The man who was so at ease in front of a crowd, so quick with a handshake, disappeared into the summer night without a word. Portland Trail Blazers General Manager Kevin Pritchard ended his tenure in Portland barely three years after it started, adding three young pieces to his organization's roster immediately after receiving word he wouldn't be allowed back tomorrow. Relieved of his duties on the most important day of his year, Pritchard walked out of his team's Practice Facility, with its secure entrance and heavily tinted windows, and that was that.
There would be no final words, there would be no public goodbye, the man celebrated and derided alike for his communication skills left in silence, letting his draft work speak for him.
The Portland Trail Blazers take the draft more seriously than just about every team in the NBA. They've invested in European scouts. They've hand-selected top directors. They've assembled a team of internationally-respected minds to break down statistical data. They travel thousands of miles to sports management conferences to swap best practices. They go above and beyond in working out players. They conduct thorough background checks and make an extra effort to get to know the people they are drafting.
And, in the end, after all that time and money, they did the unthinkable. They watched their owner sit down with their general manager. Alone. No advisers, no senior management, no intermediaries, no mediators. And they blew up the whole house. And then they decided, together, to try to make magic in the ruins.
As the clock passed 4 PM at the Portland Trail Blazers practice facility in Tualatin, the media room was bored. Expectations had plunged, a long night was ahead and a mountain of unfulfilled trade rumors bred a lot of skepticism. Plates of food were gulped down, newspaper pages were turned impatiently.
And then the news hit -- news that was expected, perhaps even within the next few days, but not now. Not now. Kevin Pritchard had been fired.
But, incredibly, he would still run the evening's draft. Had this ever happened before? This can't possibly have happened before.
Time waits for no man and neither does the draft clock. An emotional John Wall achieved his dream, beaming out from the flat screen monitors, but if you panned right, you saw Blazers employees, eyes locked on their Blackberries or on the ground, faces clenched in disbelief. "We knew it was coming," their faces said. "But not like this. Why did it have to be like this?"
The moment of realization, the minute that faces began to turn from confusion to acceptance, looked uncomfortably like Portland's loss to the Suns, when Nate McMillan threw out never-before-seen lineup combinations, digging into a bag of tricks and coming up empty. It was another identity crisis.
But this wasn't just a crisis of strategy and personnel. This was identity. "Who are we?" "What do we stand for?" "Is this how we treat people?" And, maybe... "Am I next?"
"The process that we've been going through for the last few months culminated today," Miller then repeated. "Kevin and Paul sat down and had a conversation and coming out of that conversation the agreement was made that it was time to part ways. I'm not going to get into the details about what transpired or why. But I would say the process itself took a lot of things into consideration and at the end of the day the decision was made that it was time to go a different direction."
He tried, with measured words and to no avail, to paint this process as ordinary rather than extraordinary. "The evaluation happens every year. This is not something that just happened this year. It was something that's happened in past years. This year, there were things in play or in effect that weren't in effect in other years. The decision -- this was not something that just happened this year. It's something that has happened every year since I've been here.... I just want to say also that the decision [to fire Pritchard] was not made before Paul got here today. The process was still going."
What was in play this year that hadn't been last year? What was in effect? Miller wouldn't say. He probably couldn't say, at least not directly or in this forum. He did say Pritchard was fired without cause and would receive his remaining salary. He said a search for Pritchard's replacement was underway but he had no specific timeline in place. He explained that Buchanan and Born would handle basketball operations in the interim.
He also said that the decision to include Pritchard in the draft process, incredibly, came by an agreement today between Pritchard and Allen. "All along, the idea has been that this process was going on and that Kevin was going to lead our draft. Today, after Paul and Kevin had the conversation that they had, Kevin wanted to, and Paul and the rest of us were ok with Kevin leading the draft."
Asked if firing Pritchard was Allen's decision alone, Miller hedged slightly but seemed to admit as much. "Ultimately this was something that senior management here has talked about and discussed, but in the end Paul and Kevin sat down and that was the culmination."
From there, with the basics covered, Miller swerved between charismatic and cringe-inducing.
He reached a high point by doing what he hasn't done very well in the recent past: acknowledging fan uneasiness with the decision to fire Pritchard. "This was a difficult decision not just for us, for the fans for sure. I would hope that the fans would trust that we're going to continue to make this organization better. Because that's what we're going to do. The goal, again, is to win a championship here and bring a championship to the city of Portland. That's been Paul's goal. That continues to be Paul's goal. Everything we do going forward will be focused on that."
He also tried to paint recent events as separate from past institutional failures. "We will make sure we maintain the things that we've been doing over the last few years, as far as making sure that we bring players in here that this community can be brought of. There's no way we're going to go back to any of the directions of the past. We're going to continue to be an organization that's striving to be the best organization it can possibly be." Only time will tell if fans will believe him.
Coach Nate McMillan came last and it was fitting, because he feels like the last man standing. Unlike draft night 2009, where he appeared slightly disappointed with the day's events, McMillan looked just about emotionless as he said exactly the right things. "Kevin and Mike and Chad did another great job. Luke, Armon and Elliot were all guys on our radar screen. Just to see the excitement in the draft room, like it's been since I've been here, you just had chills."
It was by far the most convincing job yet of painting the extraordinary as routine. It still wasn't very convincing.
McMillan's account made it seem as if the meeting between Pritchard and Allen had no impact on the night's proceedings. He recalled seeing the report about Pritchard's firing in the media during the draft but claimed not to have truly addressed the issue with Miller until after the draft was over.
However implausible that might be, McMillan seemed to grasp the bigger picture more readily than the other three; Perhaps the story here wasn't about tonight's crisis or the machinations over the past few months but rather about an end of a tenure, an end of an era. "Kevin and I over the last four years have become close friends. I have enjoyed working for him, I respect Kevin and what he has done for this organization, he helped transform not only the players but the organization. But what he's done for me, as far as drafting players and bringing in free agents. He has done that for me."
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter