Getting to bottom of Blazers' rotten rift with Pritchard
by David Aldridge
Not to go all Hamlet on you this Monday morning, but something is rotten in the State of Oregon.
Somebody among Kevin Pritchard's supposed allies in owner Paul Allen's organization seems to want him fired, but doesn't have the courage or the decency to say so publicly.
This sort of intra-office squabbling and bickering happens in every office where people work. I'm sure you don't care much about whether Pritchard, the Trail Blazers' general manager, keeps his job. But part of my job is to give praise when teams are doing things the right way, and to point out when teams are doing things the wrong way.
And what's happening to Pritchard is wrong.
He's being hung out to dry, made to be the scapegoat for ... what, exactly? A hundred and eight consecutive sellouts in the Rose Garden? Trading for LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy on Draft day in 2007? Getting Jerryd Bayless, Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum since then? Doing all the heavy lifting to transform the Jail Blazers from a national embarassment to one of the league's most promising teams? In three years?
Nonetheless, by (anonymous) word and deed, Pritchard is almost certainly going to pay for whatever he's done with his job. Whether it's after this season or next is hardly relevant.
Before you ask, no, Pritchard is not a personal friend or a professional source of any consequence; like every GM I've known in 25-plus years, he's much more comfortable gossiping about other teams and organizations than his own. Nor do I have any animus toward Blazers owner Paul Allen, whom I've never actually met (though I've gone through his fine music museum in Seattle and used his computing products from time to time). And I love coach Nate McMillan. But there are people with agendas who clearly have Allen's ear, and are whispering sour nothings into it about Pritchard's supposed shortcomings.
Why on earth this has become an issue now, with the Blazers heading toward the playoffs after overcoming an incredible run of injuries this season, is a mystery.
"Coach brought us in a couple of days ago, and said Pritchard called him, and said he doesn't want this to be a distraction to the team," Roy said last week. "He understands that we're in a tough race here, and we're trying to move up in the standings, and we're also trying to keep the teams behind us off our heels. So I think the guys are doing a good job of just saying hey, we'll deal with that in the offseason. Right now, we're in a tough race."
As you likely know, this began a couple of weeks ago, when the Blazers abruptly fired Tom Penn, the team's vice president of Basketball Operations, and Pritchard's right hand man and close friend. The reason cited --"philosophical differences" -- made no sense, as Penn was on board with all of the major moves the team has made since his arrival in 2007.
The timing made no sense, as the Blazers are trying to hold on to a playoff spot in the hyper-competitive west at the moment, and Penn -- one of the league's top salary cap and collective bargaining agreement experts -- would be more valuable than ever this coming summer, when so many teams will be aggressively looking to improve their rosters and willing to make trades.
The team's president, Larry Miller, talked with me last week, but shed little light on the reason why Penn was sacked, or why he was sacked now. (I have no quarrel either with Miller, the third-year president whom I think is caught in the middle of all this, under orders from above. But no one's asking him to jump on his sword for Pritchard; we all have bosses.)
Question: if Penn's performance was so bad, and his future with the team so marginal, why was he still getting e-mails and texts from the top echelon of team management up to the moment he was dismissed, as a friend revealed last week? And if he did something so egregious as to offend someone's sense of legality or morality, why is the team still going to pay him for the remaining three years of his contract? The only explanation that makes any sense is that Penn was sacrificed to take one of Pritchard's closest allies in the building out of the picture, leaving him vulnerable to a fragging.
Then came stories that painted Pritchard and his agent, Warren LeGarie, in an unfavorable light. No argument here with the opinions of the writers (they're entitlled to them), nor do I believe that they quoted their sources inaccurately. It's the agenda of those sources that I question.
Almost certainly the agenda eminated, directly or indirectly, from the top of Allen's Vulcan Sports and Entertainment group, based out of Seattle and not Portland, which has direct oversight over both the Blazers and the NFL's Seahawks, which Allen also owns.Those are the only people that seem to have a problem with Pritchard; those at or below his level on the Blazers' food chain like him plenty. (Trust me. I checked.) If you judge a man by his friends and associates, well, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich swears by Pritchard. So do others who've worked with Pritchard in his other stops around the league, both as a player and in management.
Because I don't have direct evidence, merely a suspicion, naming names would be inappropriate at this time. But I know one of Allen's closest confidantes has sought to get his hands on the basketball side of Allen's many businesses on a permanent basis for some time, and has been buzzing around both the Blazers and the Seahawks, waiting for an opening. A former Blazers employee who knows what's really going on guarantees to me that this guy is involved in the anti-Pritchard crusade.
Is Pritchard arrogant, as the whispering campaign claims? One would suspect anyone who's had Allen's billions at his disposal to get whatever he wanted would be. So let's just say he is for argument's sake. Does he try to make one-sided deals, your stars for his marginal guys? Guilty. That does not make him unique among his brethren; Jerry Krause was (in)famous for the same, and just as loathed by some of his contemporaries -- and employees, who never wanted to give him credit for bringing in Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper and just about every non-Jordan piece that contributed to six NBA titles in eight seasons. The same was said about Bob Whitsitt when he was running things in Portland in the late 1990s and the early part of the 2000s.
Did Pritchard tell player agents that his bosses wouldn't let him give them the contract he really thought their clients deserved? Wow, is he the first GM that's ever played both ends against the middle? Is he insecure about how much money he makes? Aren't we all, about that or something else? (Why are you looking at me like that? Does this tie make me look fat?)
But that's all inside stuff. The bottom line is the bottom line. Since '07, Pritchard traded for Aldridge and Roy, traded for Fernandez, drafted Batum, refused any and all inquiries by other teams about Batum, drafted Bayless, gave a reasonable contract extension to guard Martell Webster, signed Andre Miller in free agency and traded for Marcus Camby. And the Blazers, once again, have the support and love of the community that is such a part of the team's DNA.
And, of course, Pritchard drafted Oden ahead of Kevin Durant. Today, everyone says they would have taken Durantula over Oden. Which is garbage. Don't get revisionist because Oden hasn't been able to stay healthy, and Durant is becoming a superstar. Oden was viewed as a once-a-decade franchise center, just like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton or Yao Ming, so mature in comportment and visage that writers and anchors developed a cottage industry of "Oden is really 40" jokes. Many thought Durant would be a star, the very modern model of George "Iceman" Gervin, and that was nothing to sneeze at. But 27 or so GMs would have made the exact choice Portland's GM made.
Instead of squashing all the talk that Pritchard's a goner, Allen has said next to nothing, other than a three-paragraph non-denial denial that Pritchard's goose is dangerously close to the oven door.
"We are not going to make any more long-term decisions today," Allen's statement read. "When the season ends we will evaluate how best to move the Trail Blazers forward. That's no different than the way we have operated for the past 21 seasons.
"I support everyone who works with me, including Kevin Pritchard, and that's why he's our general manager. We all have the same goal -- to bring another NBA championship to the great fans of Portland."
Well, everything's settled, then.
McMillan -- whom, I'm told, has pledged his commitment to Pritchard privately, and whom, like Pritchard, has one year left on his contract -- would only say to me last week, "I have this team, and that's what I can control."
Pritchard didn't want to throw gas on the fire last week when I got him on the phone. But he was adamant in denying that he'd repeatedly gone to Allen and asked for a raise. Is he lying, or parsing words? (He, of course, wouldn't ask for the raise, his agent would.) Don't know. Hope not. But when you've been around a while, you kind of know the guys who are straight shooters, and the guys who don't say anything, and the guys who always put themselves out front for maximum exposure and praise. That hasn't been Pritchard, not to me, anyway.
Leaving us where we started, with Denmark, and Portland, in chaos. And with someone who wants, at the last minute, to jump in front of the parade now that all the elephant dung has been cleaned out: ...'tis an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely. That it should come to this!