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Reflections on a Team Gone Wrong

So...the story that started with the firing of Tom Penn a few days ago has now turned into a conflagration, taking on a life of its own and consuming everything in its path.  My original intention was to see how much of this I could let pass, focusing on other aspects of the team.  But at this point that's like ignoring a raging forest fire rushing towards your idyllic home.  This would not be the time to plant petunias.  Heck, even getting a hose might not be enough.  All you can do is check the wind and assess the damage.

Of all the things I'm sure of in this maelstrom, which turns out to be precious few, I am most certain of this:  We are never going to learn the absolute truth of this situation.  I'm not sure there is an absolute truth in this situation.  In my experience when fractures develop between members of an organization it's seldom because one held the complete, true story and the others were mistaken.  More often everybody holds a version of the truth which is legitimately consistent with, and complete in, itself.  But though each self-contained truth is valid the various truths don't fold nicely together.  Divergent goals and positions within a group can narrow foci enough that perspectives don't intersect.  Communication and commitment overcome those gaps in healthy organizations but when those characteristics break down you end up with many people speaking truth who can't make those truths match.  At that point a power struggle ensues to see which version of the truth will prevail.  Anything inconsistent with the winning truth gets tossed out.  Between the Penn firing and yesterday's press conference the Blazers might as well have put up a neon sign stating that's where they are at.  Or maybe that's where they've been for a while and we simply haven't known it.  Either way this team is at a crossroads. 

Not knowing the exact "truth" of the situation--admitting there may not even be one to be known--it's difficult to forecast which fork of the road is the correct one to take from here.  Despite (ostensibly) conveying truthful information and therefore (consistently) offering "learned" opinions on these matters, we media folks don't end up with better maps than anyone else.  Eventually the media gets to as many of those truths as can be found, layering story upon story, perspective upon perspective.  I imagine we'll hear from nearly everyone involved before the matter is settled.  But reading a hundred stories doesn't bring us any closer to marrying those divergent truths together.  All the stories do is help us understand how it fell apart and why the power struggle is happening now.

In the end the only people who can plot a course forward from here, productive or at least minimizing further damage, are the people involved.  The responsibility lies heaviest on the people who are most likely to win the power struggle and thus have their truths prevail.  In this case that means owner Paul Allen and the upper levels of his management staff, including the folks from Vulcan and his senior officers at Blazer Headquarters.  And though I'm not able to recommend a specific truth to you among the various stories we've heard, I think the process through which these events have occurred does illuminate a truth of its own:  We should be worried about the ability of the organization to find that course forward.  They appear to have mangled this big time, acting in ways contrary to their own self-interest.

At no point am I going to argue that either Tom Penn deserved or Kevin Pritchard deserves to stay with the Blazers.  This is one of those things that we'll never have as much knowledge of as people who are on the inside.  I certainly have my own opinions but I don't think those opinions provide enough foundation to take the team to task.  Maybe there are things we don't know about.  Maybe some of the rumors we've heard are true.  In fact let's just assume that Penn should have been let go and Pritchard, for whatever reason, deserves to be on thin ice.  Even if that's 100% true, the organization has still blown this.

They blew it in the timing of Penn's dismissal.  One might ask why firing a Vice President has stirred up a storm more befitting of a Head Coach or GM.  The answer comes in the timing.   Penn was dismissed with a dozen games left to go in the season with the team fighting for a post-season berth.  Had the Blazers waited out the month and a (likely) brief playoff run they could have announced that they and Tom Penn were parting ways without much more than the raising of an eyebrow.  Firing him during the season with so little time remaining before summer begs the question, "What happened???"

I've heard it suggested that Penn was released at this time to keep him from knowing too much about the Blazers' summer plans, especially the draft.  This doesn't seem likely.  Scouting and planning are ongoing year-round.  Tom Penn is sitting at home right now with a pretty good idea of Portland's needs and their designs to address them.  But if this truly were a concern he could have been re-assigned internally until such time as his release became official, simply keeping him out of draft meetings.  It also appears that Kevin Pritchard is under evaluation.  What protection do you get by releasing Penn early if you're holding on to KP himself and may part ways with him in the summer?

We've heard it suggested that Penn had professional and/or interpersonal conflicts with other members of management.  We've heard it suggested that the organization had problems with his contract negotiations last summer.  In both cases the justification for immediate dismissal seems lacking.  If conflicts had been building for so long then why was he promoted in the first place?  Why wasn't he let go during the last off-season?  If you had lived with these problems for this long why was it impossible to live with them for another six weeks?  What did he say or do that was so damaging that you couldn't swallow your pride and/or compensate within the culture for another 40 days? 

The only scenario that makes sense is that Penn committed an offense so vile that it required immediate action by any standards.  But if this were so, the message hasn't been strong enough from the team.  Granted, for legal and other reasons they may not be able to come out and name the offense.  But at the very least you'd have a defined, united front with Larry Miller, Kevin Pritchard, and perhaps Paul Allen himself coming out and saying, "This needed to happen even if we can't comment further on why."  Instead we have a semi-forward Miller, a reluctant and remorseful Pritchard, and no word from Allen.  If the offense were professional--say leaking information directly to another team--such a united proclamation would seem an easy matter.  If the offense were personal--we won't even speculate on that--obviously the cloud of secrecy would need to be thicker.  But then again by timing things this way you've all but guaranteed that the nature of the offense will be probed incessantly.  If secrecy were the goal the off-season cloak would have been indispensible.  Instead it was just cast aside.  Even in the scenario which most justified the firing the handling of it has been strange.

The Blazers have delivered a public, immediate, strong, and incredibly suspicious-looking smack to one of their highest executives.  This wasn't a knife in the back.  This was a dramatic execution.  Either they were forced to take a step so drastic by circumstance or they wanted to send a message that could be clearly read from a million miles away.  Either way they had to know that questions would be asked about the circumstances and the message...questions that wouldn't die down until they were answered.  They also had to know that the more they tried not to answer them the greater the suspicion and furor would become.

Which brings us to the second way the Blazers blew this situation big-time.  One barely needs to listen to the audio of yesterday's press conference to understand what a disaster it was.  All you need to do is look at Ben Golliver's iconic photo of Kevin Pritchard's face: 


That image bears no resemblance to any Kevin Pritchard we've seen during his tenure here.  Confidence, surety, hints of passion or promise...nothing remains there.  Neither can such be found in his voice.  This was a man dispirited, downtrodden, projecting for all to see that he was in an incredibly uncomfortable situation all but against his will.  This wasn't the look or sound of angst, fear, or stress.  This was the look and sound of hopelessness.  Whatever that press conference was or was designed to be, it opened up and instantly confirmed the field of questioning relating to Pritchard.

How in the world do you do this?  How in the world do you expect people not to notice?  How in the world do you look into the eyes of your General Manager, even if you're at odds with that General Manager, and decide that it's beneficial to your organization to put this on public display?

The decision tree is pretty simple here.  There's a possibility that Pritchard is no good for your organization and you're going to fire him.  The same questions arise here as for Penn.  Why not last year?  Why not lay low until this summer?  Why parade him in such a visible charade now, focusing everyone upon him, if his head is on the block?  There's also a possibility that Pritchard is still your guy.  One of the things we've heard suggested is that somewhere along the line the Blazers "neutered" Pritchard.  If that wasn't true before we don't have to speculate anymore.  They just did.  Not only did you make your GM appear before the world and his colleagues looking and sounding like that, you made him assure everyone that he wants to be here (as opposed to you wanting him here).  You made him choose between backing a friend and backing you in front of the world.  You made him all but divorce himself from his own agent.  You couldn't have brought him to heel more clearly had you used a leash and a stick.  If you are planning on retaining him you have all but assured that he'll be viewed as nothing more than the mask on the true face of power, whatever that might be.  (And how good is it for your organization and culture that nobody knows?)

Consider the personal view here.  Kevin Pritchard may have deserved a lot of things but I have a hard time imagining he deserved that.  Even if you think he did deserve it, he's not the one who came out looking bad.  The team did.  So even if you meant to humble him it backfired.  You're either cutting down a good man or ineffectively chastising a bad one, neither of which makes you look good.  You also have to consider the professional ramifications.  How many people are going to scramble to come work for an organization that has just put on that kind of display?  Would you be comfortable being Portland's next GM?  If you're an experienced executive you'd worry about your level of autonomy and be looking over your shoulder wondering when you're going to be cut off at the knees.  If you're a younger guy everyone is going to speculate you're simply the puppet the Blazers could find to do their bidding.  I have no doubt that the Blazers would find a host of candidates for General Manager at their door, but the eventual winner would start on less than even ground because of this.

In what way is any of this conducive to bolstering, let alone repairing, the reputation of the team?  Isn't that what the press conference was designed to do?

As with the firing, the manner in which the Blazers handled this press conference will lead to more and deeper questions instead of bringing the matter to a close.  If there was nothing to hide they've all but ensured that people will continue to speculate on all the things that are being hidden.  If there was something to hide they've guaranteed it'll be sniffed out.  They did the opposite of their publicly stated intention.

The part that makes this most disturbing is that this is not the organization's first rodeo.  They know what it means to deal with the media.  They have enormous experience with damage control.  This is not some rookie mistake, as whatever infractions Penn and Pritchard may or may not have committed can be described as.  This is like your veteran player finally achieving All-Star status and then suddenly reverting to the troubling behavior that kept him down in his prime. 

The most head-slapping, incredulity-evoking example came from Larry Miller when he said:

"I'm as surprised as you guys are that all this stuff came out of [the Penn firing]."

Let me offer a simple quote in response:  What?!?

  • You whack a guy publicly and dramatically
  • You know his agent is a rabble-rouser
  • You know his agent is your GM's agent
  • You know your team has had turmoil internally that is both festering and heretofore unknown to the public (and thus bombshell material)
  • You spent years in an adversarial and invasive relationship with the media

Yet you're surprised that anyone's bothering to ask about the huge fireworks display all of this is creating?  If you dress up in green and crimson, walk into a circular ring in Mexico, and start waving a cape it probably shouldn't surprise you that some kind of cattle charge ensues.  How could you not talk about all of this before you fired Tom Penn?

In order to be surprised by all of this you have to be woefully unaware of your environment:  media, fans, even your own organization.  And see, this is the part that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  The Blazers are no stranger to being disconnected from their environment.  It already brought the franchise and this city to the brink of divorce once.  It certainly brought this franchise and the media to blows.  We all assumed that we had a fresh start once the Jailblazer era was over.  But the roots of that era didn't rest with the players or their actions.  The deepest roots rested within the organization itself...precisely the kind of disconnect that this chain of events hearkens to.  This has nothing to do with the fitness of Penn or Pritchard or anyone else.  It has to do with a franchise where relationships that progress normally in other places--for good or ill--become this here.  It has to do with this happening in multiple eras, across multiple executives, in multiple situations.  It has to do with a franchise that cannot get out of its own way enough to let its followers love it. 

That's the most critical point of all for me.  Truth be told, as fan and media member both, I want exactly what the Blazers want.  I want this story to go away.  I want to concentrate on the team, its players, its playoff run.  Stories like this that have no absolute truth to them, that just become an inferno of competing perspectives and rumors, that air people's lives on a public stage where few could withstand scrutiny...these kind of stories make me shudder.  They're yucky.  They ultimately end up unsatisfying, sick entertainment, a waste of time.  But even though the Blazers say they want to turn attention back where it belongs, everything they've done--from letting the situation get this far in the first place to the firing to the explanation of the firing to the public cuffing of Pritchard--has done the opposite of what they say they've wanted.  Once again they've tripped over their own feet.  Once again they've put on display traits that we wish didn't exist, or at least that we didn't have shoved in our faces.  Once again they've left people wondering whether they're just lacking competence or just don't care.  It's not fair to them or any of us for that to be the central question of the day when the team has progressed this far on the court and had so much to show for it off the court.

A week ago the questions surrounding the team were simple:  Will they make the playoffs?  Will they succeed there?  Those were beautiful, vibrant questions speaking of goodness among us no matter how they were answered, even to the negative.  Now the lingering question is, "Will this organization ever learn?"  There's no satisfying, unifying, cheer-worthy answer to that no matter which way you go.  It's sad that the terms were redefined like that again, even if it's only for a while.  In more ways that one it was a sorry exchange.

--Dave (