At the end of a disappointing 2022-23 campaign, thePortland Trail BlazersThey struggle to establish an identity. They are no different than their NBA peers. His direction is undefined, his steps seemingly following several diverging angles. The transitions across the front office, on the bench, and on the court have become a cascade of ambiguity and bewilderment, leaving analysts and pundits perplexed when it comes to Portland's priorities and endings.
Like the gradually simmering toad, Trail Blazers fans have learned to live with increasing uncertainty, a condition seemingly exacerbated rather than resolved with every move and press conference.
In a two-part series, we're going to uncover some of the issues surrounding the Blazers right now, not to resolve them but to expose just how pervasive the ambiguity is. This first publication will deal with the organization's management and training levels. The second will analyze the on-court issues facing the team.
Although we still don't know what the final record will be, we can already sum up the season and the state of the team in three simple words: I don't know. There is simply no better answer available right now. It is because.
Owners are on a watch to sell?
Since Jody Allen inherited the Blazers after his brother Paul's death in 2018, speculation has swirled around his passion and continued ownership of the franchise. So far, there are no indications that a sale is imminent. But the question keeps popping up like Linus's Great Pumpkin. It's not just how invested Allen is in the franchise, but for what purpose. Are you committed to growing and improving the club, or are you waiting for it to reach its full value before offering it to the market?
In a simple sense, this can be claimed from each ownership group. But it's fair to say that Portland faces more ownership-level ambiguity than most. For better or for worse, we understand who's in chargeThe New York Knicks,Los Angeles Clippers, youmiami heat, For the good or for the bad. Even teams in flux like theThe Minnesota Timberwolveshave light at the end of the tunnel. I'm not sure anyone is 100% sure what the long-term direction for Portland's owner will be, or even who it will be.
Where does the dollar stop?
In the shadow of the question of technical propriety, a functional question arises. Who makes the decisions about the club at the highest level and what exactly are the priorities?
Paul Allen cultivated a prominent, if somewhat reclusive, public image as an owner. Even though he didn't get up in front of microphones very often, he retained the ultimate "yes or no" decision power. He also provided the central voice in establishing the organization's mission.
Even during the reign of Mr. Allen, the waters were clouded by Vulcan's involvement. Inc., the umbrella corporation created to manage Allen's sports holdings. The corporation was said to set limits and constraints on team managers.
Without Paul Allen's interest and public figure status, the picture became much less clear. Questions about rebuilding or containment, excess or maintenance below the luxury tax are important for Portland right now. The ultimate responsibility of those above the General Manager's head. What table do they land on? Who gives the green light to the acquisition or divestment, and does the priority lean more towards winning or profiting?
Obviously, the Portland system works somehow. They performed operations. They're making decisions about their future priorities as we speak, as evidenced by their roster closing at the end of the season.
But I'm doomed if anyone can name with certainty the who, how, or why of these decisions. Is Jody Allen practical? Is Bert Kolde in charge or some other Vulcan executive? Can Blazers go into tax? Is your mission to assume or dispose of the off-season salary? Are they going all-in on Damian Lillard or are they rebuilding?
When reading tea leaves, we can lean towards all possible answers to these questions with relatively equal certainty. A million directions are open, while the Blazers seem to be going around in circles, not taking any of them, waiting for lightning to strike from the sky (big change, winning theDraft da NBALottery) will make that decision for them.
The cumulative effect is like a family road trip where Mom urges Dad to look for directions while Dad says, "There must be an exit up here somewhere..." Except here, we don't even know whose hands are really on. or steering wheel.
Is Joe Cronin a good general manager?
The last two seasons in Portland have been a process of dismantling old assumptions and structures in preparation for a more successful overhaul. Deactivation has been performed. CJ McCollum, Robert Covington, Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr. and even Josh Hart are gone.
The return for these players, so far, has been modest. The team did not advance to the playoffs, let alone showed the ability to win there.
Restructuring takes time. Cronin still hasn't had enough to test his strategy. It would be easier to live with if we just had a sign that a cohesive plan was put in place.
The GM's stated goal is to build a contender around Damian Lillard. Lillard's age and patience demand almost immediate action and demonstrable progress toward that goal. However, the Blazers went in the opposite direction, trading young players, draft guarantees and marginal salary cap savings. They are doing something very different than they say.
Fans anticipate summer activities to make all this clear. Right now, the hole is so deep that those June/July plays would have to be dramatic, changing the course of the team by their mere existence. That's a higher bar to overcome than taking incremental steps in an ongoing plan. It's also treacherously difficult to pull off.
Until that kind of move happens, the Blazers are in limbo. So too, Cronin's skill assessment. At this point in the process, the only fair answer to questions about his fitness and vision is, "I guess we'll see."
Is Chauncey Billups a good trainer?
Chauncey Billups was hired two years ago with no head coaching experience at any level. He spent his freshman year leading a team of tanks, developing young, relatively unknown players while racking up losses en route to the NBA Draft Lottery. Its second season started out more promisingly, but eventually devolved into the same proceeds. Despite the isolated positive signs, Portland's defense, depth and record remained shaky.
No coach could have reversed the torrent of heartbreak that drove the Trail Blazers down this path. Without talent and experience, you will lose. That has been the fate of Billups.
On the other hand, Portland had a reasonably deep lineup in the first half of the season, but it turned into a . 500 ball before the roster even fell apart.
Is Chauncey Billups a good trainer? We had no idea when he joined the franchise. Two seasons later, we're still not 100% sure. It seems like it might not be, but if it were, we'd never know. Looks like the plan at this point is to give it another year to figure it out... another problem brewing in what is starting to look like a "newlywed" car with the cans on the wrong side.
For those that count, every level of this organization—ownership, senior management, front office, and technical staff—is riddled with ambiguity. The only vertical linking factor is that we're not sure about any of them.
The distance between the public and the inner sanctum of each NBA franchise explains some of this, but not most of it. Successful organizations project confidence and trust at all levels. The Blazers are nowhere near right now.
This is unprecedented in franchise history. Even in the early 2000s, widely considered the lowest point in its history, the mission was clear: continue acquiring players between 2000 and 2003, scrapping it completely and starting fresh afterwards. No one liked these directions while they were happening. Few people praised the executives and owners who led the charge at each. But at least they were instructions, obvious to the eye, made by definite people with a clear end goal in mind.
This pervasive ambiguity at the top is not good for the organization or its public image. That, in and of itself, is a challenge the Blazers will have to face this summer.
And we're not done yet. Portland also faces a lot of question marks on the court, which we'll list in our next post.