Thursday, March 25, 2010
Why Portland is making Kevin Pritchard no promises
By Henry Abbott
One of the strangest moments in sports public relations history took place on Monday in Portland.
After a weekend of reports that the front office was in dire straits, due to with infighting and intrigue that might cost GM Kevin Pritchard his job, the Blazers announced that their president and general manager would meet the media together.
From what I had heard, it seemed like the situation was untenable. The only convincing "cure" I could imagine was some kind of press conference where a collection of bigwigs (owner Paul Allen, president Larry Miller, Pritchard and the like) announced that Pritchard was sticking around, they'd resolve their differences, and maybe, for good measure, they were going to give Pritchard an extension beyond the remaining -- likely undermarket -- year plus a team option he has now.
But then they met the media, and really ... just ... didn't do that.
Instead there was just kind of a sad rehash of what we already knew, and vague talk about how things weren't as bad as they seemed, and Pritchard hoped to stay.
And to the long list of questions everybody already had, a new one appeared: How on earth could the president, Miller, attend this press conference alongside Pritchard, and yet offer zip, zero, zilch as a promise that Pritchard would be around beyond the end of the season? It's almost like a code that, in sports, executives talk about their coaches and GMs in the most glowing terms at all times (at least until they fire them and usually beyond).
If the intent of the meeting was to calm the fears of Blazer fans, the effect was the exactly the opposite.
Over the last few days, and based on a number of conversations, I've come to understand a new wrinkle in what happened there.
Yes, that press event was probably a mistake. Yes, things are tenuous, and the Blazers have done little to refute that impression.
But I no longer believe that Larry Miller's reticence to commit publicly to Pritchard was quite the slap that it appeared to be. Instead, consider the possibility that it was the truth.
Here's what he actually said:
The reality is the way this organization has worked is you kind of, you get to the end of the season and you evaluate what has gone on. We're going to take that same approach going in to this. And that's not just for Kevin. That's for me and all the major decisions that need to be made.
And here's what I have come to believe that means: No opinion here matters other than Paul Allen's.
There are accounts of these kinds of reviews -- executives getting hauled in for very tough questioning -- at many of Allen's businesses, including the Seahawks. The deep review is part of his game. (When the Seahawks fired coach Jim Mora recently, they did so after "an extensive internal audit.") It's something Allen has a track record of liking to do, and it's one of the ways he puts his imprint on the organization. And if ever there were a year for such a review in Portland, this would be it. So, expect a serious brand of questioning, after the season, from the owner. And expect that to play a big role in who runs the team in the future.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of Larry Miller or anybody else who works for Paul Allen. Blazer fans are irate and confused. Miller serves at the behest of Allen. He can't really be considered a good employee if he goes out there and says that "nobody knows what the owner is going to do!" That would be like building a neon sign, directing fans to send their ire directly to Allen. Meanwhile, it's his part of his job to insulate Allen from some of that. So he wisely didn't sell his owner down the river. Instead, he said what he could say: That there would be a review this summer.
Assuming Pritchard doesn't resign in the interim -- at this point, many think he could get a different job where he'd be happier -- that review will likely be the next important step in this process, because that's when the voice that matters most will enter the conversation.