With a spate of injuries, a series of disheartening losses, trade rumors galore and front office upheaval, the Portland Trail Blazers are having a stormy start to the season.
But rookie coach Chauncey Billups is nonetheless optimistic about the future and fostering a hard-working — and winning — culture.
“That’s all I ever did as a player: I just came to work with my lunch pail and played my butt off. Sometimes you won, sometimes you didn’t, but you could live with the results,” Billups said. “And I just think as an organization, that’s what we want from all of our employees. So I’m excited, I really am.”
Billups, acting general manager Joe Cronin, and Dewayne Hankins, the team's president of business operations, spoke Thursday at a roundtable of sorts with members of the media.
It was the first time Cronin and Hankins met with reporters since recently being appointed to new positions. The tone was a marked contrast to recent news conferences, which at times seemed combative. The Blazers even emphasized that the event was a discussion.
Billups, whose playing career spanned 17 seasons, is in his first year as Portland's coach. His only prior NBA coaching experience was as an assistant last season with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Blazers are 11-15 and riding a four-game losing streak. They've won just once on the road this season.
And recently they've been beset by injuries, notably to All-Star guard Damian Lillard, who has missed five games with lower abdominal tendinopathy,
The team is also missing Lillard's backcourt running mate, CJ McCollum, who was diagnosed with a collapsed lung after getting hurt last weekend in a game against the Boston Celtics.
Other players dealing with injuries include Nassir Little, who is day-to-day with a left ankle sprain, and Anfernee Simons, out with a right ankle sprain.
While Lillard has watched from the bench in street clothes, rumors have swirled about his future with the team. He addressed them before Wednesday night's road loss to the Golden State Warriors and said he has not asked for a trade.
“It’s gotten to the point in this era that people can write stories and say things and, ‘I heard this and I heard that,’ and because of who they are, people take it as like, this is credible, this is probably true,” Lillard told reporters. “Me, on the other hand, I don’t feel like I have to defend myself against that and come out and challenge everything that people say until I’m asked about it, because I know the truth.”
Hankins took over for Blazers president and CEO Chris McGowan, who stepped down last month after nine years in the position.
Cronin replaced former Blazers president and general manager Neil Olshey, who was dismissed last week for violating the team's code of conduct. The Blazers had hired an outside firm last month to investigate workplace environment concerns.
Cronin, considered adept at navigating the salary cap, has a difficult role: The Blazers are some $3 million over the luxury tax threshold. A splashy trade for a big name would be a challenge. Instead, the Blazers are more likely to look at deals that shed salaries.
"It’s been kind of a unique year so far for us, but we’re committed to being aggressive, to being willing to take on risks, to being creative and forward thinking," Cronin said. “Chauncey and I, we talk a lot about what it takes to win and what we believe winning basketball looks like and I think we’re super aligned in what type of product and what type of team we need to have in order to reach the levels that we’re trying to reach.”
Cronin said he's met with the players, including Lillard and McCollum, to discuss the team and get feedback. Even though he's carrying the interim tag, Cronin has been given the green light to strike deals, but they have to be right for the team.
“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," Cronin said. "We want to have a bigger picture in mind.”