A few weeks back, the Portland Trail Blazers were the face of a model NBA franchise: deep pocketed owner (Paul Allen), a general manager that is the envy of the league (Kevin Pritchard), boy genius assistant (Tom Penn), loyal coach (Nate McMillan), and one of the most promising lineups around. But the cracks began to show early last week when the team suddenly fired Penn for reasons that are still not clear.
As executives of Vulcan Inc. discussed the pros and cons of firing Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard last summer, the discussion found its way to this conclusion: Pritchard had proven to be a solid senior-level scout, but largely incapable of running the organization.
Vulcan, the Blazers’ parent company, had watched Pritchard embark upon several selfish and destructive bents, and strong sentiment existed to fire him. Owner Paul Allen and the Vulcan executives no longer trusted him to put the franchise before his own ambitions. The list of transgressions that troubled Vulcan always came back to similar themes: Pritchard’s thirst for public adulation, money and power.
Adrian Wojnarowski's column was the most damaging blow to the eternal workings of the Portland Trail Blazers since the contentious "Jail Blazers" era nearly sank the entire franchise. Pritchard, the face of the team's rebuilding effort and the man pulling the strings on countless draft deal steals (Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum), and one less-than-stellar deal (Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant), previously seemed to to be the most untouchable front office employee in the entire league. But after Penn's firing, a week of rumors, and then Wojnarowski's piece, the team's hand was forced into calling a last-minute press conference at their Tualatin practice facilities.
A noticeable somber Pritchard spoke in hushed tones about his very uncertain future with the team. When asked if he was being fired, he softly replied, "I don't know that." It was the same reply when asked repeatedly about his future. In typical fashion he tried to speak positively about ownership ("I do believe we have the best owner in sports") and the team's future ("We want to win, we want to win on the highest level"), but it's very clear that something is not right in the Blazers' organization.
More updates after the jump.
Given this team's delicate handling of affairs off the court, it seems less likely that this recent bombshell is a contract negotiating ploy from the Blazers front office, and instead a real crack in their foundation. Portland wanted a General Manger who could turn the franchise around, and got just that in Pritchard (and his confidant, Penn). While Pritchard is the closest thing the NBA has to a rockstar GM—and if the accusations are true in the Wojnarowski piece—he has outgrown an organization that believes GM's should be seen but not heard. But if this very poorly timed incident (with the season still going and the playoffs weeks away) emerged from the office of Paul Allen, or team President Larry Miller, it's a sign that this franchise is damaged in ways few could have ever predicted.
Even when Pritchard admits that he will not "look over my shoulder" for the remainder of the season, it's easy to get the impression that unless some major changes occur in his relationship with the team, the Blazers just began the process of severing ties with one of the best general managers in basketball. It's a shame.