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Apocalypse Now: The Kevin Pritchard Era Ends In Portland

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 actual drafting played out miraculously close to expectations.  The Blazers used a veteran lever to get into the middle of the first round.  They selected a targeted player who adds shooting and will cost a fraction of the player for whom he was traded.  They then added a guard who adds backcourt depth in the event that Rudy Fernandez is moved. They then selected, almost as if it was scripted, another guard who was very clearly on their radar screen, after getting extra attention following a Monday workout which led to the second round pick swap that nabbed him.  

The surprise wasn't the players who were selected.  The picks came down like a detailed plan being executed bullet point by bullet point.  The surprise was that it happened when and how it happened. A rose from concrete.


At around 9 PM, a representative of the organization briskly handed out press releases. "TRAIL BLAZERS GENERAL MANAGER KEVIN PRITCHARD RELIEVED OF HIS DUTIES... Trail Blazers, Pritchard part ways after six seasons."  Denying or delaying the news weren't options.  This story would have to be owned.  But by whom?

Pritchard, it became clear, had already left.  So had Paul Allen, whose dark SUV lurked menacingly in front of the building, parked directly in front of the main entrance because billionaire owners need not bother with parking spaces.  

Scouts Chad Buchanan and Mike Born were obvious choices to speak, as they knew the draft picks inside and out and, we would come to find out, were now in charge of basketball operations.  Coach Nate McMillan, it was announced shortly thereafter, would also address the media.  And, to the surprise of many, Blazers President Larry Miller would also step forward to microphones at the team's Practice Facility, for the first time since his now-infamous performance at a March press conference, where he squirmed and wormed, hemmed and hawed. 


The scouts, dressed in what appeared to be matching black shirts, looked like mourners.  Their excitement over what they had accomplished, which no doubt will be very real sometime in the near future, was entirely manufactured tonight.  

Chad Buchanan, who carried on as stoically as he could, addressing questions in detail, admitted that the situation "was obviously difficult."  In between discussing player tendency breakdowns, Buchanan kept returning to the same themes. "Kevin was a tremendous leader," he said. "He did an unbelievable job like he always does."  Respect and regret.

Mike Born sought out the eyes of those in the audience, many of whom edged forward in their seats with anxiety as the questioning continued.  It wasn't clear what Born was seeking in the eye contact.  Comfort? A connection?  Someone who would understand what he had been through and what had just happened?  He looked exhausted, finding his legs again after completing a marathon.  No, the team hadn't decided what to do with the newly-acquired Ryan Gomes and his partially guaranteed contract.  Yes, it was extremely difficult to trade longtime Blazer Martell Webster.

No matter how much Buchanan and Born liked their three draft picks, and surely no one likes these players more, you couldn't help but get the feeling that they would trade them all back for Kevin Pritchard.  

When Larry Miller took the stage the fireworks began.  As the temporary face of the franchise, his presence had meaning in and of itself.  Standing in for his owner he found himself in an impossible situation.  But once again he did himself no favors.

It was his job, he realized finally, to explain what had happened. To provide a narrative as best he could.  Here's what he came up with. "The process that we've been going through for the last few months culminated today. Kevin [Pritchard] and Paul [Allen] sat down and had a conversation and coming out of that conversation the agreement was made that it was time to part ways.

"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.

One thing was apparent immediately, however.  Miller still possesses a tone deaf propensity in high-tension situations. "I have absolutely no interest of being the GM of this organization," Miller said, breaking into a wide smile in front of a stunned audience. "Please be clear on that."  

Mrs. Lincoln, wipe up that blood and come over here.  I have a hilarious joke to tell you. 

To compound matters, Miller then went out of his way to quell rumors that Denver Nuggets executive Mark Warkentien may be Pritchard's replacement. "I'm not going to get into a lot about candidates but I can say that Mark Warkentien will not be a candidate for this job," Miller stated. And then, almost with a snarl, he said it again with emphasis, received with gasps and murmurs.  "There is no interest in bringing Mark Warkentien back."

Miller might have reasons for feeling so strongly.  But the episode will only add to his growing league-wide reputation for addressing sensitive issues untactfully .  Given the time and place and his delivery, it felt like the Darius Miles email of the executive search process. That's just not how things are done in the NBA. 

Then again, nothing about tonight is how things should be done.  

Miller pulled it together, as he finished, sending Pritchard off with a touch of respect. "Kevin did a lot to move this organization forward and he did a great job for us while he was here... Kevin was a part of the team that brought some great players here. He really turned this organization around. Kevin was a part of it, there was a team of people, it wasn't just Kevin. But he was a major part of turning the organization around, of bringing in players that not only are talented players but got us wins on the basketball court and got us back to the playoffs. But also players that are character, quality people. And we're going to continue focusing on that.

"Up until the time he walked out of here, he was giving everything he could for this organization. We definitely appreciated that he wanted to be a part of the draft."

A touch of respect after a trampling. 


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."  

Asked later to define Pritchard's legacy, McMillan seemed a touch defensive. "There's been some conversations about he and I, and our relationship," he said slowly, making sure his words sunk in. "It's been a great relationship. It's been a good partnership. I respect what he has done with this team and he's a big part of why we're here today."


Rumors swirled like crazy tonight.  Power plots.  Nasty inter-office encounters. Changed dispositions.  Personality differences.  

The Kevin Pritchard Era ended ugly.  Not as ugly as it began.  But very ugly.  No amount of spin would make this right.  

No one knew that fact better than the master of spin, the eternal optimist, himself.  So he walked away, leaving us with Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams and Armon Johnson, and a deep, unshakeable feeling that it didn't have to end this way. 

That it shouldn't have ended this way.

 -- Ben Golliver | | Twitter