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Quick Chat Recap: Tom Penn

Here's our recap of Oregonlive's Quick Chat hosted by Casey Holdahl.  As always this is a paraphrase of the questions and responses.  You can listen to the entire chat here.  

Blazers' new Assistant General Manager Tom Penn joins the chat.

Q:  Tell us about yourself and your background.

A:  First off I want to say I'm thrilled to be joining the organization.  I consider it a privilege and an honor.  I've heard so many great things about the city and everybody's pride in the city is obvious.  I'm really excited to be a part of all the great success it seems the franchise is having again.  I'm thrilled to be here.

I'm coming from the Memphis Grizzlies where I've been with the team for over seven years now.  The year prior to that I was involved in the acquisition process for that team.  Prior to that I had my life as a sports agent and a criminal defense attorney that Jason Quick was interested in because he wrote a lot about it today.  It was kind of an interesting trip down memory lane.  

Q:  Any personal details?

A:  I was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois.  My parents still live there.  I went to Notre Dame undergrad and Illinois for law school.  I worked in Chicago and Peoria as a young professional.  I got married just before I got involved with the NBA and moved out to Vancouver.  My wife Melissa and I have been married since 1998.  We have two kids:  a five and a half year old girl and a three year old boy.

Q:  Word is that you've been brought in as a "salary cap guru".  The business side really affects what happens on the court.  How did you get into becoming an expert on the Collective Bargaining Agreement and a salary cap?

A:  I got into that because I felt that's what I had to offer.  I didn't have a rich basketball fact I peaked in sixth grade.  I was a big-time scorer in sixth grade though!  I didn't have a significant basketball background.  I got interested in the business, contractual side of basketball.  That happened at a time when there's been an explosion in revenue and contract size in pro sports.  Over the last decade the significance of the contractual side of things is almost equal to the talent side of things and whether a player can actually play and help you.  Those two issues are almost always intertwined now.  I read the Collecive Bargaining Agreement cover to cover.  That gives you a baseline of book knowledge but I probably couldn't have gone anywhere with that except I had the chance to become involved in Mr. Heisley's acquisition group.  That was a chance to get into the NBA.  Dick Versace, a client, friend, and former NBA coach asked me to help the acquisition group.  At that time I was a player agent and had a baseline knowledge of a lot of stuff and had something to offer them.  I had the huge fortune of being able to get into a front office through that acquisition.

Q:  Memphis is having management changes now as well.  Were you a candidate for general manager there?

A:  They hired a new coach today and they're having front office change as well.  I had a comfortable relationship with Mr. Heisley there but I started talking to Portland about six or seven weeks ago.  It never really got to the point to say I was a candidate or not.  It never got there.  It was a great chance to join Portland and work with Kevin.

Q:  What excited you the most about this position?

A:  The biggest thing was the overall up-tick or momentum after the tough year two years ago and the bad luck a year ago.  All of that is cleaned up and the team is having such a great revitalization and renaissance.  Kevin and the group did such a good job last year making lemons into lemonade when they got the fourth pick when they thought they should have had the first pick.  The coaching staff has done a great job capitalizing on those moves and establishing a direction.  The overall direction of the franchise was appealing even before the lottery.  Equal to it was the chance to work with a guy like Kevin.  We're the same age.  We have different backgrounds but the more we talk the more it's apparent we value the same things.  When he talks about organizational culture or what he valued in a player or how he handled certain situations it was music to my ears.  It was the kinds of things I believe in as well that I've learned over the last seven or eight years.  The combination of the overall direction of the franchise, the chance to work with Kevin and his group, and of course having one of the best owners in all of sports--that can't be said often enough--it's just going to be great.

Q:  Obviously if you're working with Kevin Pritchard you'll be talking about culture a lot.  What does that mean to you in an NBA basketball context?

A:  It means having a group of trustworthy people that work together and represent the franchise and the city well.  It starts with the quality of the people individually.  Kevin has created a culture of trust, openness, creativity, and sharing that creates synergy...that gets you where one plus one doesn't equal two, it equals four.  When you get good people working together creatively you're going to get an idea better than any one of you could have come up with alone.  With basketball being high-profile there's such media scrutiny and we need to have a group of people and a franchise that the city will be proud of, embraces, and calls their own.  They can have some of their own identity wrapped up in that.  Then you try to do something great.  We're in a situation now where we can legitimately talk about building a championship-caliber team and going to win championships.  That's the vision and culture we want to create and get to.

The impression you get of the front-office guys now is that they'd be people it'd be fun to share a beer with and get to know...and that you could do it without them being either standoffish or obnoxiously inappropriate drunk jerks.  Of course I know very little about either one, but this is pretty much the sweet spot of public impressions to give off.  They're either very genuinely good guys or very, very good at cultivating their image.  Either one is fine and a big relief.  Actually it's probably some of both.  Bravo.

Q:  What was it like working with Jerry West?  What one thing did you take from it?

A:  I can't believe that I worked for over five years with Jerry West.  He is such an icon in the sport and a font of basketball wisdom.  It was a privilege, honor, and a dream come true.  What I learned was with his rich history, layered on top of that is a great work ethic.  He comes to work everyday, works the phone everyday, and bleeds the business.  That combination is a magical one for the NBA and probably why he's regarded as the best there has ever been.  He has an insatiable work ethic and the desire to get as much information as he can.  That's another take-away...the power of information in this business, the ability to find out what other teams are doing, thinking, and want to do and putting that all together to make deals for your team.  It was great working with Jerry.  I'm going to miss him.  I consider him a friend and a mentor. I will always think fondly of our time together.

Does it strike anyone else that the description Mr. Penn is giving of Jerry West is also the exact description numerous people before him have given of a certain young executive we know?

Q:  How important is getting under the cap or getting flexibility with the cap?

A:  There are two things to remember:  the salary cap and luxury tax.  As a baseline the salary cap affects the way you can spend money to improve your team.  If you're under the cap you can spend money however you want.  The luxury tax is a second tier to prevent owners from spending wildly through a dollar-for-dollar tax for going over.  As far as the cap it does depend on your position.  We have a soft cap in the NBA, unlike football for instance.  In any given year 28-29 of 30 teams are over the cap.  The Blazers are over the cap and when you're over it doesn't depend if it's by a dollar or fifty million.  The way you can spend your money is the same...the exceptions you hear about: biannual and mid-level.  The point is that it doesn't matter unless you can get way under...10, 15, 20 million under.  You can't really do that without decimating your roster and giving up basically every asset you have.  That would make no sense with a team on the upswing like ours with so much promise.  It doesn't make sense for us to try and get way under.  We just have to spend our money wisely as a team that was over the cap.

That answer (or at least the answer he worked around to) should help guide some of our discussions here.  I like the "one dollar over is the same as fifteen million" explanation.  That said I do believe that at a certain threshold you start getting diminishing returns because you're probably not getting the best return on your dollars.  Of course there are exceptions.  A championship-caliber team is worth going way over the cap for.  But if you're a championship-caliber team nobody even mentions the cap.  That's how you know whether you just blew your $90 million or not.

Q:  What is the biggest misconception among fans about player salaries and finances in the NBA?

A:  A number of fans would make a statement like, "Why don't we go sign a player or do a trade for a player?"  Those base rules of dollar-for-dollar trades a lot of people don't understand.  A whole group of fans are a lot more sophisticated than you think--I'm sure Portland has a lot of those with your rich history--and they get the nuances and the big picture.  That helps us explain why certain things do and don't work.  There's been a lot more attention on the salary cap lately and people are picking up on that.

Good save with the "I'm sure Portland has a lot of those" line.  I wonder if he had to eat a couple of Twix candy bars before he came up with that?  Had he not thrown that in there, though, he would have gotten a lecture about how most people I hear from are farther along that he's giving them credit for.

Q:   How has the salary cap and the like changed since you've been in the league?

A:  In the middle of my term there was a whole new collective bargaining agreement.  The term is usually about six years and when I came on we were in the last year or two and ended up with a whole new deal.  The changes occur deal to deal.  The structure basically stays the same but the nuances differ...the length of contracts, the amount you can give as a raise, the "fudge factor" of how much you can take back in a trade (that changed from 15% to 25%).  The owners would like to restrict how much they can pay and the players want to open that up and that's what collective bargaining is for.

Q:  Since you can't negotiate with free agents since July 1st is there any way a sign and trade can be included in a pre-draft or draft day deal?

A:  There are no negotiations with free agents until July 1.  And on July 1 you can only talk.  You can't actually sign people until after the moratorium ends ten days or so later.  That's designed to give every team an equal shot at players.  Technically a draft day deal can't involve a sign and trade player.  The only way that could happen is if a team drafts a player that they think another team might be happy with if a sign and trade could be worked out.  You don't know how that's going to shake out until July.  You can trade players under contract but you can't involve a free agent.

Q:  Does that ever happen?  Can teams talk amongst themselves about a free agent?

A:  Teams can give opinions about free agents but we all know it's not even close to binding.  It's not common to see a team draft a player with an eye towards a sign-and-trade.  There are too many what-ifs.  Number one you're not allowed to talk and number two you don't know about the free agent.

(sigh)  OK...let's clear this up.  He is correct that it's technically impossible.  He also cannot, under any circumstances, admit that such a thing is possible or likely because then if such a thing happens it looks like it was set up in contrivance of contravening the rules.  You will never hear Kevin Pritchard or Tom Penn or anyone with the Blazers talk about a Zach for Nocioni and #9 trade in anything but disparaging terms.

Does that mean it really is impossible?  No.  I think Mr. Penn is correct that it's not common but there have been deals where the media leaked that it was "common knowledge" that Team A drafted Player X for Team B but he wasn't be traded until after the free agent signing period.  The handshake and wink do exist.

If the a deal involving Zach, Nocioni, and the #9 pick really were of interest to Chicago I would say it had a very high probability of going through.  Portland bears no risk in such an arrangement.  If Chicago screws them over they haven't lost a single asset.  No downside there.  Chicago assumes a risk drafting Portland's player at #9 instead of one they wanted but it's highly unlikely that Kevin Pritchard would flat out lie to them about it and renege.  First of all that's not in his character or culture.  Second of all that would ruin his reputation league-wide in his very first trade attempt.  Third...why would he want to work over the Bulls?  What does their success or failure matter to us?  The big wild card would be Nocioni's willingness to sign.  But when you consider the salary of the #9 pick will be $1.8 million next year while Zach's will be $13.3 and then you start doing the math about what we'd have to pay Andres to make the salaries match...  How many other teams are enough under the cap to offer him that per year?  And how many of those actually would?  Do you see any way he backs out of a $10-11 million per year deal?  Neither do I.

I'm not saying this deal will happen, nor that it's likely.  But it happening or not will not depend on its legality nor on teams fearing something going wrong.

Q:  You've been billed as a financial guy but there are other aspects of the job.  Rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 with regards to player and talent evaluation.

A:  Rank myself?!?  My focus has been on other areas.  The group that Kevin has assembled really know their stuff and Kevin really knows his stuff.  I'll rank them as a 10...maybe a 9 because there's always room for improvement.  I'd rather rank them than myself because they're much more relevant.  They do really creative and dynamic stuff.  They have a book on these guys that's among the best in the league and that showed in last year's draft.  I'm looking forward to learning from them and the way they evaluate and collate the information.  Any of us when we watch games draw opinions on whether guys can play or not.  Those of us lucky enough to work in the business get a lot more chance to watch games and draw conclusions.  There are no experts and it's an inexact science but these guys have a science connected to the art of looking at players.  It's going to be fun to keep that going and the success going.

The first two words of that paragraph really need to be heard to be fully appreciated.

Q:  How many max players can a team have under contract at the same time?

A:  The rules don't put a limit on the number of "max contracts".  As long as the player qualifies for a max deal--have been with the team for at least three years and is worthy--a player can give out as many of those as it needs.  The team chemistry question comes into play.  Typically with max money comes a certain amount of stature and profile and there's only one basketball to go around.  Most teams try to find a few maximum-type players and then some role players to go with them.  Typically when you get too many highly-paid players on the same team chemistry tends to fall apart.  There's no limit technically but from a practical standpoint there are usually self-imposed limits.  Of course every team has a budget to try and run the basketball team like some sort of responsible business.  You can't go giving big dollars to everybody.  But we're years away from those kind of decisions.

This is something worth emphasizing.  Yes, you need to have an eye towards the future, near and far.  Far better to be Prometheus than Epimetheus.  But because of the nature of the sport--injuries, trades, rule changes, trends, and just young men growing up--three years down the road is an eternity in this league.  Plan for it, sure...but you can't really worry about it too much or let it paralyze you or scare you from making the right decisions today.  If we have to max out five players in another five years all that will mean is we have a more expensive team.  If that does happen--unless Messieurs Pritchard and Penn sleep with the Isiah Thomas Manual of Contract Negotiating under their pillows every night--it will probably also mean we have one heck of a team.  At that point nobody will even look at salaries.  Again...if people are looking hard at your contracts it doesn't just mean you overpaid, it means you stink on the court.

Also (knock on wood) we seem to have the type of players for whom that salary=shots standard means less.  I don't think you mind maxing out Brandon Roy because he's probably not going to turn into a self-satisfied jerk.

Q:  Do you think there's an over-emphasis on playing experience in front offices?

A:  There are people with a diverse backgrounds.  Some journalists have crossed over, pro scouts, former players.  I don't know that there's an over-emphasis.  People are more aware of former players and know who they are.  Those guys have earned it and it's great having that kind of profile in our league.  But there are opportunities for a lot of people with diverse backgrounds if they can get lucky and get in the right situation.  It's a dynamic group of people.

Awwww...he didn't say bloggers!  That will be the day...

Q:  Do you have any insight into the specifics of medial retirement for a player?

A:  Yes, I know quite a bit.  Unfortunately in Memphis we had a couple of people who had to retire from career-ending injuries.  Bryant "Big Country" Reeves had a back injury and Michael Dickerson had a horrible abdominal injury as part of a really bad groin pull he couldn't recover from.  I've been through that and know how it works.

Q:  Do you have a synopsis of the progression?  What are the defining factors?  Can it be denied?

A:  If a player suffers a significant injury--sometimes traumatic on the court or wear and tear debilitating injuries that happen over time--and is physically unable to play after medical treatment and can't recover despite his best efforts then an independent medical expert agreed upon by the league office and the players' association does an independent evaluation.  They have to come to the conclusion--based on medical records, history, and how the player feels--that he is physically, permanently disabled and cannot play anymore.  It's a tough process to go through.  Players want to play.  Players deserve the right to play.  Everybody thinks, "This guy has a great contract and can just ride off into the sunset."  They don't care about that.  Mostly they care about playing basketball because that's what they love to do.  As an organization we are going to be committed to giving guys the chance to do what they love to do and come back.  We'll afford them every opportunity to do that.  If and when a player is unable to play and the medical expert agrees that he is permanently disabled then you look back to the date of the injury.  The rules allow you basically a year from the date of the injury and after that point you can apply to have the salary removed from the cap.  The player is still entitled to his salary because he was hurt in the course of playing but it doesn't count against your books.

It sounds like the bar is pretty high.  It also sounds like our new assistant GM is half-subtly discouraging the notion that this process will apply to Darius any time soon.

Q:  The big news yesterday was the statements by Kobe Bryant.  When it comes to player trade demands is it better to air those grievances in public or keep them behind closed doors.

A:  It's always better not to air it publicly because it can take on a life of its own.  But the reality is with the nature of the media and internet and how quickly you guys are able to transfer all that information these things are going to happen.  Players are asked their opinion and many times in a moment of frustration they say what they say and it becomes public.  It's always more awkward but it's part of the business.  Every franchise has to work through it at some point especially if they have high profile players.

This was a great interview.  Mr. Penn seemed very calm and straightforward.  I think he was speaking from his brain whereas Kevin Pritchard speaks a little more from the heart, but I actually appreciated that.  It does seem upon first blush that they complement each other.  I wouldn't mind hearing another half hour with Mr. Penn.

Jason Quick also did a run with Casey but as I type this I can't get the file to download.  I'm sure it's my problem and not Oregonlive's but either way his recap will have to wait until tomorrow.  I will post it then.  I am very, very rabidly interested in what he has to say.

--Dave (