Blazers May Be Gone, but GM Kevin Pritchard Should Stay
Kevin Pritchard was being Kevin Pritchard again, the Portland general manager mingling on the Rose Garden floor while wondering like the rest of the Rip City residents whether his team had one last punch in store.
True to their fighting form, they did.
So spirited was their 99-90 loss to Phoenix that the home crowd stood until the end as if the outcome was reversed, an insurmountable deficit and the end to a torturously-terrific season greeted in the final seconds with the pulsating "Let's go Blazers!" chant. The Blazers faithful were as feverish as ever, hailing this character-filled crew that endured more than 300 games missed due to injury in the regular season and pushed these Suns far more than was reasonable to expect.
And as the sold-out venue was awash in a Blazers love affair that seemed unthinkable just four years ago, there was nary a local thought on the Jail Blazers days of old. The sagging attendance. The constant Blazer presence on the police blotter. The kind of infamy that rarely gets rectified so soon.
Even in defeat, it was a scene to be celebrated.
Instead, the dysfunction remains.
Sources close to Pritchard say the chances that this was his last game with the organization are more than 50-50, that owner Paul Allen will likely fire the executive at some point after the June draft and surely cite the same "philosophical differences" that led to the dismissal of Pritchard's running mate/former assistant general manager Tom Penn last month.
And if that indeed winds up being the case, it will fly in the face of a season's worth of reasons that it shouldn't have happened.
Before even discussing who gets the credit for the Portland makeover (and Pritchard deserves plenty), this remarkable Blazers season had his fingerprints all over it.
He provided the players, wheeling and dealing so quickly and effectively that he somehow stayed ahead of the black cloud that was always overhead. Coach Nate McMillan filled his job title marvelously, filling holes like no other and leading with a strong, steady calm that few of his colleagues can claim.
So what's the problem here?
Last we checked, professional sports is a results-based business. And while Pritchard may have been guilty of past arrogance, edginess, smoothness bordering on sliminess that peeved not only some counterparts but his boss, there's an upward tick here that simply can't be ignored.
Twenty-seven wins in 2004-05, the year the former San Antonio scout began the season as the Blazers' director of player personnel and ended as interim coach when Maurice Cheeks was fired late. Twenty-one wins in McMillan's first season, followed by 32, then 41 in Pritchard's first full season as general manager; 54 last season, then an unimaginable 50 wins this season despite losing the likes of Greg Oden (61 games missed), Joel Przybilla (52), Nicolas Batum (45), Travis Outlaw (44), Brandon Roy (17) and a few less significant others.
He-said, he-said sagas aside, Pritchard's personality is at the root of this quarrel. He is known to share his feeling that he's underappreciated, with most of that sentiment tied to his relative lack of compensation. Moreover, he has gained a reputation among many of the league's executives for being so cutthroat in negotiations that he's breaking the invisible bond of the old boys network. That style, as the logic goes, has fed this fire that Allen is apparently primed to put out.
"If everybody likes you in the league, then you're probably not doing a very good job," said Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry, the former Kansas assistant who recruited Pritchard before he would be part of the Jayhawks 1988 national championship team. "To me, if everybody is really your buddy, then they're probably beating you night in and night out. That's not a bad thing. I don't think it's that important that everybody in the league likes you."
Gentry, who was in the dark on the details of Pritchard's situation just like the rest, agreed that it's hard to argue with this outcome.
"You look at the way they're playing right now, and you can't play that way without personnel," he said before the game. "He's in charge of personnel, and I think he has put together a great team here. I know Kevin, and I know what a hard worker he is, what a competitor he is. I don't know what's going on up here, I'm not privy to any inside information, but I do think he's done a great job."
McMillan is a phenomenal coach, but he is no Larry Brown when it comes to expanding his sphere of influence to personnel matters. He coaches the players he is given, and those players kept coming this season like a lifeline off this seemingly-sinking ship.
Point guard Andre Miller was added in the summer, a move that anyone in Philadelphia would acknowledge worked out well for the Blazers and not so much for the Sixers. Brandon Roy was given a contract extension, although the negotiations are reportedly at the heart of the Pritchard-Allen problem. Pritchard -- whose contract is guaranteed through 2011 but has a team option for 2011-12 -- signed veteran forward Juwan Howard in September, then fortified the ailing frontcourt once again by acquiring Marcus Camby before the February trade deadline from the Clippers and later rewarding his immense impact with a two-year extension.
The old additions did Pritchard proud in the finale, none more so than Martell Webster. The sixth pick of the 2005 draft had a team-high 19 points, answering the Suns time and again with long-range looks that were nothing short of cold-blooded. Afterward, he was one of the many Blazers who said Pritchard's tenuous situation remains a mystery to them.
"It shocked me when I found out," Webster told FanHouse. "I found out like every other player did, through newspapers or just fans. I saw the t-shirts in the (Rose Garden) crowd, saying "Save KP." I've seen them, but I don't know anything about it."
The disconnect between Pritchard and Allen has never been more pronounced. For most of the season, Pritchard sat at games with Allen and team president Larry Miller. Then after the Penn firing and a subsequent statement of half-hearted support from Allen, a source close to the situation said the owner's secretary informed Pritchard he was no longer welcome in that seat.
On Thursday night, as the final buzzer sounded and the Blazers soaked in the loudest of praise, Pritchard emerged from his spot in the tunnel and came within feet of Allen as he departed. Not surprisingly, their eyes never met. Nonetheless, Pritchard had every reason to hold his head high.
"We went through a lot of challenges this year, probably more (challenges) than any year since I've been in basketball," Pritchard told FanHouse before tipoff. "And what I'll tell you is that I've been more proud of this team than any team, because any time you had somebody go down you had somebody step up. And as a manager, you want two things: to see growth, and to see a team fill their potential. I think we did that this year."
Sure enough, the dead man walking was dead on.