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Q&A: Blazers' interim GM Joe Cronin focused on 'big-picture' approach

The interim GM explains how Portland will address its season-long struggles and Damian Lillard's injury beyond the trade deadline.

Interim GM Joe Cronin says the Blazers are being cautious with Damian Lillard as he continues to recover from successful surgery.

LOS ANGELES – At this point, the Portland Trail Blazers had expected to become one of the serious playoff contenders in the Western Conference.

But then a few things happened that disrupted that plan.

The Blazers’ 99-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday coincided with Damian Lillard sitting for a 17th consecutive game before and after having surgery to treat a lingering abdominal injury. The Blazers (21-31) entered Wednesday with players missing a combined 139 games due to injuries, including C.J. McCollum missing 15 while recovering from a right lung ailment. And then the Blazers went through a front office overhaul only five months after hiring Chauncey Billups to replace Terry Stotts as head coach.

Portland fired general manager Neil Olshey following an investigation that found “concerns and complaints around workplace environment at the practice facility.” The Blazers then elevated Joe Cronin as the interim general manager after already spending a combined 15 seasons in the organization,  previously serving as the team’s basketball operations intern (2006), pro scout/salary cap analyst (2010) and director of player personnel (2014).

Safe to say that Cronin has had his hands full. He has worked to collaborate with the rest of the front office, Billups and players, which Billups described as “incredible.” Cronin is also less than a week away from the NBA’s trade deadline (Feb. 10) in what could mark a pivotal moment on what’s next for the Trail Blazers. caught up with Cronin before the Blazers’ loss in Los Angeles on various topics involving the trade deadline, Lillard’s recovery and if he will become Portland’s permanent general manager.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. What needs do you hope you can fulfill before the trade deadline?

Cronin: Just like everybody, trying to get better. Some of us are trying to do it sooner than later. Some teams are looking for that one extra piece to push them over the top. Other teams are looking for an infusion of talent. Other teams have a longer runway where they keep building and developing. For us, it’s staying open-minded. So just staying opportunistic and be thorough and look at all the different deals out there and make good decisions.

How do you prioritize making moves that can help you win this season versus long-term?

It’s delicate. I think we all take a big-picture approach knowing that one season is a small vacuum of a larger picture. It’s hard. We’re all so competitive that we want to win consistently. Sometimes to do that, you have to take a step back at times. Sometimes you just have to be patient. So, you’re trying to balance deal by deal what accomplishes the overall big-picture goals.

But you guys aren’t looking into thinking now is the time to do an overhaul or reset for the long term?

We’re looking at all different scenarios. Reset is a big word. We’re too competitive to want to do that. So it depends on what you mean by reset.

‘Reset’ meaning a long-term rebuild?

No, I don’t think we have the appetite to tear it all the way down. We have too many good players and too many ways to get better without taking too big of a step back.

How is Damian Lillard’s recovery coming along?

It’s coming along great. The surgery was a success. That had been bothering him for years and years. It’s a big relief for him to finally address it. The hope that comes with it is knowing it’s a lot better and that this is really going to enhance his game and hopefully prolong his career.

Is there any clarity on when he might return?

No. We’re going to be patient and make sure he’s fully healed physically and mentally. I think the break for him is really good. These years really ran together the last three. The weight that he carries, that’s a lot. The way he carried through that injury. Physically, we want to make sure he’s good. Mentally, we want to make sure he’s refreshed and ready to go whenever he comes back.

Damian Lillard opens up about his abdominal injury, and Portland must figure out how to approach his potentially extended absence.

I understand he won’t return until fully healthy, but how much of his return will also hinge where the team is at in the standings once he’s fully healthy?

With our whole approach, it’s going to be big-picture. We’re not going to rush him back just to win a few ball games. We’re going to make sure he’s healthy and right and perform for many years, not just this closing season. We’ll address it and look at it. But I don’t want to put any pressure on him. He can come back once he’s fully healed.

You’ve known Dame for quite some time. But since you’ve been in the position that you’re in, what’s the collaboration been like with him and C.J?

It’s been great. They embraced me right away and knew the change was difficult for all of us. We had a group of staff that was really together for nine years. Then it was totally flipped over in the last six months. But they’ve been good. The key thing for us that I’ve been trying to emphasize throughout the organization is communication. Just try to communicate and stay together and work through things and discuss scenarios and options. What’s working for us and what isn’t.

What’s been their feedback been with what they like, don’t like?

Generally, really positive. Things have gone really well for us. We’ve made the playoffs the last eight years in a row. I think at the same time, we’re all aligned and we want to take that next step forward. That’s the message I keep getting from all of our guys and all of our staff. How do we get over this hump? How do we walk into a playoff series thinking winning this isn’t a success? Winning this and winning a couple of more is a success. That’s been the big emphasis – how do we take this next step from going from good to great.

You guys have had success with appearing in the playoffs. But since you have fallen short, there’s a school of thought that this should then be the time to start over. Why haven’t you thought that way?

Because we think we can accomplish it in a different way. We think through some slight changes that aren’t necessarily drastic as far as a total teardown and a long-term rebuild, we think we can get over that hump in a different direction. We still have players in their primes ready to compete.

I imagine Dame and CJ have still been firm with being committed here?

Yeah. They love the city. It’s a great basketball city. They love the organization and the feedback I’ve gotten back from them has been extremely positive with how they feel about Portland, Oregon.

What do you think of how Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have been as a trio when they’ve all been healthy?

Together, we’ve won a lot of games. Nurk is entering his prime. Dame and CJ are in their primes. Those are three high-level players. When we put the right pieces around them, we’ve shown that we can be very competitive.

Obviously, you’d like the record to be better. But all things considered, what are your impressions of how Chauncey Billups has done so far as a first-year head coach?

Especially lately, we’ve had so much roster turnover with injuries and everyone had a bunch of COVID stuff. But I thought we were really able to see him make his mark and make his imprint as far as the style of basketball that he wants to play. Some of the defensive improvements we went through specifically in the last four weeks and the month of January as a whole. The ball movement and the competitiveness and all of these traits we knew he would bring, it was fun to see him bring that out of different groups and different type of players and skillsets. But keep that style of play consistent. I think he’s done a terrific job with the hand he’s been dealt the last six weeks, not just with roster turnover, but with organizational turnover. So for him to keep all of those guys focused and together and go on some winning streaks and generally play a really good brand of basketball, I think it’s been super impressive.

You hired Andrae Patterson as the Trail Blazers’ new assistant general manager. What has that move brought to the organization?

I heard so many great things about Andrae as a person and as an executive. I got to know him a little bit over the years just in passing and in scouting circles when I’ve seen him at a game and spent a little time together. I didn’t know him super well. But all of my behind-the-scene work on him has been glowing reviews. He was exactly what I was looking for as far as the person he was and what type of skill set he would bring to our organization. We were all really excited that Andrae joined us.

What are the qualities he provides?

High basketball IQ as a former player and person who has been in the front office over the last seven years. His leadership abilities and thoughtfulness and creativity is really sharp. He’s going to bring a lot of different, not just basketball IQ, but leadership and people skills to the job.

What is the latest message from ownership with your long-term future?

They’ve been very open with me as far as I’ll have an opportunity to keep this job. But there’s going to be a search. They showed a lot of trust in me by allowing me to make some decisions with staffing and going into this trade deadline with some roster decisions. So, the trust they’ve shown is really I can ask for and it’s a big compliment. We’ll just take it as we go as far as what the job search looks like and what my chances are.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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