(sigh) Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in.
As you may have noticed from the sidebar or from surfing, Adrian Wojnarowski has penned a column about the Blazers' handling of the Miles situation which merits some analysis because it's going to drive everybody crazy. The piece is here and you'll need to read it before you read this in order to understand it.
Wojnarowski starts out by chastising the Blazers on several levels: for their bullying tactics, for their arrogance, for their ineffectiveness, and for their alleged shady behavior from the inception of the Miles medical case. He accused the Blazers of acting "in bad form and in bad faith".
The Blazers had to know that this was coming. As soon as they hit "send" on that infamous e-mail they exposed themselves to a publicity hit. Granted this article goes beyond a hit and into gangland execution-style territory, but these are the lumps you're going to take if you shove it in the collective faces of every other owner and high-ranking executive in the league. The prose may be a bit overwrought but the core of it is fairly accurate. The e-mail was brazen. It was ineffective, at least so far as we've seen. And if we're all coming clean the Blazers themselves have legitimate questions to answer about their early public statements about Darius as well as their attempting to claim him off of waivers. That's uncomfortable to consider, but it is what it is.
At that point Wojnarowski goes on to describe Miles' recent play and asserts strongly that he should not be medically retired. In the midst of that he says the Blazers "deserve every cap-clogging cent" of Miles' contract back on their books.
It's getting harder and harder to argue the first point. Obviously Miles can play because he has. He should not be medically retired at this point.
As far as the second part, its veracity depends on how you shade it.
If Wojnarowski means the Blazers deserve every cap-clogging cent because Miles can play and that's what the rules say, he's right.
If he is implying that the Blazers did something wrong by getting the evaluation in the first place and are getting their just desserts, he's incorrect. The avenue was open to the Blazers. Everything was done by the books. If you claim the rules are the final arbiter of right and wrong with his reinstatement you also have to go with the rules on his retirement in the first place. Now believe me, I don't swallow whole Portland's protestations that this was all about concern for Darius. This retirement happened not only because of Miles' knee but because of his contract, his play, and his effect on the franchise. Put Brandon Roy in the same situation and let him protest that he wants to try and play again and Portland never calls for a doctor. The process was a huge, huge benefit to the Blazers and they knew it. But that doesn't make it wrong for them to have done it any more than it makes it wrong for Memphis to have given him a tryout.
If by using the word "deserve" Wojnarowski is implying that the rules are working well and have facilitated what's right and just here, he's only partially right. The outcome has been technically correct in that Miles is playing again and his contract has been reinstated. But that correct ending hasn't been smooth and may not be repeatable. It's like your bowling shot that goes enough askew that it loops in and out of the gutter and hits the pins. You got there, but that doesn't mean you should bowl it that way again. This situation screams for a review of the rules in at least a couple areas. We need a clearer idea of what a career-ending injury is. The league should also seriously examine the effect of the "pre-season counts" rule. If a team were trying to twist the system to earn money or harm another team's cap this is a huge loophole. Teams have nothing at stake in pre-season contests. It would be easy to play any player for a couple of minutes in each, racking up a half-dozen of the ten games needed with no risk or consequences. If you find four other meaningless situations (end of quarters, blowouts) in the regular season you've achieved your goal. Teams should have to risk more than that to show they're serious about backing a guy instead of just playing with the numbers and the books. The motivational ambiguity inherent in this situation should not be repeated. It's not good for anybody involved.
The next section of the piece, by far the most provocative, is aimed at Kevin Pritchard himself. Wojnarowski accuses Pritchard of being an arrogant lime-light seeker and basically a fraud in the nice, everyday man role he's cultivated. He accuses Pritchard apologists of shifting blame to Paul Allen and Larry Miller. He lists Pritchard's past mistakes and generally attempts to peel the gilding off of the golden goose.
As part of a proper response we should acknowledge that, despite the draft success and the ever-mounting win total, Pritchard's tenure hasn't been entirely flawless. Among his shortcomings has been a tendency to get too chatty in public, sharing plans or impressions that might better have been kept silent. The Miles comments were an extension of this tendency. In fact they marked a turning point of sorts. Before those comments and the resulting accusations in the paper, Pritchard was far more talkative and direct. Nowadays when he can be found in public at all he's practically a cliché machine. The Miles medical firestorm was the moment that he and his staff learned that communicating isn't as free and easy as it seems. Every young, enthusiastic leader learns this. I used to explain myself far more in my job than I do now. So will President-Elect Obama as he goes through his tenure. The point being...for those following Pritchard closely the carefully-crafted, pre-packaged, butt-covering, ad-campaign-like statements came after the Miles situation far more than before. The comments about Miles' knee were most likely what Pritchard felt and saw--colored, of course, by his desire to see things that way given the benefit to himself and the team--than a bald attempt to manipulate the rest of the league. That's the way he used to roll.
It's also safe to say that while Kevin Pritchard generally seems like a nice guy, Kevin Pritchard knows who Kevin Pritchard is. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that Kevin Pritchard knows that you're not Kevin Pritchard either. Most talented leaders have that element within them. Arrogance is part of what drives us to be leaders in the first place. But as far as being a lime-light seeker and self-proclaimed Golden Boy, Wojnarowski is confusing cause and effect here. Again I would point to the stark difference between the 2009 Kevin Pritchard and the 2007 model. The old Kevin was on every media outlet known to humankind. His face and voice were everywhere. He was the main cheerleader for a team bereft of any positive public image. And it worked! He indeed became a rallying point for the new era. But even in those interviews I can't recall him every saying, "I am the man!" or anything close to it. If he gave credit it was to his support staff, his scouts, Coach McMillan, Paul Allen. This was not Pat Croce publicity or Bob Whitsitt arrogance. This was a guy who felt like he was the best guy to hustle for the team at that moment and who was proven correct. The Golden Boy image and terms like "Pritch-slapped" were bestowed upon him by the public, not the other way around. In the meantime Pritchard has receded farther and farther from view until it's the exception and not the norm to see a lengthy (or frankly, interesting) interview with him. These are not the actions of someone who wants to hog the spotlight.
Does Pritchard run the show his way? Absolutely. Do you want to cross him? No, you don't. Can he be heavy-handed at times, is there another person underneath that nice guy exterior, and is there maybe a little smugness lurking under there? Undoubtedly. Despite all this, public self-aggrandizement is not among his list of faults.
As far as passing off the blame to Larry Miller and Paul Allen, I haven't seen much evidence of this either. Technically Wojnarowski said his apologists did this and not Pritchard himself. Perhaps there is truth to that, but most of what I've read has blamed the entire upper organization.
More to the point, I'd like to know how Wojnarowski knows that Pritchard is liable for extra castigation in this situation. Obviously Larry Miller's name was on the e-mail, which puts him in the line of fire. If you're going to pick a single target, the Blazers designed it to be him. More than that requires knowledge of what went on in that meeting.
It's possible that Kevin Pritchard was the driving force behind the offending missive. But if you're going to look for a figure in the shadows, why not look the other direction and point to owner Paul Allen? His money is at stake. It's also the one part of the equation that can't be compensated for. Pritchard can work around the cap hit. Allen will never get that money back. Also as a fabulously wealthy man Allen has been accustomed to having things his own way for a long time and is far more insulated from the receivers of that e-mail than Pritchard is. That's not an indictment of Mr. Allen, it's just reality. If you're going to accuse someone of masterminding a tone-deaf, privileged, angry letter behind the scenes Allen is the more likely culprit. Besides, Kevin Pritchard's public statements since the story leaked have been in the vein of, "This was a team decision." If this really was Kevin's decision then he's not only lying, but throwing everybody else in the room under the bus to save himself. Indeed, he would have done so the moment Larry Miller's name went on that e-mail and Larry would have been agreeing to it. Why, then, would Pritchard not say, "This was Larry Miller's doing?"
Wojnarowski's explanation doesn't ring as true as two other possibilities:
A. This really was a team decision and Pritchard is actually reporting exactly what transpired.
B. Allen was the prime mover here and Kevin is covering for him the same way cabinet members always cover when the President makes a mistake.
Note that I am not saying the second possibility is fact. Rather I'm suggesting that if you're going to jump to a conclusion beyond what was stated, that one is more plausible and fits better with what we've heard.
In either case, Pritchard deserves to be tarred with the brush no more and no less than anybody else who was in that room. This is clearly not the thrust of Mr. Wojnarowski's article.
The piece concludes with the clever and memorable tag line
Yes, the Jail Blazers made a comeback this season.
Only this time, they wore suits.
While this is snappy and I'm sure rang great as the copy was read, this is where the column falls off the rails for me.
As anybody who lived through the "Jailblazer" era can tell you, it was one of the worst disasters in sports history from a public relations point of view, from the standpoint of wins and losses for the team, and for the team's overall value. What made it so devastating was that it wasn't an incident, it was a repeated bludgeoning with jarring incompetence coupled with malfeasance. No Blazer fan could or should forget those years. I haven't. And I was no apologist during them either. When organization members--players or suited staff--were stupid I called their actions stupid. When people dug into national media types for employing the "Jailblazer" name I called it well-deserved. When those same media types were slow to relinquish the moniker I said we'd have to give them time...time during which the team had to prove they weren't that way anymore.
In order for this to be equated to the Jailblazer era Kevin Pritchard would have had to have blabbed all about Darius Miles' medical condition while drag racing down Broadway to take doughnuts to a police station, waving a loaded gun, throwing dollar bills at girls to take their clothes off, and smoking an illegal substance with six pounds more in the trunk. Then he would have had to look in a camera, smirk arrogantly, trade away every player that meant anything to this franchise, blow multiple draft picks, fight with all the local media outlets, give up the Rose Garden into bankruptcy and threaten to leave town unless his demands were met, spit on some people, flip off the crowd, throw a basketball at Larry Miller's nuts, write a 25-point statement saying how everything he just did would never happen again, repeat it all, and then proclaim loudly that we still want his autograph because we're just stupid fans. And if you think I named everything possible in that description your memory isn't that good.
One of the things I've noticed about the media covering this situation is that there's a huge gap. Either they don't cover it at all or they cover it like it's the Most Important Story Ever. Neither one of those is fair. This is an unusual case...unprecedented, even. It's newsworthy and it's gotten plenty of publicity. This is also a case with a lot of gray area which always makes for more excitement. Nobody's hands are clean and it's fair to point that out. But this is not the end of the universe as we know it. This is not the end of a franchise, the end of a General Manager, nor the end of Darius Miles. Even if the absolute worst is true, it's money in Darius' pocket and the wrong is compensated for. This happens in businesses all the time. Black marks arise, intentionally or not, and they get erased. This isn't a Ponzi scheme, or even a Bonzi scheme. It certainly doesn't rise to the level of defining this era of the team nor the job that Kevin Pritchard has done.
I believe that Mr. Wojnarowski is right about a few things and wrong about a few of the conclusions he's drawn from them. But even if he's right about more than I give him credit for, this column goes way too far. He brought a bazooka to a fencing match. One of our national pastimes is building people a pedestal and then ripping it away to watch them fall. Pritchard's perch probably isn't as high and unassailable as people assume, but whatever he stands upon is strong enough not to crumble like this.