PORTLAND, Ore. — The long, spiraling descent into the abyss of irrelevance continued Thursday for the Portland Trail Blazers, with general manager Joe Cronin opting not to grasp for lifelines of help at the trade deadline, but rather steadfastly grip the bell of hope and ring it to the dwindling masses who still follow this once proud organization.
Cronin on Thursday said the Blazers were “very content” with no movement at the trade deadline, and added that “we are happy with who we have and where we are at.” He cited pleasant surprises during this 15-36 season such as rookies Toumani Camara and Doup Reath, and noted “quality and sustainable play” from veterans.
“In totality, I like where we are headed,” Cronin said.
Of course, there are no shades of darkness. It knows no depth.
Since Dec. 3, 2021, when Cronin took over the Blazers armed with a handful of dynamite he would use to blow up a roster that went to the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, the Blazers are 64-128. Only three teams during that span have won fewer games: Detroit (44), San Antonio (59) and Houston (59). Cronin on Thursday emphatically answered “yes” when I asked whether he thought he has done a good job since taking over that December day.
“I really like where we are positioned. I like where we are headed. I like what we are capable of,” Cronin said. “I like our team, I like our staff, I like our organization. I think we are well on our way to good things in the future.”
The empty seats at the Moda Center show me more and more of you aren’t quite as enthusiastic.
For those who cheer for this team religiously, there is little patience to hear this is year one of the rebuild. It’s year three. That’s three trade deadlines, two drafts, two free agent periods. And the Blazers are still among the worst teams in the league. The lowest form of relevancy — competing for a playoff spot — is years away. Meanwhile teams that shared similar predicaments two-and-a-half years ago — Houston, Indiana and Utah after it traded Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — are well past, or in the process of, escaping the abyss.
This is not to deride Cronin for making only a clerical move Thursday, acquiring guard Dalano Banton and cash from Boston for a protected second-round pick, which allowed Portland to reach the NBA requirement of carrying at least 14 players. This is to say Cronin’s inactivity further tests the patience of a fan base that has watched him change courses during his two and a half seasons. It makes it all feel as if he’s making it up as he goes. He has been good at two things since taking over: losing and selling hope. On Thursday, his inactivity brought no hope.
Of course, there is value to keeping guys such as Malcolm Brogdon and Jerami Grant, even though rookies such as Scoot Henderson, Rayan Rupert and Kris Murray could benefit with more liberal playing time. This is a team that needs some adults in the locker room. The value of Brogdon won’t dip before the summer. And although I’m not wild about Grant’s game or contract, I can see the value in keeping a consistent scorer (he had 49 on Thursday), even if he rarely passes and has questionable handle. And if you are serious about saying you value improving this franchise’s years-long run of poor defense, then you can’t ship out the menace that is Matisse Thybulle one year after acquiring him.
But I would have liked something bold. A trade of Deandre Ayton, for starters. Although his play has spiked for the better in the past month, his first months in Portland were defined by tardiness and tantrums according to team sources. And there has been an eerie resemblance to Hassan Whiteside, the former Blazers’ center whose statistics looked nice, but had little to no impact on a game. The quicker the Blazers can move off Ayton, the sooner I will believe this franchise is headed in the right direction.
I agree with Cronin that there is some potential here. I really like Jabari Walker. I have yet to see someone play harder than him on any given night. Camara has been a refreshing defensive force. Henderson, as much as I think Cronin oversold his ability after the draft, is starting to show signs he can make an impact down the road. And as much as I wished Anfernee Simons could dribble well enough to handle pressure defense, his shot-making is elite enough to make him a must keep. And I think Shaedon Sharpe has some unique physical ability.
But Thursday was another red-letter day on the NBA calendar that passed, leaving the Blazers selling that things will get better down the road, all while neglecting to make things better. Nobody was expecting the Blazers to pull off a blockbuster, franchise-changing deal. But it was also a little unsettling to hear an “everything is great, we’re doing fine” delivery amid a third straight season of heavy losses. One of my concerns during Cronin’s era is that organizationally, losing has become tolerated. Shoot, for the second half of the past two seasons, Cronin has encouraged losing as the Blazers have engineered tank missions that prioritized better odds in the draft lottery over wins. I just don’t see, or feel, the disappointment over losses, or the team’s standing. Losing in Portland has become normal, accepted.
Cronin pointed to last month, when Portland went 1-6 on a trip, during which the six losses came by an average of 29 points, including a 62-point drubbing at Oklahoma City. Cronin noted how well the Blazers responded in the aftermath of that nightmare trip: they’ve gone 5-8 since, including Thursday’s 128-122 overtime loss to the lowly Pistons.
“That’s what we are pointed to: the positives. What are we capable of, what are the good moments, what can we build from, and how can we get more consistent in that higher end level of play,” Cronin said.
Those 5-8 stretches are victories these days. Cronin said other teams inquired about players on his roster, but he said he was actually more interested in adding talent rather than trading away a contract. Cronin said what eventually won out was his desire to give the young core a chance to grow together without taking another step back.
“I want to make sure this is a quality build that is sustainable,” Cronin said.
Well, on Thursday, there was no building. Just another major day on the NBA calendar gone by, with the Blazers’ slipping further into the abyss, and the sound of Cronin’s bell of hope growing more faint with each fathom.
(Photo of Joe Cronin: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)