Writing about the firing of Kevin Pritchard on draft night was not the fairest thing to do. The situation, with KP running the draft as ESPN’s “On the Clock” graphic essentially running down his remaining minutes as Portland’s General Manager, was so ridiculous it was a task not to approach the height of reactionary prose. So, a few tweets aside, I decided not to write about it. Let a situation breathe and it becomes less bloated. And once the swelling resides, it’s easier to see the wrinkles.
What wrinkles have come out, then? Steve Patterson and Brian Berger have given their accounts, and whether they are right or wrong about any number of subjects, it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong — though it’s rather surprising Patterson wasn’t ready with a tell-all book the moment Pritchard was fired. It’s just another angle to consider, to whatever lengths.
It doesn’t matter if Pritchard wanted Adam Morrison, or if he really constructed the moves for Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. It doesn’t matter if Greg Oden was the correct choice, or how much he had to do with getting late-round value with international draft choices. It doesn’t even matter that Pritchard helped instill one of the most forward-thinking basketball operations staffs in the league. Justification does not always make the resulting actions and decisions the correct ones. It didn’t when the Chicago Bulls botched the season-long firing process of Vinny Del Negro, who had no business coaching that team, and it doesn’t with Kevin Pritchard, even if those coming out of the woodwork can muddy his credentials or peg negative character traits.
But, in the days after the draft, the direction my writing took was towards a message of caution. “Be careful with blame” might have been a smart weekend headline — perhaps it still is today. Because Paul Allen, regardless of recent storylines, makes it possible for Portland to function in a manner that many teams can’t. They don’t have to sell off talented players for financial relief. They can be aggressive on draft day. They can pour assets into advanced statistics and scouting. Basically, they can function like a team from a larger market. And if you vilify Allen with unending blame — again, justified or not — you risk alienating him to the point of putting the franchise’s future functionality on the plank.
That remains smart advice. Pick your spots. Be thoughtful and fair in criticism, as always. It’s smart, but unfortunately, it’s advice spawned from fear of a man with power. Those things listed above? Those are functions of power, money and a certain passion for the game. And fighting those with ownership, however empowered it may make you feel, can be a dangerous game.
Is that fairness, or is it simply a warning? Because fairness would be to consider all the rumored and factual pluses and minuses of Kevin Pritchard, all the ups and downs of Paul Allen and all preconceptions of character and achievements, and let them cancel each other out. Take the names out of the equation. Take the public dialogue, actions and statements we have, and reenact them with your child’s action figures. What does it look like then, when it’s just G.I. Joes and X-Men characters leaking information from back rooms, talking in circles, saving face, stringing others along, getting the bulk of credit, spending money and committing to nothing?
Whoever comes out looking like the martyr or the villain or the lackey or the helpless, the group dynamic is always going to look dysfunctional. It’s going to look that way when headhunters are hunting for a replacement for an active position. It’s going to look that way when your team president hears one thing from an owner, and minutes later another from a security guard. It’s going to look that way when the paying customers have to admit that they will never have a true account, or reason, from a figure as important, and as absence from this story as Orsen Wells was in The Third Man. Only this narrative isn’t bound by the structure of fiction to provide a semblance of closure.
And dysfunction, no matter how many functions a massive cash flow allows for, doesn’t win in the NBA. It doesn’t win on the court and it doesn’t win in the front office. The Blazers appeared to have an understanding of this years ago when it produced this 25-Point Pledge:
No. 6: To acknowledge and address franchise highs and lows in a clear, straightforward and timely manner.
But now all reassurance from that very public self-cleansing has vanished in a shadowy cloud of egomania and dysfunction. Blame doesn’t matter. Justification doesn’t matter. The people and names don’t matter. It’s the actions. And so far those actions , from an often unprovoked leadership, are leading the Portland Trail Blazers down an all too familiar path.