were hoping to was extremely exciting for us. We got through free agency and the draft and then we get into summer league.”
Losing so many games to end the regular season might not have been all that enjoyable to watch, though it did give the likes of Trendon Watford, Greg Brown III, Keon Johnson and Brandon Williams opportunities to play extended minutes. And that experience helped those players lead Portland to the 2022 Las Vegas Summer League championship, which they won in large part due to their defense.
“They had a lot of playing time experience throughout the end of the regular season,” said Cronin. “We had a bunch of roster guys playing in (Las Vegas) and it was great to see them play the style of basketball that Chauncey wants to play where we were the best defense at summer league, we were really competitive, really engaged throughout, played team ball. That culminated with the championship, so it was a neat teaser and hopefully a good first step to what our regular roster can do once they’re playing Chauncey’s brand of ball.”
A FOCUS ON SCOUTING, ANALYTICS AND SPORTS MEDICINE
For nearly a decade, Trail Blazers' leadership was largely comprised of three people: Neil Olshey, Chris McGowan and Terry Stotts. But with all three leaving the organization in 2021, Cronin and Hankins have both added new staffers as they build out their respective administrations. Hankins has brought in new vice presidents of sponsorship and marketing, while Cronin has brought in three new assistant general managers, who bring skill sets which emphasize international scouting and analytics, while also retooling the organization’s medical staff.
“We’ve constantly been building and adding staff, really since I started. The first person we hired was Andrae Patterson, our first assistant GM, we got him in January,” said Cronin. “A critical addition for us, Andre is just so good in so many areas, helping with basketball decisions, helping with leadership, helping with managing, just super well-rounded and versatile. And from there we just continued to build where we’ve added and bulked up numerous departments.
We wanted to get much stronger in medical, so we’ve done a lot of additions there, and also in analytics. So we’ve revamped that department, added a bunch of new employees and added to the budget and also hired an assistant GM who is really strong analytically in Sergi Olivia. Between those two areas we’ve really bulked those up, and then we added a third assistant GM, Mike Schmitz, who’s been terrific so far… Obviously a key addition for us and Mike is really going to revamp our scouting, make us a global scouting organization where we’re going to be all over the place, hopefully leave no stone unturned.”
COLLABORATION BETWEEN BASKETBALL AND BUSINESS
While there are practical reasons to maintain some separation between the basketball and business sides of an NBA team, the lack of collaboration and communication between the staff at the practice facility in Tualatin and those at the team headquarters at Moda Center ended up created more issues than it solved. So one of the first tasks for both Cronin and Hankins when they assumed their respective roles, under the direction of team governor Jody Allen, was to bridge the two sides of the organization. Significant strides have been made on that front, but the work still continues.
“If you look at sports teams, you have the business side, you have the basketball side, they both have very specific goals,” said Hankins. “Business side is driving revenue, community impact, all those things. And then the basketball side is traditionally like, let’s put the best team on the court as possible, and that’s always going to be the most important goal.
“But when you can work together on those things and have community support that’s grounded in what’s great for the players, what’s great for the fans, what’s great for the community, that’s a home run. When you can have, whether it’s revenue opportunities or other things come up that are really together as a business and a basketball side, that works really well… What I feel really lucky about in this situation is that we have a basketball group that totally understands that.”
THE MODA CENTER EXPERIENCE
Much of the last two-plus seasons have been spent figuring out ways to safely host fans at Moda Center in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health and safety of fans and staff attending games remains a priority, so many of the changes made at the arena in order to lessen potential transmission have now become standard. But with an easing of restrictions as the pandemic subsides, the hope is that the 2022-23 season will allow for fans in Rip City to remember what makes watching games at Moda Center so special.
“What’s exciting about where we’re heading is that we think we’re through the worst of the pandemic and the COVID piece,” said Hankins. “We don’t anticipate having any restrictions at this time related to fan entry. Really want to get back to reminding fans what’s exciting about being here, what’s great about coming to games. I think we spent a lot of the last year telling fans what they couldn’t do at games and what they couldn’t bring, so bringing that energy back, I think, is going to be really, really great.”
And if you’ve passed by Moda Center lately, you might have noticed one of the changes: a new roof, which is being replaced for the first time since the building opened in the 1990s.
“It’s a big project that Jody (Allen) approved us doing, but there’s a lot of stuff in this building that is at life,” said Hankins, who also noted changes to the inner bowl and the end zones of the arena are also being considered. “It’s the original roof from the building, so needs to get replaced, it’ll be a project that goes on throughout the summer, you might see a little bit this fall.”
“There’s lot of changes to be done there because it’s getting to the point where this building is starting to show its age a little bit, so we’ve got to stay on top of it and keep making these investments.”
While Cronin and Hankins had previous dealings with Jody Allen in their prior roles with the team, both have worked much closer with her since taking over the two primary leadership roles within the organization. While it’s easy enough to propose changes when taking on a new role, explaining why those changes need to be made and then selling that vision to ownership is an important skill for executives, especially when going through a transitional period.
“Two weeks into my tenure here I made a big staffing proposal,” said Cronin. “‘Here’s the additions we’d like to make, here’s some changes, here’s some budgeting increases that we’re recommending.’ Just immediately engaged, immediately approved it. Constant dialog about some of the candidates, just beyond interested in who we were adding.
“We wanted to make a strong emphasis on being diverse, adding more women, adding different thoughts and different styles and different ways of thinking about things. We wanted to be way more forward-thinking in our approach and she really pushed us throughout. You can see all the hiring we’ve done each step along the way, it was her idea to add a team psychologist and that’s been really impactful for us already with Dr. Green.”
According to Cronin, not only has Allen, chair of the Trail Blazers since the passing of her brother, Paul, in 2018, been receptive to the changes he’s proposed, but has taken an active role in pushing the team to make improvements. Rumor and innuendo might give some the impression that Allen, one of the few women in the world who helms a professional sports team, isn’t as engaged as some of her contemporaries, though the people in a position to actually know her interest say that couldn’t be less true.
“When I became GM in May, told her it would help us to add two more assistant GMs and that’s a big ask,” said Cronin. “Had to lay it out for her like ‘We need to bump up our scouting, we need to keep ramping up our analytics and these two people can help with that.’ ‘Approved, go get ‘em.’ Super supportive in all the staffing stuff.
“And you get into the roster stuff where, we’ve been so active, have made so many trades and additions and took a pretty risky pivot in February. Just consistent dialog where there were times I would email or call numerous times a day and she was extremely responsive, always right on top of it throughout that whole process. The trade deadline can be two weeks straight, every day up until 10 pm at night where something is going on and she’s right there for us whenever we needed her.
“Then we got into the Jerami Grant trade… We were going to execute the trade until after the moratorium ended, which was July 6. So she’s on the phone with myself, Troy Weaver from Detroit, Arn Tellem from Detroit and we’re hammering out the final details of the deal and Jody’s on the phone doing those things.
“So far as her engagement, it’s a big misconception that she isn’t engaged. She’s more than engaged and really enjoys this and really cares about this team.”