One of the strong, ongoing themes of the summer is the fluctuation in the public perception of Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard. Even before he assumed his current position his name was whispered in awe among Blazer fans and much of the media. He made his bones in the Brandon Roy/LaMarcus Aldridge draft but he was retroactively credited with being the voice of righteousness even on predating issues. Pritchard wanted Chris Paul in the 2005 draft. Pritchard sold his stocks before the market plummeted in 2008. Pritchard told President Kennedy to take an alternate route in ‘63, argued against New Coke in ‘85, and strongly advised Will Ferrell to stop making movies after Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
In six short months the tide of public opinion has shifted. First the Blazers failed to make use of Raef LaFrentz's expiring contract at the 2009 trade deadline, leaving a trail of question marks floating in their wake. The response, both at large and from the organization, was "Wait for summer!" Now the summer of 2009 is halfway over and the Blazers appear to be hitting a mid-life crisis. Hedo Turkoglu walked away from their free-agent offer. Trade talks have fallen flat. The decisive move of the summer so far has been an offer for a reserve power forward that's likely to be matched by the other team. Now the whispers are growing. Kevin Pritchard has lost his mojo. Kevin Pritchard is overmatched outside of the draft. Kevin Pritchard is personally responsible for the swine flu, Bernie Madoff's accounting, Hamm's beer, and that nice lady from The Bachelor getting dumped.
Where does the truth lie? As usual, somewhere in the middle.
I will be the first person to tell you that there aren't many issues on which you can call KP to task. His moves have been sensible, if not impeccable. You've not read much criticism here during his tenure because not much was warranted. But that doesn't mean that this administration has been walking on water.
Frankly I've viewed the GM gloating of fellow Blazer fans with some distaste. There's no official scoreboard pitting General Managers against each other. On-court team results are the only measures that count. I wouldn't have minded if Randy Foye had worked out well in Minnesota. That wouldn't have made the Brandon Roy trade any less great for Portland. My sense of accomplishment as a fan wasn't dependent on Kevin Pritchard being the swashbuckling pirate of the NBA seas. That simply couldn't last.
Amidst the swagger there were missteps and growing pains, subtle but present nevertheless. The Blazers had early problems with communication, saying too much or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. At times KP emulated Howard Dean's mistake before his Iowa supporters, playing to the local fan base at the cost of overall image. These would be followed by periods of near-total silence where he disappeared off the radar. There were no disasters. It just felt like someone learning their position, finding their comfort zone. In a way these signs of normalcy were comforting...a reminder that the progress was real and not just a bubble waiting to burst. Even with the great moves, Pritchard was human and not a deity.
We saw an overt example of clumsy communication from the team's administration in the all-too-public threatening e-mail sent out during the height of the Darius Miles crisis. Technically Larry Miller's name was on the missive but Pritchard said he had signed off on it and that the leadership group was in agreement. That gaffe brought up questions regarding buck stoppage which linger to this day and have re-surfaced in the discussion of Brandon Roy's contract negotiations. Along with often-stellar results has come a fair portion of confusion and chaos, hallmarks of Portland's administration since well before Pritchard assumed the central seat. We've gone to speculating whether KP is an all-knowing savant to speculating how much he's really in control of the franchise.
In the midst of this, having things go less-than-perfectly for the Blazers and Kevin Pritchard recently is not a huge shock. Dazzling moves aside, things haven't gone perfectly before this either. Everybody is going to have those bad breaks. Free agents are going to go elsewhere. Trades will fall apart. The surprise, if there is one, is that it's taken this long. But a team isn't marked by the lack of setbacks. (Anyone remember Shaq leaving L.A.? Tony Parker fighting with San Antonio management? Paul Pierce wanting out of Boston?) A team is marked by its response to those setbacks. We haven't seen enough of the Blazers' response to this summer's malaise to fairly judge, let alone crucify anyone for it.
I think our tendency to elevate and vilify our public figures comes in large part from our society and its consumption of entertainment. We tend to look past the facts, the odds, and the reality of our public figures and the situations they face. We aim for the "story". We seek the drama. We live vicariously through the highs and lows. "Some good and bad things happen to everyone and even the cleverest people misjudge sometimes" isn't near as thrilling as "This guy's an enchanted fairy genius!" and "This guy's a bumbling fool!" Our quest for heroes and villains finds targets far too easily and makes distinctions far too firmly. The constant ups and downs may make us feel more alive but it's awfully hard to build permanent, reasonable relationships upon that foundation.
I believe our media contributes to this phenomenon as well. Even our best writers find themselves searching for angles to make their reports more eye-catching and gripping. Television and radio folks will flat-out admit on-air that items of significance don't get marked unless there's a sufficiently entertaining story alongside of them. Sometimes less significant (or even less verifiable) matters get reported precisely because such a story is attached. We trade in vilification, sanctification, and flat-out titillation over clarification. We're offered a choice between extremes with no middle ground in which to consider our position.
Part of the equation here is that NBA officials, General Managers included, use the media (and by extension media consumers) for their own purposes just as the media use them. This isn't a clean game. But then again that's to everybody's advantage. How many times have you read, "An unnamed GM says that..." in analysis pieces? The "unnamed GM" gets his message out and perhaps hamstrings a competitor. The media member gets the rub from the quote and also adds spice to the story. The consumers get their thrill. Who loses? Nobody asks if the "unnamed source" is providing unvarnished truth or if there's another motive. Nobody asks if the GM could be simply a person like our GM, prone to seeing and using things to their advantage whether that matches reality or not. We don't need to ask. The "GM" attribution washes all sins and doubts away. The "unnamed" modifier prevents us from asking any questions even if we'd care to.
We've seen this play out nearly constantly in the media discussion of the Blazers this summer. How many potential moves have been leaked? How many apparent failures trumpeted? How many anonymous criticisms leveled? How often have we responded to these as if they were gospel truth when "unnamed GM" was our only link to the information?
As an example of how easily this goes down and how suspect it is, let me share this absolutely legit, yet anonymous, piece of information with you. I have it from two independent sources among the national media corps that much of the news and criticism attributed to the Blazers this year via "unnamed sources" has actually stemmed from Denver Nuggets GM Mark Warkentien. Naturally neither of these sources is willing to go on the record but they are in a position to know, every bit as much as every "unnamed GM" is in a position to know about the inner workings of the NBA.
Now, maybe Mr. Warkentien is a genius and has everything pegged as it is. Maybe Mr. Warkentien has lingering memories (of whatever kind) from his decade coming up the ranks in the Blazers' front office. Maybe Mr. Warkentien is looking at a division rival with whom he is competing directly and that colors his vision. We don't know...and that's the point. If more of us were aware of this kind of ill-kept secret it would put the information we're receiving in perspective as something to chew on, but not to swallow whole.
We, as readers and watchers, need to be smarter consumers of our media. We need to get beyond the entertainment and thrill and ask some appropriately skeptical questions. If we want our opinions and analysis to be legit we need to refuse to surf unless the ocean is really up. We need to eschew snap judgments and the constant pedestal elevation-wrecking ball cycle that our popular culture encourages us to employ with our public figures. Jumping at shadows is only fun for so long. Following saints and spitting on sinners gets old after a while too. Real, verifiable, understandable human texture is far more interesting and, for my money anyway, entertaining in the long run.
In the end "In KP we trust!" and "KP is an idiot!" both miss the mark by a long shot and always have. Kevin Pritchard is a very good GM. He knows basketball and he knows his staff. He's made, or contributed to, decisions which have brought this team from cellar-dweller status to fighting in the middle of the playoff pack. Kevin Pritchard is also going to make mistakes like any GM would. He's going to watch things happen beyond his control. Most of them he'll cope with. Some of them he won't be able to compensate for. That's sports for you. He's a person...a person who knows more about this sport than most of us could fathom, but a person nonetheless. No halo. No aura. No ability to make the impossible happen. But no matter what has happened recently the good of his tenure has far outweighed the bad. The balance of the evidence indicates that we're lucky to have this person at the helm.