Kevin Pritchard - The Interview

There is no need for an introduction; here's the transcript of a telephone conversation I had this morning with Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard. My questions are bolded; Mr. Pritchard's answers are in blockquote. 

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Blazersedge: I need your help.  I made a bet with Dwight Jaynes yesterday that Brandon Roy will make at least 3rd team All-NBA this season.  What do you think? Would you help me make the case for B Roy?

I think the biggest thing when you look at those awards that are [voted on] externally, we value our players differently than the rest of the league. We know how important Brandon is to our organization as other players are.

LaMarcus has had a tremendous last 2 months.

For Brandon to be third team, I think that's appropriate.  We think the world of him but we don't get caught up in the rankings externally.

Blazersedge: Coach McMillan had a similar sentiment when I asked him where he thought he stacked up in the Coach of the Year rankings.  Does Nate make your short list for Coach of the Year?

No question. 

Blazersedge: Who else is on the list?

You've always got the guys that had the best years in terms of record, so Mike Brown has got to be up there. I think Jerry Sloan is a terrific coach. Every year they play hard. He's never won it. I also think Stan Van Gundy has had a heck of a year.  

But I guess I'm biased, I think Nate in terms of taking a very young team and taking it to a level of play in a very tough Western Conference is a very amazing feat.

It's a testament to not only Nate and the coaching staff but to Brandon and LaMarcus and Joel and Steve and their leadership and how that's trickled down through the whole organization.

Blazersedge: If there's been a criticism of Nate recently it's been that he leaves the starters in too long with large leads.  Clearly it's a philosophical thing: he wants to secure every win.  Have you ever caught yourself hoping that he'd get the starters out earlier to get some more rest?

That's a coaching question. One thing that I've never done and never will do is cross that line. That's his arena.

Do we have conversations about it? You bet. Are they private? You bet.

But I believe.... you can't argue with what Nate has done.

Blazersedge: I understand you were in Boston for the MIT statistics conference.  We never heard your account of how it went.  What was your big takeaway from the symposium?

That everybody is moving towards .... nah, I wouldn't say everybody.... I would say there are some teams that are moving towards fact-based decision making.

We feel pretty strongly about it. Michael Born, who is our director of NBA scouting, has spearheaded that. We've been pretty strong in that arena.

What I would tell you is that we are very interested in being in that arena, putting resources towards it as we've done in the past.  

But also we don't want to give away the secret sauce so to speak.

Blazersedge: So that Bill Simmons article with Daryl Morey that mentioned how protective the Rockets are of their formulas... you're in step with that protective approach?

Well... we like what Mike [Born] has done, we like that Chad Buchanan has embraced it on the collegiate side, it's something that I believe in.

You can help make decisions, not become totally dependent [on statistics], I don't think we'll ever get away from our eyes and what we see.

But I do believe that it is a part of the puzzle that I want to know and the more information I have, the more good information that I have, the better we as an organization can make decisions.

Blazersedge: Is there a success story you point to from the last few years in terms of a guy that you found thanks to using stats to a degree that other teams might not use them?  Nic Batum, maybe?

We've done it with everybody that we've brought in. There hasn't been just one. Some have been on the pro side, some have been on the con side. It's not just been one. We've all done our studies, our quantitive analysis, on all our players.

Blazersedge: What would your evaluation of Kevin Pritchard the player coming out of Kansas have looked like?  How would you as a player have fared on Kevin Pritchard the GM's draft board?

I would have been undrafted.

Blazersedge: Why do you say that?

That's impossible for me to answer right now, I can't even remember my stats, I'm so far from that.

Blazersedge: You have a son playing AAU basketball. When you read reports like the recent one involving Kevin Love, does that give you pause as a father?

I don't know all the details of that [situation], that's something that I haven't followed closely.

I know with my son, the process I would like to go for him. You're making one big assumption: that he's good enough, which I hope he is, he's had a good year, but he's still too young.

 That's so far from what I'm thinking about right now. I just want, more importantly, for him to have fun at it, that's the big key.

Blazersedge: A recent Sports Illustrated story looked at the number of former athletes that are bankrupt. When I look around the Blazers locker room I don't see a lot of bling. Is that because you're looking to acquire a certain personality of player, or because you've tried to educate them in a specific way about financial matters, or something else?

We're very fortunate our leaders are humble. They're not guys that look at the high life in terms of what they are about.  They are more grounded in who they are.  

That doesn't mean they don't have a nice car, a nice house, of course they do.  But there's a line that some may cross. We are fortunate that our leaders, Brandon, LaMarcus, are very humble and know who they are first before they go out and buy some crazy stuff.

I think it's a combination of the education that the league has offered, hopefully that we offer as an organization, the Blazers, to our players and the selection of the guys that come and represent us an organization.

Blazersedge: I've noticed you make a point to seek out former Blazers or players that you've traded before games. It always seems to be a warm reception. At the Indiana game a couple of weeks ago, Jarrett Jack was lining up a 3 pointer to win the game and we've got a picture of you and you look a little nervous watching him take that shot.   What was that moment like?

(laughs) Here's the thing.  Everybody thinks that once you trade a player the immediate relationship goes away.  That's as far from the truth as I can think about.  The guys that we've traded, not all, but most, I've maintained good relationships.

For example, Jarrett I text still to this day. I want him to do well. A lot of people think that once you trade a guy away that you want him to do poorly and that's so far from what we're about. You do trades for many reasons but you still are a human being and you want guys to play well.

Jarrett was great for us as an organization and as long as you do what's right for this organization, I'm always going to root for you and I'm going to try to help you.  That's the culture we want. We understand that there's a business side to this. We all do.  We tried to take as much business away as we can and make it human.  After all, we are an entertainment business.

As an organization, it's important that we are looked upon as good citizens and good people, so that players want to come play here. But also when they leave they know that we are rooting for them and will try to help them.

Blazersedge: On the business side of things, last Monday the Oregonian announced layoffs and cutbacks.  Obviously the Oregonian and the Portland Trail Blazers have a long-standing relationship.  What were your thoughts about that report?

First of all, I feel for it.  We've had to do that in the past with this organization, the Blazers.  It's not fun because we're a family and I'm sure... I can't speak fully for that organization... but I know that anytime you're laying people off you're affecting people's lives. And that's challenging.  

That is very challenging and those are hard decisions. I don't want to put myself in their shoes, only to say that I do feel for them, I really do.

Blazersedge: I've heard that word is that the Blazers are close to breaking even this year.  How close is the team to turning a profit?

I wouldn't think that we would talk about our finances.

That's a question for Larry Miller. He would be the person to ask that.

 We're always going to be challenged to get to a break-even point in Portland because of the small market and because of the small market economics. It's going to be very challenging and that's why we are very, very fortunate to have Paul Allen as our Owner because he is willing to sustain losses with this organization for many, many, many years.

Blazersedge: To put it another way, given the recession and the overall financial state of the organization, do you still feel the same flexibility to go out and do whatever needs to be done in the offseason like you have in previous years?  

We're going to try to build a team that fans are very proud of, that has a chance to move and improve every year.  And do it fiscally responsibly.

Blazersedge: So the same approach as always?

Absolutely.

Blazersedge: Who is the most underrated Blazers employee?

Can I name a couple?

Blazersedge: Oh yeah. I'll type up the whole list.

On the basketball side, Mike Born and Chad Buchanan have been spectacular for us.  They've done their homework, they help in all of our basketball decisions, we use a collective responsibility making decisions.

One great thing about this organization is there's not as much [divide between] the business side to the basketball side. It's more seemless.  I think Sarah Mensah is absolutely amazing at what she does as is Brad Stith and that whole group. We know on our side that without a sellout and the sellouts we've had, we wouldn't have won as many games.  So we know that's important.  

But for me one person who really sticks out is Cheri Hanson and her whole group. She's an amazing communicator and there's not many decisions I look to make without consulting her.

Also put Tom Fletcher in on that business side.  He does the sponsorships and sales. In this economic environment he's knocking it out of the park. He's just doing fantastic.

Blazersedge: Can you talk about your relationship with Tom Penn a little bit? He's a close advisor with a deep knowledge of the salary cap and trade possibilities. Is that an unusual setup to have such an actively involved Assistant General Manager?

What we've tried to develop here is a culture where everybody is allowed to speak their voice. They are allowed to give their opinion.  Whether I or Nate or Larry or even our Owner makes a decision, we always feel like we let people have a voice.  And we do that without restrictions and biases. You can come and tell me 'listen, I think you need to be doing that.' And I'm going to listen but I might not agree, so it gets back to one of the things we think is a foundation of our organization and that is that we are able to agree, we are able to disagree, but we are able to unite.

Tom and I get in some very heated discussions.  But at the end of the day, he knows that I care for him deeply and I want him to succeed at an enormous rate.  And I only have his best interests long term in mind.

One of my goals in this business is what happened to me in San Antonio: RC Buford spun out 3 or 4 GMs. I can't think of anything better for me. As a matter of fact, if I look down the line 10 years from now, and I haven't done that, I'll feel like I've failed in some shape or form.

Blazersedge: You said there are heated discussions... I'm picturing you standing at opposite ends of a boardroom table yelling at each other? Or is it something else?

No, it's never, we never do it in any sort of disrespectful way. But we do express our opinions because I believe that it has helped us in an immense way.

Not just with Tom but with everybody, with our coaching staff, when you get in there, you get in these debates, you've got to feel the passion. If you don't feel the passion, a guy just says "yeah, I like him"... yeah, he likes him but you don't feel it.  

I  need to feel it. I need to emotionally feel a connection and understand where you're coming from. That plays a bigger role in me and that's why I allow this collective responsibility in terms of decision-making.

Blazersedge: One of the guys you have been most passionate about is Greg Oden. There's been lots of talk about Greg's progress both locally and nationally. From the start, Greg was out front on billboards, banners, and your website.  Do you regret anything about the way that was handled? Was too much expected of him too soon?

I don't think you could have changed it. Any time you're a very high draft pick it just comes with the territory.  We knew there was going to be [pressure] heaped upon him, exterior responsibility, we did as much as we could to take that off his shoulders. The national media, the local media, made him the centerpiece, but it gets back to [what I said] earlier when I was talking about my management and what we believe. We also trickle that down into the players.

It's not just Greg Oden's team.  If we were just Greg Oden's team it would be Greg Oden versus the rest of the league and that's not the way we want to be.  We want to be 15 guys united, going against the rest of the league.

Blazersedge: Is there a more satisfying feeling for you than getting to see what Nic Batum is doing in his first year on the court, knowing what you went through to draft him?

I'm very proud of Nicolas. Being 19, now 20 year old kid, starting, guarding some of the top players in this league, being as successful as he's been, I'm very proud.  I'm going to give somebody big time credit on this because we had an internal debate about whether to bring Nicolas over this year even into the Summer League.  And Paul Allen was very adamant about bringing him over. It was the exact right choice to make.  And when you look at it in retrospect it couldn't have been a better decision. I give full credit to Mr. Allen for saying 'I think we really need to bring this kid over' and we made that decision.  

But as much as I'm proud of him, I'm proud of everybody on this team all the way down to Shavlik Randolph, to Michael Ruffin, to Rudy Fernandez.  We have four rookies that have played and will play 50 or more games and we're potentially going to win a good amount of games and that's very unique. I don't think, I don't know if we all comprehend exactly what this team has accomplished at this young of an age.  I think it really is a testament to the guys on the team.

Blazersedge: I don't know if you saw a piece we ran with Kevin Pelton that adjusted the team's defensive efficiency for age to provide a context for the team's progress. We were looking at doing a similar piece for offensive efficiency and the Blazers are pretty much off the charts, one of the top teams in the last decade.

It was a great piece.

We talk about some of that stuff.  But the way you adjusted it for age was really good.

Blazersedge: Is age a metric you've thought about looking at before in your own internal analysis?

We haven't adjusted for age but we are always looking at our efficiencies and we have different metrics than that.  

We just have different metrics, right? (laughs)

Believe it or not, when you look at our management group. Tom, myself, Chad and Mike, we're very analytical and we like making fact-based decisions.  

Unfortunately, a lot of times it comes down to your gut.  We look at all those kinds of things as much as we possibly can and we are always challenging each other with questions like 'is this the right metric for this equation?'

I think you guys did a great job of explaining efficiency relative to age.

Blazersedge: You talked earlier about going with your gut versus making fact-based decisions.  Is there any disappointment that we haven't seen more Bayless this year given that the excitement around him leading up to the season was so strong?

No.  That's second-guessing Coach, and I'm not going to do that.

Here's what I do know about Bayless. He's the hardest worker I've ever seen. Not been around, not talked about, that I've ever seen. The kid is a tireless worker. 

Two, Summer League is different but what he did against other rookies in Summer League was a very, very impressive display. He has a great attitude. He continually works hard.  

And he knows this summer he's going to work his butt off to try and come back and prove that he's a better player than he's shown this year. He's disappointed. I'm happy that he's disappointed. I would never want him to think 'well, I only played 50 games but I wanted to play more'... we don't want that.  

He's done it very respectfully.  And we think the world of him as a person. We think he's got an unbelievable chance to be a great player in this league.

If you look at Travis Outlaw when he came into this league, he was very young, just like Bayless. He took some time but he developed, he kept working.  There's so many things on Bayless's side that it's important to look at the long term with him.

Blazersedge: Alright time for some quick-hitting one-sentence questions.  How many hours a day do you spend on your Blackberry?

A lot.

Blazersedge: Like 5 hours a lot? Or 10 hours a lot?

I would tell you that it's a joke around our office about how much I'm on it.

Blazersedge: Would you ever use Twitter like Mark Cuban or Shaq?

No. 

Blazersedge: Why not?

I'm not that kind of a person. I want to work hard and be in the background.

Blazersedge: Which current Blazer do you think is most likely to be an NBA head coach?

Hmm... Blake.

Nicolas has a good feel for the game. Rudy. Maybe LaMarcus.

I've talked about it with Brandon many times. Brandon thinks coaches work too hard.  

Blazersedge: How about for management? Do you think anyone will be in the GM spot one day?

I'm not sure about that one. That's a tough one.

Blazersedge: Yes or no... will the Blazers win a playoff series?

Don't know. Don't know who we are playing. Don't know how we are going to end this season. But I do know this: I'm excited as heck to see it play out, that's for sure.

Blazersedge: You can have any player autograph a jersey, any sport, any time period.  Who is it?

I'm not really an autograph seeker.

Blazersedge: How close were you to trading for Amar'e Stoudemire?

You know we don't comment on trade rumors.  

That was a good try.  That was a really good try.

Blazersedge: You can't blame me for trying, right?  Have we seen the end of the Darius Miles legal situation?

That's a question for Larry Miller.

Blazersedge: Could you beat Barack Obama one on one in basketball?

No question.

I love President Obama and that he loves basketball. I love it, man, it's really cool that he fills out an NCAA bracket. I love that.

Blazersedge: But you could still take him?

Oh, no question.

Blazersedge: What's your strategy in that game? Post him up? Back to the basket, take him down low?

He hasn't played at a high level. I'd have all the tricks. He might be in better shape and all that but I'd have all the tricks.

Blazersedge: You just gotta overplay his left hand, right? I mean, he goes left every time. 

....

Blazersedge: Did you see the Rookie/Sophomore game and what did you think of Kevin Durant's performance?

He was terrific. But I can't really comment on other teams' players.

Blazersedge: Do you have any final message to Blazersedge readers? You know how they feel about this team and your leadership.

Yeah, you know, we are so proud of this team.  I know that we've done something that's pretty unique this year. I know we still have a long ways to go.

I feel like I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world because I work with great people, I work in an environment where basketball is very important [to everyone] like it is to me.  As I took over the organization a couple of years ago I remember saying that I'm not going to get outworked. My organization, our organization, will not be outworked. We are going to do it. We are going to do it with good people.

We are going to continue to do that, we are going to have some challenging times, there's no doubt about it, but for me I kind of like the challenging times because it tells you who you are and who you want to be with.

We've got a few games left, 8 games left, we need to play well these 8 games, but no matter what, I just can't wait to see what the Rose Garden is going to be like come playoff time. We gotta win a couple more games, I know we're not there yet.  But I want to see that place just rocking and I know it will be.  

That's something where I know I will get tingles once I see that.

Many, many thanks to Mr. Pritchard.  

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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