A Letter To Paul

Dear Paul,

May I call you that? I don't know you, of course, but I'm a big fan of your team. Many of the people who work for you refer to you as "Mr. Allen" when speaking publicly; I've no idea what they call you to your face (or when you're not around). As I don't work for you--and indeed, am one of your customers--I think I'll call you Paul.

I hope you don't mind.

First of all, my condolences on the passing of your mother. This letter was started before that sad news was announced, so the timing may appear to be a bit off. I lost several grandparents to Alzheimers, so I can understand how devastating that condition can be to caretakers and families.

There has been lots of speculation in the media about whether or not the Portland Trail Blazers are, or are not, for sale. Two local sportswriters insist that they are; you and those who work for you deny these rumors. We'll leave that alone for now; as the suggestions I'm about to make apply equally to any other prospective owner as they do to you.

Paul, you have a tough challenge: to lead a successful NBA franchise in a small market, one that reportedly has little allure for big-name free agents such as LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal (two franchise players who bolted from the teams that drafted them). It can be done, however; San Antonio has four championships in the past decade-plus-change despite being a smaller market than Portland, and Oklahoma City is building a monster in your division. (We won't mention Gr... bad hands, we said we won't mention it).

Your stated goal is to win a championship, or better yet, several. I take you at your word here--the NBA is not a great investment if you just want to make money, and your past conduct as owner is consistent with a desire to win rather than a desire to collect revenue-sharing and luxury tax. However, desire is not enough.

The keys

To succeed as a small-market franchise in the NBA--and the Spurs are the only small-market team in like forever to win an NBA title (other than them, recent NBA champions are the Lakers, the Mavericks, the Heat, the Pistons, the Celtics, the Bulls, and the Rockets)--there are four essential ingredients.

* Being an owner people want to work for.

* Finding top talent

* The talent is utilized

* A long-term focus is kept

* Oh, and a little luck.

The luck part is something that's outside your control, obviously. You've had your share of what appears to be bad luck, and not just on the basketball court. On the other hand, even getting lucky isn't sufficient. While it's not really true that you make your own luck (otherwise it wouldn't be luck), it's true that in order to reap the full benefits of good fortune, you need to be adequately prepared. Unprepared teams that nonetheless get lucky turn into the Timberwolves, who squandered most of Kevin Garnett's career, or the Cavs, who were forced to watch the best player of the current generation walk out the door.

But the rest of it you can control.

And if reports are to be believed, Paul, your stewardship is lacking.

Being the guy people want to work for.

Let's start with the top, because that's what you can control the most. You seem to be having a problem here, as your general manager search has made you look like the high school nerd trying to ask cheerleaders to the prom. Rumor has it that you may, once again, be turned down by the attractive cancidates, and left to dance with your sister and pretend you got lucky. No disrespect is meant to Chad Buchanan, but the whole process makes it rather obvious that he's not your first choice--if he were, you would have promoted him as a candidate equal to Olshey, Morway, or Bower. You've got a lot of money and willingness to spend it; and a passionate and knowledgeable fan base. But nobody seems to want to come and work for you--at least nobody who has options as to where they work, and the people you want to hire are the ones who aren't desperate.

Why do you suppose that is? Only you can answer that question, but according to all sorts of rumor, you're a difficult boss to get along with, one who has made, in recent years, several surprising personnel decisions. Maybe you just had some bad luck with bad hires, and can't comment for legal reasons, and thus are being made to look bad. Or maybe there's really something there. The recent report that you might pass over Jeff Bower, a highly regarded candidate, because he's too fat, is--if true--a bright red flag. To be blunt, that's your problem and not his; if you can't overlook that sort of characteristic that has nothing to do with the job, that reflects extremely poorly on your skills as leader. It's not as though you're hiring a fat guy to be your starting point guard, after all.

Such rumors also lead one to speculate what the dismissal of Rich Cho--a guy who is highly regarded as a talented executive, including by you--was really about. If it was over philosophical differences--blow it up vs try to contend one more time, that's one thing. If it was because of his braces or some other superficial characteristic, then you owe him--and your fans--an apology.

If you can't fix the "people don't want to work for you" problem, then nothing else in this post matters. Nobody who has a choice wants to work for a boss who is a jerk. There are some exceptions--the late Steve Jobs comes to mind; he was as big of a jerk as you'll find in Silicon Valley. But he was also an inspiring leader and a visionary developer; people wanted to work for Apple despite Jobs infamous temper. But you, Paul, don't seem to inspire anybody, so being a jerk won't work for you. Some NBA observers believe the well has already been poisoned; and that your reputation in the league has been permanently damaged. I'm a bit more optimistic, perhaps foolishly so, and believe that honesty--and honest apology--can heal these wounds. On the other hand, this isn't the first time around this particular block for you; the fool-me-once maxim may apply.

It's obvious that Peter Holt has figured it out. Who is Peter Holt? He's the owner of the Spurs, the team that you ought to emulate (and apparently have been trying to do so). He's got top talent in his employ--general manager R.C. Buford, and coach Gregg Popovich, and none of these gentlemen has seemed the least bit interested in seeking employment elsewhere. New York or LA or Miami could easily pay these gentlemen a king's ransom, yet they stay in San Antonio. That sort of loyalty is not because Holt got lucky and hired people who wouldn't leave, or because he has incriminating photos of Pops in his desk. Holt has earned that loyalty.

Finding top talent and letting them do their jobs

Which brings us to the next items on the list. It doesn't matter how nice a guy you are if your general manager is Elmer Fudd, and your coach is PJ Carlesimo. Fair evaluation of coaches takes a season or more (excluding cases where someone's obviously over their head); fair evaluation of a GM takes longer than that. By the time that you figure out that your prize hire is clueless or a smooth-talking second-rater, years may have passed. So here it takes a bit of luck, too. There probably are quite a few NBA teams seeking to emulate the Spurs' model, who have engaged and attractive ownership, that have nonetheless whiffed on their personnel hires. The Dallas Mavericks went through several coaches before Rick Carlisle led them to an NBA title--and during last season's playoff run, there were persistent calls for his head--right up until the Mavs won it all.

But top talent won't help you if they aren't allowed to do their jobs.

The team is yours, Paul. You're the boss, and entitled to do whatever you want with it. The guys you hire, they work for you. Ultimately, major decisions about who to hire as coach, or who to draft, or whether to make a trade or an offer to a free agent, need to have your blessing. You're absolutely entitled to set parameters around the work of your staff, particularly concerning things like budget, moral issues (what sort of off-court nonsense you're willing to live with), and the like. However, over the years you've made a public show of "management by consensus"--the official line is that major decisions are made by you and the executive staff as a group.

Which may be true. Intel is a company well known for successful use of this management style--vigorous debate is tolerated and encouraged, but once a decision is made, all Intel employees are expected to support it from then on. But I've been in the business world long enough to know that "management by consensus" is frequently a cover for "boss makes the decision, and the credibility of his staff is used to justify it". Part of being a yes-man is saying "yes" in public as loudly and clearly as possible. And if what you really want is someone to agree with you, any competent professional with integrity is not going to work in that role for vary long--which would then leave you with your choice between the incompetent and the unethical.

Other things about your management style leave much to be desired. There's this whole matter of "the Vulcans"--your management company, VSE (Vulcan Sports and Entertainment). Having a holding company manage your business assets makes perfect sense. If you were to take a hands-off approach to the Blazers, managing them as an investment can work--if the money guys don't interfere in the basketball operations. But you seem to have the worst of both worlds--direct involvement of the boss, and an entire bureaucracy of bean-counters on top of the organization. Either pull the Vulcans out of the Blazer org chart, or have them (and you) act as passive investors. But the current setup is unworkable.

And finally, there's the issue of trust. Your employees not only work for you, the work for you. Yet over the years, you've reportedly leaned heavily on people like your sister Jody, your long time friend Bert Kolde, and the like. That's OK--these are people you know you can trust, who won't screw you over; it is understandable why you would consult them for advice. But neither of these is an expert on basketball; which is why you hire general managers and coaches. You should trust the folks who work for you--after all, they legally owe you their loyalty as long as they are your employees. If you can't trust them, you should get rid of them. But having guys like Bert or Hat Guy "checking their work", if indeed that has occurred, indicates a preference for personal relations over professional competence. In some business cultures, that's how things routinely get done; but in the west, you can reasonably assume that the guys you hire aren't out to screw you over.

Taking the long view

For a while there, on the trading deadline, it appeared that you would strike a blow for this philosophy. Much of your team last season, quit on the coach. And on deadline day, some (not all) of the miscreants were shipped out. But then you sent Nate McMillan packing as well.

The usual action of a pro sports franchise whose players quit on the coach, is to fire the coach. (Such events are often described as being the coach's fault--in many accounts, the players aren't said to quit on the coach, instead the coach "loses" the players). This response is reasonable, as it's easier to replace a coach than a squad full of players, most of whom make more than the coach and are subject to a salary cap. And if you're a big market team trying to win via free agency, letting the LeBrons or Dwights of the world be in charge might make sense.

I don't wish to litigate the merits of Nate McMillan in this column. I consider him to be an above-average coach, but one with a few obvious flaws in his coaching style; and someone who is no Gregg Popovich--at least not at this point in his career. Nate's a smart guy and may learn something from the experience--and he'll definitely get another shot in the NBA. In many ways, Nate was one of the success stories of the post-Jail Blazer era--in which the team vowed to avoid shortcuts and do things the "right way"; usually coaches brought in to run bad teams don't last long when the fail to turn water into wine. You publicly supported McMillan over many of the miscreants that he was tasked to deal with, and reaped the benefits.

Consider again the Spurs. Tim Duncan is older than dirt (in basketball terms) and can barely jump. Many NBA pundits thought San Antonio would finally come down to earth. But there they are, in the Western Conference Finals, only 2 wins away from a trip to the NBA championship. They seem to find talent out of nowhere--Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were late picks, as was Dejuan Blair (a guy you didn't even consider and passed over thrice). And they maximize that talent. Part of it is that Poppovich is quite good at his job--but part of it is that his job description includes developing rookies. Most NBA teams don't give their coaches that sort of leeway; they demand they win now. Which means that the rookies, unless they are a can't miss prospect like a Brandon Roy, often spend much time on the bench.

The Blazers actually had been good about following a similar strategy for a while. Nate was good at developing those rookies who actually had NBA skills. (The notion offered by some critics that he somehow "ruined" guys like Martell Webster or Sergio Rodriguez or Jerryd Bayless is nonsense), and you gave him a long-term deal to free him from the need to try and win now with the terrible 2005-06 team. But this past season, you (meaning the team management as a whole, but as owner you are responsible) panicked--bringing in guys like Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton. Losing Brandon Roy--who in addition to being an all-NBA talent when healthy, enforced discipline in the locker room--also hurt tremendously, but in one season, much of the work of the past six became unraveled. The eye was taken off the ball. And while the team still has LaMarcus Aldridge, I have a sad feeling that the Blazers next rise to prominence will occur without #12 on the roster. Not because of any deficiency in LMA's game, but because I don't think there's a quick fix, and the Blazer's next window of opportunity won't occur in time to take advantage of Aldridge's talents. I'd like to be proven wrong.

In summary

In summary, Paul, this is your team. You're ultimately responsible for winning or losing. While some things are outside your control, the same is true for the other 29 teams in the league. And whatever you've been doing, it's not been working. Bad luck may play a big part of it--having not one but two potential franchise players lost to injury is a tremendous hurdle for every franchise to overcome. But many of the Trail Blazers' missteps have been self-inflicted. And in your tenure, you've gone through at least four different team presidents, and an equivalent number of general managers. This off-season you will hire your seventh full-time head coach.

Blazer fans are a patient lot. We've been through the early expansion years, the glory of 1977 and the fall after, the decade of losing to the Lakers, the near misses in 1990-1992, the indignity of the Michael Jordan era, the WCF teams that lost to the Spurs and then the Lakers; the Jail Blazer era, the bottom out in 2005-2006, the rebuild, and then watching our expectations dashed on the rocks of injury. We watched the team essentially mail it in the past season. But it's starting to feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Some in the media have wondered if you have patience for one more rebuild. That question should be asked of us--do WE have patience? And more importantly, do we have confidence that the football won't be ripped away from us again?

If there were one scapegoat, one villain whose incompetence this could be pinned on, that would be one thing. But it's been going on for twenty years now. Blazer fans cheered when Bob Whitsitt was hired, and then cheered when he left. Likewise with John Nash. KP didn't last long enough to have the fans turn against him, but given the current state of the team that he is credited with building, it appears he got out while the getting was good. Blazer fans barely got to know Rich Cho. And the current search for a general manager is not promising.

When it gets to this point, Paul--the scapegoat becomes YOU. More and more, you're beginning to be lumped in with guys like George Steinbrenner and Al Davis--passionate owners who unwittingly undermine their teams at every turn. Steinbrenner got taught a lesson when MLB suspended him from active management of the Yankees, and the team went on to win a bunch of World Series during his absence. Davis never learned his lesson, and probably died wondering why he was so unlucky, never figuring out that he, more than anything, was the biggest obstacle to the Raiders' success.

If you really want to win--you need to examine yourself to see why the Blazers continue to fail. You need to compare yourself to guys like Peter Holt and Clay Bennett (I hate to praise him for what he did to Seattle fans, but from the point of view of Oklahoma fans, he's been an ideal owner), and even to your fellow high-tech billionaire, Mark Cuban. You need to figure out why people love to go work for them while your phone calls go unreturned.

And then, you need to convince a skeptical public, and a skeptical NBA audience, that you've learned something. We've heard that speech from you before--you gave it again just a few weeks ago. But it needs to be backed up with action--and soon.

I think, Paul, that this is your last chance. If you want to return the Trail Blazers to prominence, and do so on your watch, you need to apologize to a lot of people. The fans. The league. Your employees--especially the low-level ones who make the Trail Blazers work, and have had to endure a whole lot of crapola over the years. And you need to show that you have changed. You need to do this. You're a proud man, one who doesn't like to make public appearances, and one not accustomed to falling on your sword. But if you want to win as Trail Blazers' owner, there are many burnt bridges that need rebuilding. And only you can rebuild them.

If you can't do this, Paul, then your only option left is to sell the team. Or watch it sink into mediocrity, along with your reputation, as you descend from Al Davis territory into Frank McCourt-Donald Sterling-James Dolan hell. Because at some point, you'll be written off by everybody as just another eccentric, incompetent rich guy that owns a lousy sports team that nobody wants to be associated with, and ran it into the ground.

And in a small NBA market, where the local TV deal doesn't pay all the bills by itself, that's a really bad place to be.

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