It was certainly an eventful Draft Day, somewhat for the wrong reasons. But let's talk about the on-court stuff first.
The Blazers made three moves today:
- Traded Martell Webster to Minnesota for 16th pick Luke Babbitt and power forward Ryan Gomes.
- Drafted Memphis shooting guard Elliot Williams with the 22nd pick.
- Drafted Nevada point guard Armon Johnson with the 34th pick. (Props to Ben for calling this.)
In a podcast a couple weeks before the draft I speculated that one of the viable strategies for Portland to pursue even if they couldn't make a blockbuster deal would be to reset the roster. In addition to their obvious core duo the Blazers have a number of players about whom they'll need to make decisions in the immediate future. Bayless, Fernandez, Batum, and Oden all show promise but are also on the cusp of potentially-expensive contracts. Portland can't keep them all and remain fiscally sound. Batum and Oden are almost certain to be retained but the other two are bubble guys. In addition you have Martell Webster's contract sticking out in the middle, ranging from $4.8 million to $5.7 million over the next three years. When you factor in the potential for luxury-tax-doubling (every dollar the Blazers are over the tax threshold costs them another dollar to the league) contracts that used to look reasonable suddenly become oppressive. A potential solution to this issue: acquire players with similar skills and potential who will be on rookie scale contracts, allowing 3-4 years to make decisions about them instead of the shorter window of the current crop.
Now look what the Blazers did.
They trade shooter Martell Webster to Minnesota for rookie shooter Luke Babbitt. He's not an athlete like Martell and is unlikely to be a good defender, which Martell learned to do. He's not a transition guy. He's more of a pull-up shooter and less of a spot-up guy, which may bode ill if he can't muster the quickness to get free from a defender. But he's cheap and he's slated to play behind Nicolas Batum, which amounts to about 12 minutes per game under ideal circumstances. Babbitt is not going to be as helpful as Webster was but for practical purposes he may be an acceptable fit on the court and he's a much better financial fit.
The Blazers also pick up Ryan Gomes in the trade. Gomes allows them to go three ways. He's serviceable as an offensive-minded reserve forward. He'll not defend and he's not the greatest rebounder but he can score and fill minutes. Keeping him is the least likely option though. His contract runs three years but is not fully guaranteed. He'd be owed $1 million for each of the next two years if waived, which means the Blazers could release him on the cheap or trade him to another team who could do so. His official salary of $4.2 million is a nice bridge for trading purposes. It's a no-fault acquisition.
Then the Blazers draft Williams who is a 6'4" scoring guard who is tough, gets in the lane (albeit in one-handed fashion), and draws fouls. His length allows a little defensive promise to show through. He can shoot but it's a skill to work on. Sound like anybody you know?
Point guard Armon Johnson in the second round has a big body and is described as explosive. Sound like anybody you know?
It can (and should) be argued that the Blazers used this draft to get poor man's versions of players they already have. But the Blazers are poor men, or are at least watching their financial waistline. Right now they're going to throw these guys against the wall and see if any of them stick. If they do then the Blazers are alleviated of the obligation to pay Rudy Fernandez or Jerryd Bayless (having already lost Webster's contract).
Should this draft set your toes curling and your heart on fire? It should not. In fact from a fan's perspective this is one of the more mundane, if not disappointing, roads the team could take. But apparently other roads were closed to them, at least for now, and this is a path that makes sense from their perspective. You may or may not see more immediate moves as a result of this day but they will come. Martell is gone. Rudy is on his way out the door. Though it may take another year Bayless could become expendable...or at least the bar is firmly set for him to produce. These picks were a contingency against (or allowing) all of those things.
Now to the KP firing. I argued a few weeks ago that while Paul Allen had the right to fire his General Manager if he so chose, the timing of the move was questionable. It should have been done immediately upon conclusion of the season or after the draft. Here you see why. The Blazers took a big PR hit and overshadowed their own draft, which should have been the most exciting day of the off-season. It was exciting alright, but not as they planned. This is exactly why timing and doing things in a smart, professional manner matters.
The brush paints the other way at the same time, though. One of the huge questions of the day is, "WHY?" If you look at Pritchard's overall performance you have to be impressed. There's little doubt he'll find another job in this league, probably quickly. The dismissal can't have been for job performance alone. Rumors are swirling about relational issues, professionalism, and specifically KP stumbling over his own tendency to communicate too much in the wrong ways. Paul Allen apparently fired Pritchard on draft day. That wasn't a wise move. But the story broke half an hour before the draft. That timing wasn't accidental. It was designed to make the maximum impact, create the most emotion possible. And that timing wasn't Allen's. I'm fairly sure Allen would have preferred the process as quiet as possible. The leak came from the Pritchard camp. Did Kevin have a right to be upset? I think so. Is this unfair? Possibly. Did Kevin Pritchard or his associates take the highest road possible in this situation? They did not. Once again communication became an issue. What this may or may not say about the rumors of a guy who alienated other GM's through bragging and less-than-skilled repartee is impossible to tell. But it does make you wonder.
Assuming a firing was in the cards, in an ideal world the Blazers would have fired KP much earlier or a little later than they did. In an ideal world Pritchard and his camp would have kept mum, done their job, and held a press conference after announcing the news, thanking the organization and claiming that they didn't want to overshadow the event or the fine players selected. Instead of the ideal world we got a circus again. If I want the circus I'll buy a ticket. Whoever comes in here next, it's on ownership now to make sure they're at a great talent level and that the organization runs smoothly enough that we don't see these black spots. Hopefully there won't be any. If there are, they should be resolved behind closed doors by ALL parties.
There's a feeling in sports that a General Manager can only hire and fire so many coaches before the finger points towards them as the problem. In Portland's case we're seeing the same in terms of upper management and GM's. We've had Bob Whitsitt who started strong but ended up not being able to stop his own tinkering until the franchise was in dire straits. We had John Nash and Steve Patterson who were hired to clean up the mess but did it in such a way as to alienate everybody in the team's orbit. Now we've had Kevin Pritchard who from the outside looked brilliant but apparently had issues inside...or at least that's what we're asked to believe. Assuming that's so, how many chances do you get before the problem is you? Upper management and Paul Allen both are walking a fine line here. They have to find somebody who will continue to improve the team on the court, represent adequately off of it, and know enough to stay out of trouble. But nothing less is going to do at this point. Even if everything we're being asked to believe is 100% true, we've heard it too many times. Get it right or find someone who can.
P.S. Someone wrote and asked how much confidence I have in the players Portland drafted. Babbitt: low confidence. I think he's a huge risk and could probably end up being unable to free himself for shots. Elliot: middling. I'm not fond of slightly undersized scoring guards. Johnson: I'm probably the most intrigued by him just because of his size. Gomes was a good get.