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Full transcript: Trail Blazers interim GM Joe Cronin discusses trade deadline, direction of team

Interim general manager Joe Cronin, head coach Chauncey Billups and president of business operations Dewayne Hankins addressed the media Thursday.
Credit: Amanda Loman, AP Photo
Portland Trail Blazers interim general manager Joe Cronin speaks with Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard on Jan. 5, 2022.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After making a handful of trades in the past week that reshaped their roster, the Portland Trail Blazers didn't make another move Thursday as the NBA's trade deadline passed at noon. Blazers interim general manager Joe Cronin talked to the media Thursday afternoon after the deadline about the trades that were made and the direction of the team going forward.

Cronin was joined by head coach Chauncey Billups and president of business operations Dewayne Hankins at Thursday's press conference.

Over the past week, the Blazers traded away three starters in CJ McCollum, Norman Powell and Robert Covington and two reserves in Larry Nance Jr. and Tony Snell. The Blazers also traded two players they acquired in a trade Tuesday, shipping away Nickeil Alexander-Walker to and Tomáš Satoranský in a three-team trade the following day. They also waived injured backup center Cody Zeller.

RELATED: Where Portland sits after trade deadline | Locked on Blazers podcast

In return, the Blazers received one high-level rotation player, guard-forward Josh Hart, a rotation player in Justise Winslow, a recent first-round pick in Keon Johnson (21st overall in 2021), two recent second-round draft picks in Elijah Hughes (39th overall in 2020) and Didi Louzada (35th overall in 2019), two players with expiring or non-guaranteed contracts in Eric Bledsoe and Joe Ingles, and four draft picks (one protected first and three seconds). The Blazers also created a $21 million trade exception.

WATCH: Press conference with Cronin, Billups and Hankins

LISTEN: Press conference with Cronin, Billups and Hankins

Full transcript

Read the full transcript of the press conference below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity:

Joe Cronin: Thanks for coming everyone. We’re here today to talk about the status of our team, specifically about where the roster stands after the trade deadline that ended today. It had become evident to us that the roster had plateaued. It was a team that was built to fit a specific coaching style and a style of play that we didn’t feel was conducive to the way Chauncey and myself wanted to play. So with that we were capped out. We were looking at a team that would've been in the luxury tax by $15 million next season with not many ways to improve. So it was our decision to do a dramatic shakeup where our goal was to make multiple deals, to balance the roster, to create numerous tools and exceptions and severely pad our cap in order to make transactions moving forward.

So that started with our deal with the Clippers. That was an important one for us, we were able to acquire a young player we really like in Keon Johnson, get two quality veterans with Justice Winslow and Eric Bledsoe, and also pick up a second-round pick. The deal was important for us because it got us out of the luxury tax this year, which completely reset our repeater clock, meaning we won't go back in, even if we're in the tax in future seasons, until at least 2025. And the deal also gave us a bunch of leverage in the next deals that we needed to make, where teams would no longer hold getting us out of the luxury tax as part of the negotiation. So that was a good deal for us.

Next deal, we quickly pivoted to New Orleans, where we made a big trade with them. Got a player we really like in Josh Hart, got a couple of good young players, including one that's still here, Didi Louzada, picked up a first-round pick that has a chance to be a lottery pick, couple second rounders, created a big $21 million trade exception and severely padded our books this season and beyond.

The next day we did a trade with Utah where we acquired Joe Ingles, who's a player that we really like and we value his Bird rights. And we also acquired Elijah Hughes, a nice young prospect, and furthermore, got another second-round pick. The deal also got $5 million off our books next season, which was a goal of ours and a prevailing theme throughout our trades, pad our books for next season.

When I first got this job, Jody Allen challenged us to put out a competitive roster. This, to us, was the best and most viable way to do so. In order to do that, we had to shake it up and now we can move forward. So we feel like we’ve given ourselves that opportunity. We have a bunch of different tools. We can be a cap-room team, we can be a trade-exception team, we can be a mid-level team. We have numerous ways to acquire high-end talent, specifically players that can earn more than the midlevel. So we feel like we're in a good position to build a roster that fits the way Chauncey wants to play, to create an identity here where we're defending and playing together, really similar to the team that we saw last night. So now we have a bit of a blank slate. We did a lot of work the last few weeks. Tearing it down is a lot easier than building it up. So now our challenge is to build it up. Questions?

Jason Quick, The Athletic: Joe, you said you wanted to balance the roster, but it still looks really weighted with the guards. Can you explain how to balance it?

Cronin: Balance it for next season? So all these transactions, the last, let's say 10 days, were focused on next season's roster. This season, it's still unbalanced, but part of this is injuries and who’ll be coming back and what not. And our full intention though, is what does next season's roster look like? And we feel like that one will be much more balanced.

Aaron Fentress, The Oregonian: How long is your ultimate big-picture plan going to take? And how involved has Damian Lillard been? Is he on board or is he taking a wait-and-see approach?

Cronin: I don't know yet how long it'll take. The goal is the sooner the better. We want to be competitive, we want to come out and play and win ball games right away. Sometimes it doesn't break that way, but our goal is to be aggressive this spring and summer and put together a really competitive roster right out of the gate. Damian’s been, he's been great. We've been communicating, he communicates with Chauncey and I constantly, and he's fully caught up with what our plans are and were, and is very integral to discussions that we have.

Reporter: Joe, it’s come along pretty quickly. Has it come along quicker than you thought or pretty much how you thought it was going to go?

Cronin: The shake-up portion of it went a little quicker than I thought. I thought some of it might carry over into the summer, sometimes you just don't find the deals that are there that make sense. And you obviously try to maximize each individual deal. So I thought there might be a few parts of our shake-up that weren't complete going into the summer, but we were able to basically accomplish all of our goals in those three transactions.

Quick: Joe, you talked about the different options: cap room, trade exception. Have you done any intel on that? Because cap room generally hasn't been a good way for Portland to go. So are you confident that with the trade exception, you have options?

Cronin: Yes. And cap room isn't just in free agency for free agent signings. You can also use it for trades as well. So really the cap room for us is a way to have the optionality in order to go above the $21 million trade exception. So we have the trade exception that you can either trade and acquire with, or you can sign-and-trade free agents into the cap room. It just gives us another vehicle to increase on that $21 million, so if we need to get to a $30 million number, we can back out further with the cap, even in the trade. So that's one thought. And then as far as free agency goes, we're confident that we can go out and be competitive in our recruiting. I think with Chauncey Billups, me and Lillard, I think that we will get in meetings and we will paint a very good picture of this organization and this city. And we're not going to run from players that we think make sense here.

Casey Holdahl, trailblazers.com: You mentioned about kind of wanting to play your style of basketball. So Chauncey, how have you felt these deals help you play the brand of basketball you feel like you want to play?

Chauncey Billups: Yeah, I think the retool, which is what we feel it is, I think it's already in full effect. You look at some of the deals that we've made, like you guys are all kind of familiar with how I've been, what I kind of like to see on the floor in terms of just playing together and just being competitive. I love competitors. It's a big thing. I think all the best teams in the league are heavily, heavily loaded with competitors. And so you look at what we've done over the last week or so, and we we've already started that ball rolling. Josh Hart is an ultimate competitor in the game, he competes on both ends of the floor. Eric Bledsoe, who I'm very familiar with, competitor who can really guard, can really get downhill. Justice Winslow, we've seen him the last few games. I mean, he's picking up LeBron James full court making it tough on him. Competitor. So I think we're off to a good start. I'm very, very happy. I think Joe has done an incredible job in a short amount of time that he's had. I think we set a record for trading the most players at the deadline. And it's all about what makes sense. We're not just, he's not just making moves to make moves. It makes sense. So I'm happy with where we are. He and I are very aligned. In fact, all three of us are all aligned on what we want, what we want it to look like and our ultimate goals. So I'm very happy about that.

Fentress: Obviously you made moves to create flexibility, but a lot of fans are freaking out because they thought you could have done better with Powell and CJ. So my question is, were there attempts made to try and get the players that you want for Powell and CJ before you made the decision to try and create flexibility instead?

Cronin: We had a bunch of different options on the table. When you're looking at building the next team roster, eventually we're going to take on money, whether it was at this trade deadline or this summer. So if the player made sense for us, yeah, we were looking for more lateral kind of trades, where a similar level of talent, maybe a different kind of position. The way the marketplace shaped up, those were just the best deals that we could find and both ended in more of the young player and asset route. That wasn't necessarily intentional. It was just the best deal that we ran into.

Sean Highkin, Bleacher Report: I guess this one would be for Dewayne. Is there still a search ongoing for a general manager or is the job pretty much Joe's at this point?

Dewayne Hankins, president of business operations: Yeah. I mean, ownership is still in the process of doing an equitable search for this role. Joe's obviously a candidate for it and has, obviously, the keys to do what he needs to do for it.

Reporter: Dewayne, what is the date for season ticket renewals?

Hankins: That's a good question. In being aligned with all of these guys, we were originally set to launch the beginning of renewal Feb. 1 and just knowing that things could change at the deadline, we really wanted fans to have a chance to look at what the team was going to look like post-deadline, to be able to make that decision. So renewal will launch on March 1.

Quick: Joe, can you speak to kind of what Aaron asked? I mean, it's hard for fans to look at these quality players going out and not really get equal return. Obviously, there's a grander plan. How do you sell them on that?

Cronin: Initially, our sell is the assets that we got. So some picks, some new young guys. The flexibility is a tougher sell, that is a you-got-to-put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is. And so we just need time on that. We've got to get into the spring and summer. We tried the last few days to get going on that, to where we were really active, pursuing higher-end talent, just nothing panned out this time. But we just have to be a little patient as to what the approach is this summer.

Highkin: Joe, is the plan to keep Eric Bledsoe for the rest of the season, to maybe do something with that non-guaranteed salary on draft night, or is a buyout a possibility there?

Cronin: The plan is to keep Eric Bledsoe through the season, yes.

Anne M. Peterson, Associated Press: And Chauncey, with this kind of massive turnover going forward for the rest of this season at least, is your approach to keep it simple with the players, with the intention of implementing your vision more toward next season?

Billups: No. No, I started the season off trying to implement my vision and I'm going to finish trying to do the same thing. It really, to me, in terms of our culture and our identity that we're trying to build, it doesn't really matter who's on the floor, we have to play that way. And I think honestly, our young guys are doing a really good job of it, in all honesty. So I'll continue doing the best job I can do and trying to teach, trying to develop. And again, like I said, it's not just these guys’ development, it's me too. I'm developing as a coach. You know, I'm still a young coach, so I make mistakes every game, I watch it after the game, I try to do better the next time. So this is all me too. I believe in what I believe in as a coach and what I think wins in this game, in this league. And I'll keep trying to teach that.

Fentress: What was the tipping point for you guys that caused you to say, OK, we got to reset this?

Cronin: I mean, Dame's injury and just Dame's continued struggles with that injury even prior, you knew that eventually there was going to have to be some sort of resolution for it. I think even before that, though, we knew that we weren't playing the quality of ball that we had hoped we would, and that just wasn't working. So we were patient with it because sometimes, teams go through dry spells or losing streaks and struggles, but it was just the makeup and mentality of the team just wasn't quite where we thought it would be. And then certain things answer themselves, like cap-wise, we were in trouble. We had kind of pushed all our chips in on that roster and it was very apparent that we were going to be stuck very soon. So the thought was, OK, let's get ahead of this and let's back out of it.

Reporter: And what's the plan with Nurkic?

Cronin: Well, he’s going to be a free agent, so I can't get into those discussions about that.

Orlando Sanchez, KGW: Question for you, Joe. Can you give us some insight internally into the CJ McCollum deal, from the standpoint of the conversations that you had with CJ, being such an important part of this organization for so long. What was that like talking with Dame and trying to keep the family together, because a decision like that could really upset your star player as well.

Cronin: Yeah, it's not easy. And a thank you to CJ McCollum, who was awesome for these nine years, one of the greatest Trail Blazers ever, we're going to miss him. Throughout this process, we had been talking for the last four or five weeks of thinking about making changes and we felt the best approach was to be very upfront and honest with CJ and work with him and his agency on finding the best place for him. That's not always practical and you can't do that with every player, but to us, CJ was the type of player and person that warranted that opportunity to choose a spot that was a great basketball situation for him. So over the weeks, we just really communicated, myself and him and his agency, and just constantly bounced teams off of each other and worked through situations. And it ended up to where it made sense for all of us, and New Orleans was a place that he thought was a great fit for him and we were lucky enough to find a package that made sense for us as well. It was really important to the Trail Blazers that CJ separated from us on good terms. And we think that happened. And it's an important part of a deal that isn’t included in it, but it matters a lot to us. And I know that we have a friend for life in CJ, and that's important.

Reporter: How excited are you and how confident are you about the future of players like Anfernee [Simons] and Nassir [Little], CJ [Elleby] as the games go on?

Cronin: Extremely excited. We think our future's very bright. We think we have an elite player in Damian Lillard and we have some really high-end young players. Anfernee Simons’ emergence this season made it clear to us that we had to clear a runway for him. We had to increase our cap flexibility. And we also had to give him every opportunity possible to thrive on the basketball floor. Nassir Little was terrific before getting injured and we’re really encouraged by his growth and think he's going to be an excellent NBA player. We have a lot of young guys that are playing well right now, CJ Elleby, Dennis Smith, Trendon Watford, Greg Brown, a lot of good young players that to Chauncey's credit, he's really empowered them. I told Chauncey three weeks into the job that I've never seen a coach empower young players like he does. And I think that's showing now with the growth of all these 21, 22, 23-year-olds and in Greg's case, a 20-year-old, and we have another young one, Keon Johnson, and I expect he'll get similar empowerment and I know we'll get the best out of him and develop him the best we can.

Highkin: Joe, Dame has his reevaluation coming up in a few weeks. And I know the line has kind of been that you guys are going to evaluate and see where the team is at as well as where he's at physically, but just given everything you guys have done this week, would you say the most likely scenario was Dame doesn't play again this season?

Cronin: I would say it's the most likely, yes. Physically just an update on Damian, he's doing really well. He's on track with all of his rehab. We're about already four weeks out from surgery. So he's doing well and starting to do a lot of cardio stuff. And I think you've seen, he's been shooting a little bit, so he's doing well. Part of this too for Damian was just the mental break as well. And I think that's an important one, especially after the load he's carried the last nine years, specifically the last three years with these seasons running together. We want to make sure he's got the mental recovery necessary as well. So we're going take it super-duper slow with Damian and make sure he's ready with next year certainly in mind.

Reporter: Chauncey, talking about how much you empower the players, how much have you enjoyed seeing the progress of the team and how much do you enjoy working with the players in that regard?

Billups: Yeah. I just love it, it's one of the reasons why I got into coaching is because I love to teach, and I love to compete, two things. And I could just remember being a young player in the league and really not feeling the love, just kind of being left on that island a little bit to figure it out. And so one of the things I said when I become a coach is I'm just, I'm never going to let those young guys feel that way. Because you just never know what you have until you actually, one, show up for them and then two, sometimes they get the opportunity to play. I mean, in the perfect world we have a healthy roster this year and we're having a great year, some of those guys, I might not have seen play that much, you know? I still would've been treating them the same way, it just would’ve been on the practice court for the most part, but it's crazy how things kind of shake out and they're getting an opportunity to play. And play with some confidence, like they did before they got to this level, before they was at the bottom of the mountain. You know, these guys have been the best player on their teams forever until they got here. And there's a mental part of it that comes with that. There's a confidence, you know, a blow to the confidence that comes with that, that they just need to kind of get back. And it's not just me, man, our staff is just so strong as far as that's concerned, too. So we're doing a good job as a whole, just like I said, just empowering them. And you need to do that just to see, see what you actually have.

Holdahl: Joe, I don't know if this is something you can answer, but could you put a percentage on how far along you feel like you are in terms of building this team where you want it to be?

Cronin: Percentage-wise, it is tough and it's always a constant thing. And often you can't accomplish all of your goals in one off-season. So right now, we’ve created this flexibility we plan to use, but sometimes you'll need multiple off-seasons to completely fine tune, you just need all those different sets of exceptions and trade potential things and draft picks coming through and all these things. But I feel like this was a major step for us to where the self-awareness portion was important for us, saying, hey, this isn’t the one, we need to make a difference or we need to make a big adjustment here. So I think mentally for us, it's a huge percentage of it. But as far as the work that's left to be done, I would say that the bulk of the work still remains. You know, this is the hard part. The hard part begins here.

Quick: Joe, just to clarify, you kind of went big-game hunting today a little bit?

Cronin: Yeah. And this week specifically, once we knew or thought we knew some of the pieces and picks and stuff that we were going to attain, so yeah, did our due diligence, made a bunch of different calls, made some offers and nothing worked out this time. But some of these teams we’ll circle back to in the spring and summertime and other opportunities will emerge between now and then as well.

Quick: More of a you didn't want give up your draft picks or players or?

Cronin: Yeah, just the, the negotiations just didn't get to a point where it made sense for both sides at this moment.

Fentress: It almost seems like you guys have two plans going along side by side, one rebuild around Dame. But at the same time with Ant and Nassir and Keon Johnson, two lottery picks, potentially you can also shift to going completely young and just starting over, is that sort of how you're tracking this?

Cronin: Really just a general thought of getting as talented as possible. To win in this league, you got to have really good players. We have the style of play we want to achieve and this mentality that's really important to us but at the same time, we need these players to be high-end talent. We also want this roster to be sustainable, that it's not a two-year wonder, we want this roster to grow and be continually competitive. And sometimes you have to consolidate and aggregate stuff together to really push your chips in, but at this moment it does give us some flexibility to both develop and compete at the same time.

Highkin: Joe, sort of speaking to what Aaron was just asking you about, depending on where your own pick falls in the lottery, are you kind of thinking you would try to go take someone young there and develop them or potentially use that pick to really have a big asset to trade for with somebody who's a little bit, maybe more on Dame's timeline?

Cronin: It's something that you go through in the draft process. Like I would say we're open-minded to both, whether it's draft the player and keep him, or take that pick and see what we can get in the marketplace. But that's where the draft evaluation process comes in, it's like, OK, let's dig in and see exactly what we think we're getting at pick X, and then you make a decision and you weigh that against what you're able to attain with that said pick.

Fentress: One of the issues with the Dame-CJ backcourt was defensively. Do you envision the same issue with a Dame-Ant backcourt, or do you envision someone else starting the game and Ant comes off the bench, or do you just think Ant’s going to blossom into a great defender?

Billups: I think there was more issues than that. Let me just say that. I just didn't think it was enough defensive players, period, on the team. Because a lot of times, it's not just about the schemes, it's about the personnel. It was just a great, great offensive unit, that's how it was built and it was elite at that, let’s not get that twisted, it was elite. But it just wasn't enough defensive players. So it wasn't just the Dame and CJ combination. And I think going forward with Ant, I mean, I’ve really challenged Ant in ways as a young player. I think he's making a lot of strides from a defensive standpoint. But when you talk about the possibilities that could happen with what we can do as far as structuring the team, I think there's other things that hopefully we do that makes sure that we protect everybody defensively and we have a really, really good team defensive unit. Because there's, I mean, you really can count on one hand, man, where there's just lockdown one-on-one defenders in our league. Maybe one and a half. It's all about the team defense, it's all about who you have around these guys. So I don't really look at it like an individual thing like that, it's more the entire team.

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