TNT's caught the scene well. The billionaire owner sitting courtside, showing the obvious effects of his recent chemo treatments. The arena sold out for nearly 100 consecutive games with fans decked out with signs and t-shirts supporting the embattled General Manager. The commentators trying to make heads or tails out of the seemingly inexplicable situation. Above all, TNT's cameras showed the results of Kevin Pritchard's efforts on the floor.
I hope Paul Allen was paying attention. If his eyes, ears, and mind were open, this is what he should have observed:
A cohesive team playing hard and executing well. A team comprised largely of young players, but salted with three savvy vets. A team whose foundational players, Roy and Aldridrge, are just now entering what should be their most productive seasons. A team with four second year players Oden, Batum, Fernandez, and Bayless, who each have tremendous upside potential.
In the case of Oden, his potential is nearly off the charts. His PER, prior to his injury, was the 2nd highest of any center, and the 9th among all NBA players. This as a raw 22 year old working to regain his athleticism and struggling with foul trouble to stay on the floor. Kevin Durant aside, dominant centers are one of the rarest commodities in all of sports. Potential Hall of Fame centers come along once or twice a decade, and when they do, the teams lucky enough to have them challenge for championships. Anyone who second guesses the selection of Oden, is either ignorant about the history of the game or relying on hindsight.
Nicolas Batum is, simply put, one of the best draft selections of the past decade. He is already an astonishingly versatile defender who can guard the 1-4 positions. While his full offensive potential is still up in the air, it is already clear that he is going to be a force in the open floor and a quality spot-up shooter. Those who laughed at the "Scottie Pippen" references last season are not laughing any more. He has a long way to go to reach that level, but his ceiling is truly that high.
Rudy Fernandez is not only a young, quality player with extensive international experience, he is also one of the best bargains in the NBA. Having him on your roster for four years, at a little over $1 million per year, should put a smile on any owners face.
The jury may still be out on whether or not Jerryd Bayless becomes the Blazer's "PG of the Future." What is no longer legitimately debatable, is whether or not he is going to become a quality NBA player. If you look at what Bayless has produced on a per minute basis at this point in his career, he is in outstanding company. Other second year players over the past two decades who have demonstrated similar ability to get to the line, and who roughly match Bayless' scoring, assist, and True Shooting % have all gone on to become solid starters and most have gone on to be All-Stars.
I would argue that the future championship prospects of the team largely ride on the development and health of these 4 players. We know roughly how good Roy and Aldridge are (although a fairly high percentage of the fan base needs to be reminded about Aldridge on a regular basis), what we are not sure of at this point, is just how good these four guys will become and how well all the pieces will fit together. We can't know, because the guys are so young, and because the nearly unprecedented number of injuries has postponed our ability to see all the players on the floor at the same time. We have yet to see what I hope will be a the starting five for a championship run: Bayless, Roy, Batum, Aldridge, and Oden. We have not even seen what should be our current starting five Miller, Roy, Batum, Aldridge, and Oden. While we are fantasizing about the prospects, imagine this defensive line-up: Batum, Roy, LMA. Camby, and Oden. That last line-up has enough arm length to reach from Portland to Eugene.
As impressive as the talent Pritchard has assembled is, I would argue that equally impressive has been the restraint he has shown in trying to fine tune the roster in the past year and a half. Many have criticized some of KP's decisions: 1) his failure to trade RLEC last year; 2) the decision to pass on Blair in the draft, and 3) his subsequent attempt to sign Turkoglu, last summer. I certainly think these "failures" are worthy of discussion:
1) Like everyone else. I was disappointed when RLEC was allowed to expire, however, I think the decision needs to be looked at in context. The size of RLEC ($12 million) was so large that almost every trading partner wanted us to part with one or more of our young players in order to send over a a vet on a large contract. Most of the rumors we heard suggested that Batum was the player most teams coveted. How would you feel if Batum was wearing a different colored jersey and was posting a PER of 18 in that jersey? KP should be given some credit for realizing what he had. Overpaying for aging veterans is one of the quickest and surest ways to consign a team with outstanding young talent to long-term mediocrity.
2) Hindsight on Blair is clearly premature. The man with no ACLs has survived his first 1000 minutes in the NBA, good for him. Had he gone down, everybody would be clucking with "I-told-you-so." Let's see how his career turns out before we flagellate ourselves, or KP, for making a prudent decision to pass.
3) Criticism over KP's attempt to sign Turkoglu is, IMO, probably the most valid. The 5 year term of the offer certainly had a lot of potential for regret, particularly given that Hedo has gone on to have a relatively poor season. But, given that we will never see Turkoglu play with the rest of the Blazers, I think there is a limit as to how much criticism can be made of a deal that was never consummated. We simply can't evaluate KP's judgement in trying to sign Turkoglu, because we will never know how well he would have fit.
The bottom line is that KP has been an absolutely stellar judge of talent and character. Five years ago he advocated drafting CP3. Four years ago he scored the two best players from the draft in Aldridge and Roy. Three years ago he drafted Oden, and maneuvered to get Rudy, for cheap. Two years ago he got both Bayless, who was expected to go between 4-8, as well as Batum. Last year, he found Cunningham and Pendergraph in the second round, two guys who have shown that they have a good chance to develop into successful role players.
KP's acquisition of Miller, Camby, and Howard, only strengthens the argument. In each case, he got savvy guys, who are good teammates. Guys who had more left in the tank than many believed and who have shown great professionalism and continued desire to compete. In each case, KP has gotten these players at reasonable cost and for reasonable periods of time that preserve the team's long-term flexibility.
Simply put, judging by every reasonable criteria that is available to the public, Kevin Pritchard, has done a tremendous job as General Manager. I am not saying he has been perfect. I am saying he has been damn good. Of course, it is possible that there are things going on behind the scenes that we don't know, however, wild speculation and office politics aside, firing KP looks utterly unjustified.
Please don't do it, Mr Allen. Don't wash away all the good will that has been restored in the last four years. Don't punish the person who is most responsible for turning around the team's fortunes on the floor and with the fans. Don't alienate the community. Don't endanger the team's future success. Don't damage your own investment as an owner and as a fan. We wish you well in your recovery. We appreciate your commitment to excellence and your willingness to back-up that commitment with tremendous resources. Now that we are so close to the promised land, don't fire the man who has been most responsible for getting us here. The Blazer's greatest opponent may be your own impatience.