When Joe Cronin took over the Trail Blazers in December, there was a word that kept surfacing, first by Cronin, and then by those who had worked with him over the years: risk.
Cronin’s former colleagues said he was the one in the room who would always want to take a risk on the players with high ceilings, even if they were unpolished at the time. He would rather strike out taking a swing at a potential home-run player than play it safe by pursuing a proven but unspectacular player.
And in December, after he was named interim general manager and charged with changing the course of a stagnant roster, Cronin kept bringing up the concept of taking risks.
“Risk means doing deals that might not be embraced by the pundits,” Cronin told The Athletic on Dec. 9, five days after he was named interim general manager. “It means you might increase your downside, but it gives you an opportunity to raise your ceiling. Those are the deals I’m interested in.”
Two months later, at the February trading deadline, those words from December rang true: Cronin pulled off a series of trades that were largely viewed as risky by a fanbase accustomed to postseason appearances.
In moves made largely — but not entirely — for financial reasons, Cronin traded CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Larry Nance Jr. The immediate return — ostensibly Josh Hart and Justise Winslow — was nowhere equal. And that’s where the risk comes in.
Cronin made those moves to create room for him to take those big swings he so desires. And even though his big plan was somewhat neutered when New Orleans made the playoffs, preventing its first-round pick from going to Portland, Cronin is still armed with the seventh pick in next month’s NBA Draft and some flexibility to sign his own free agents (Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkić), as well as some exceptions to perhaps entice teams to unload proven players for financial relief.
Earlier this month he was promoted, the interim tag erased and a multi-year contract signed. His next decision will be the seventh pick, and after scouring three in-depth interviews with Cronin over the last six months, here are some possible tells that could indicate how he will handle the pick.
Blazers trade the pick
This seems the most likely scenario based on Cronin’s repeated intention of returning the Blazers to a playoff contender as he assembles talent around Damian Lillard. The day after the Blazers’ 27-55 season — which included a 2-21 finish after the All-Star break — ended, Cronin was asked how he would view the Blazers’ pick.
“The preference is to maximize that pick,” Cronin said. “We will dive in and evaluate film and assess value to that pick. Then you can compare that to what is available on the marketplace, and then make a decision.”
Like all the other lottery teams, the Blazers were hoping for a top-four pick because it’s widely accepted there is a drop in talent after Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero and Jaden Ivey. There will be talented players available at seven, but will they be impact players right away, while the Blazers are trying to make the most of Lillard’s window of opportunity?
“We want to win; we want to be really competitive next year,” Cronin said. “You are more likely to win with veteran players than young players, so that will definitely be a part of our decision-making process.”
That’s a pretty big tell, but as Cronin noted that same April day, “it takes two to tango” in making a trade.
The ability to find a trade partner and execute a trade is where it becomes interesting regarding Cronin. One thing I’m not sure people understand about him is he is not some rube when it comes to orchestrating a trade. As Cronin explained to me in December, former GM Neil Olshey empowered him behind the scenes.
“There are certain people you have relationships with around the league, people you know who you can work with,” Cronin said. “So you talk about ideas, and as those conversations start, if they got to a certain point, I would connect with Neil (and say), ‘Hey, Neil, I talked to Team X, and there might be something with this guy, or that guy.’ Then Neil would say, ‘Go back to them; let’s ask if they will do this …’”
“So, have I done a deal by myself? No. But we never do it by ourselves,” Cronin said in December. “We are constantly talking and working together. But have I been a point man? Definitely. Many times.”
Agents have told me that some front office executives feel as if Cronin got played in his first two trades, especially by the Clippers. Others inside the Blazers organization have told me the market for the Blazers’ players was low because the salaries didn’t match the production, and therefore Cronin did well.
Cronin noted at the trade deadline that he tried to hunt big-name players, but he felt going ahead with the proposed deals didn’t make sense. He insinuated that Portland would likely revisit those deals in the summer, and judging by reporting from The Athletic’s James Edwards in Detroit, it’s safe to assume the Blazers will revisit a Jerami Grant trade either before or after the NBA Draft.
The big swing for potential
In December, Cronin told The Athletic he doesn’t like to pigeonhole players or commit to a certain style of player.
“Players come in many different shapes and sizes,” Cronin said. “I don’t have a foundation of what kind of player I like; I just want to get the most talented player as possible. But with that, you want to find the right fit and the right mentality.”
It reminded me of what different colleagues who worked with him as he rose from intern to scout to salary cap analyst and then assistant general manager told me: As the group leaned toward the safe, four-year college prospect, Cronin was always the guy bringing the conversation back to the raw, emerging, young talent who needed development but could turn out to be a star.
I asked him about sticking his neck out in those meetings and advocating for the unproven players.
“I’m okay missing if I thought it gave us a good chance to bump up a whole another level,” Cronin said. “I’m okay risking taking a step back when we are taking a swing.”
That brings us back to the seventh pick and the player who is beginning to be labeled the “mystery” man of the draft: 19-year-old Shaedon Sharpe. If there is a player who meets Cronin’s high-ceiling, high-risk/high reward appeal, Sharpe is it.
A 6-foot-6 forward from Canada who practiced but didn’t play for Kentucky this season, Sharpe is a wild card because teams haven’t seen him compete in a game against top competition. After Kentucky’s season ended with Sharpe only practicing, coach John Calipari told reporters: “Would he have been a good player this year? Yeah, he’d have been pretty good. He’d have been pretty good.”
The day before the lottery, Cronin attended Sharpe’s solo workout for league talent evaluators in Chicago. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie says of Sharpe: “A high-upside gamble because of his potential as a wing shot-creator. He looks every bit like a future NBA star wing, combining elite length with terrific hops.”
The question here is whether Sharpe will be available at seven. The top four picks are almost a given. Detroit is picking at five — and like Cronin, Pistons GM Troy Weaver leans toward unproven players with big upside — but if Sharpe survives five and six, he sure seems like a Cronin pick at seven.
Best player available
If Cronin can’t find a trade, and if Sharpe doesn’t last to seven, expect Cronin to pick the most talented player, regardless of position. The Blazers right now need depth at power forward, center and small forward, but in February, Cronin said he can’t pigeonhole need if he has a high pick.
“We have to balance the roster, no doubt. But the No. 1 thing is we have to get more talent,” he said. “We can’t take talent for granted.”
Cronin says that will hold true even if the best player available turns out to be at a position where the Blazers are set.
“If there is a two guard that is head and shoulders above the other positions, I’m taking the two guard, then (figuring) it out,” Cronin said. “But the talent part, I can’t dismiss to be able to compete at the level we want to compete at.”
Some players who could be available at seven include Arizona wing Bennedict Mathurin (6-foot-6, 19 years old), Baylor forward Jeremy Sochan (6-9, 18), Duke forward AJ Griffin (6-6, 18) and Memphis center Jalen Duren (6-11, 18). Cronin this week is in Chicago at the NBA Draft Combine, where he is conducting interviews, gathering medical information and watching workouts.
“From a straight basketball perspective, I think it’s a solid draft,” Cronin said in April. “The depth of the talent is intriguing to me.”
(Photo of Joe Cronin and Chauncey Billups: Courtesy Portland Trail Blazers)