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'We're not afraid to do something if we need to': Blazers interim GM Joe Cronin speaks about new role with team

"My understanding is yes, go out, do your job, find deals, participate as if you’re the GM," Cronin said about the message he’s received from ownership.
Credit: KGW
From left to right, Portland Trail Blazers interim general manager Joe Cronin, head coach Chauncey Billups and president of business operations Dewayne Hankins.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland media and fans got a chance to get to know Joe Cronin and Dewayne Hankins on Thursday morning, as the two new leaders of the Portland Trail Blazers' basketball and business sides of the organization spoke to the media for the first time.

It was the first press conference for Cronin and Hankins in their new roles. Cronin, who has been with the Trail Blazers since 2006, was named interim general manager after longtime president of basketball operations Neil Olshey was fired on Dec. 3.

Hankins, who has been with the Blazers since 2013, was promoted to president of business operations on Nov. 12, after Chris McGowan resigned as president and chief executive officer after nine seasons with the team.

Cronin and Hankins were joined by head coach Chauncey Billups at Thursday’s press conference. Billups is still new in his role as well, having been hired this past offseason after Terry Stotts was fired following his ninth season as head coach of the Blazers.

Watch the full press conference:

Thursday's conversation had a markedly different tone than previous press conferences with Olshey, who was often combative when answering questions from the media. Cronin spoke Thursday about a desire to improve the team's culture. His predecessor was fired following a month-long investigation into the workplace environment under Olshey.

How long Cronin will have the interim tag as general manager is unknown. The team said it will conduct a search for a permanent replacement, but when asked about a timeline for when that search will conclude, Hankins didn't provide a timeframe.

"Ownership has said they're in the first quarter of this search," Hankins said. "They’re not in any rush, because having Joe here has made them feel very comfortable with the direction of the team. There's no timeline at this point."

Cronin said ownership has told him he'll have an opportunity to compete for the permanent position, that he'll be evaluated and have a fair opportunity to prove himself. He said he's been told to "hit the ground running" and that the Blazers' ownership group trusts him "to transition this organization."

Cronin said he has the autonomy to act as the general manager, which means he'll be actively engaged in trade conversations between now and the trade deadline, which is about two months away.

"My understanding is yes, go out, do your job, find deals, participate as if you’re the GM," Cronin said about the message he’s received from ownership.

RELATED: Damian Lillard shoots down trade talk: 'My intentions are to be in Portland and to figure it out'

The Blazers are currently 11-15, in 11th place in the Western Conference. They’ve lost four in a row and seven of their past eight. The team remains one of the best offensive squads in the NBA, ranking fifth in offensive efficiency, but is one of the league’s worst defensive teams, ranking 28th, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Cronin said he knows that the biggest challenge he faces is evaluating what the team needs to do, what pieces they need to add and what changes they need to make to take the next step. He said he's not afraid to do whatever is necessary to improve the team.

"I want to be patient and I don't want to be reactive, but I do feel urgent to at least find out what's out there and what’s available," he said. "I want to be patient in evaluating and making decisions. The urgency, like I said, it's more making calls, talking to people, being creative, thinking out of the box on deals. I have a big urgency to do that and I do want to be aggressive. But at the same time, I want to pull back and have a really smart and collaborative look at things.

"But we're not afraid to do something if we need to, and we'll do whatever we need to in order to take us to this next step. But I do want to be patient, and I don’t want to panic about losing a few in a row or hitting a little rough patch. We want to have a bigger picture in mind."

Cronin and Billups' basketball connection

Something many may not know is that Cronin and Billups have known each other for years. They both grew up in Denver and even played high school basketball against each other.

"He beat me in the state championship game," Cronin said.

"Joe was actually a really good player," Billups said.

Billups said he grew up playing against two players on Cronin's team, a couple of talented twins named Keith and Dean Grable. Billups said his George Washington High School team met Horizon High School in the 1994 state championship game. Billups scored 31 points to lead George Washington to the 71-67 win, but he said he remembers leaving the game impressed by Cronin.

"I knew all about the [Grable] twins, but then there was this big dude who was beasting everybody in the middle and I’m like, 'How are we going to deal with him?'" Billups said, laughing. "We go back a long way."

Blazers' declining attendance

Through the first 14 home games of the season, the Blazers have averaged 17,071 fans per game, which ranks 13th in the NBA and represents the team's lowest average attendance since 2006. The Blazers' average attendance has declined by about 13% from the 2019-20 season.

Hankins said the pandemic has been the primary catalyst behind the decline in attendance. Even though fans are allowed in arenas again this season, many teams have had a hard time getting them to return.

"What we want to do and what we hope to do is get people excited again about coming back to the Moda Center," he said. "It's just harder than it's ever been to get people to come to games."

Hankins said he understands that some fans still don't feel safe, while other fans don't want to follow the COVID guidelines to enter the arena.

"There’s two sides to it," he said. "There are the fans who, no matter how safe we make the environment, aren't feeling comfortable coming to live events. And then on the other side, there's the fans who don’t want to follow the policy of a negative test or being vaccinated. And that's a big enough swath of fans to be a challenge for us."

RELATED: Here's what to expect if you're going to a Blazers game at the Moda Center this season

The good news, according to Hankins, is that the NBA's other metrics, other than attendance, are all up. So he said he expects the attendance to improve once the pandemic ends.

"Attendance is obviously one factor, but our league, from a viewing standpoint and from an international standpoint and from social media and engagement standpoint, all those things are as high as they've ever been," Hankins said. "It's really just attendance where we're seeing challenges. We don't like to make it as an excuse — we're working to overcome those challenges — but we're also aware that at least some responsibility goes towards the pandemic. Every other metric is still looking good and is up."

New TV deal and streaming services

Hankins had no update on when Root, the Blazers' new TV provider, will be added to more streaming services. Root is currently on FuboTV and DirecTV stream but no other major streaming services.

"We'd love to be on YouTube and Hulu, but it's an ongoing conversation between Root and those providers," he said.

RELATED: Blazers fans frustrated by lack of streaming options to watch games

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