TrueHoop: Paul Allen

Why Portland is making Kevin Pritchard no promises

March, 25, 2010
Abbott 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.

The Deepest Pockets in Sports

February, 24, 2009

For Blazer fans, and for NBA fans everywhere to a lesser degree, Paul Allen's money has long been a magic bullet.

SPAM, they call it. Spending Paul Allen's Money.

The Microsoft co-founder has been, at various times, very high on the list of the world's richest people. He has long been considered the richest owner in sports. And he has spent like it -- the Blazers have made move after move that involved the outlay of cash. Thee are countless examples, including outbidding the Lakers for Scottie Pippen, which nearly won the team a championship in 2000.

More recently, Portland got rid of Zach Randolph by taking on and buying out Steve Francis -- who is effectively the highest paid Blazer this year.

They became regular purchasers of first-round picks, which they used on players like Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. 

And the usual math for NBA teams has been that you can't afford to re-sign all of your young players -- show me a team with three or four huge deals, and I'll show you a team paying the luxury tax. But you don't hear people talking like that about the Blazers. The idea has long been that Paul Allen will spend as much as it takes to keep the likes of Brandon Roy.

Thanks to the luxury tax, the largess of teams like the Knicks and Blazers is an NBA-wide treasure.

For instance, when Rashard Lewis signed an insanely big contract with Orlando, a sportswriter called me taking odds that it would be Paul Allen who would pay off the final few years of it.  The idea is that when talented players make too much money, there is still a market for them thanks to owners like Allen.

But there are two suggestions today that things could be changing a little. The financial crisis -- is it hitting home here, too?

Et tu, Paul?

First, consider this tidbit from Chad Ford:

One source told me the Nets agreed to send two future firsts (Dallas' and Golden State's) along with Carter to the Blazers for Raef LaFrentz. The Blazers, however, turned them down.  

OK, whatever, trades that didn't happen ... but ... really?

I mean, think about that. Vince Carter is a great player. And he comes with a recession's most valuable commodities: Draft picks. And all you have to do is pay this great player slightly more than he's worth next season, before buying him out for $4 million. (UPDATE: Kevin Pritchard addresses the team's lack of deadline deals on, and insists that "when the time is right," Paul Allen "will go for it.")

And Paul Allen said no?

I have to believe that there was a time Paul Allen would have paid something close to what Vince Carter will make just for those two good draft picks. (On the other hand, if everybody is desperate for cash, maybe $3 million gets you a lottery pick this year. In fact, maybe you could buy multiple lottery picks this year with the same cash.)

If Ford's source is correct here, that says that both the Blazers and the Nets are operating in an extreme cost-cutting environment. That is was offered says the Nets are in trouble. That is was rejected ... that starts to point to the Blazers.

In Portland, people close to the team say the team is on a mission to get to profitability (a mission that was very much stymied by the Darius Miles fiasco). Getting into the black is more or less of the opposite of SPAM.

And then, consider the work of Ben at BlazersEdge, who has been poking around the idea that Paul Allen may not be as wealthy as he once was.

This cable TV venture has gone bankrupt, reportedly with tens of billions in debt. There have reportedly been layoffs at the parent company of Allen's many business ventures. He has sold off his share of Dreamworks, and depending how much Microsoft stock he still owns, he could have lost billions of paper wealth from that stock's recent descent alone.

So, as you consider the landscape around the NBA, and who is buying and who is selling ... I suppose it's still fair to expect that Paul Allen and the Blazers will ultimately prove to be a big-spending team again. 

But the limitless spigot of cash that has long characterized Paul Allen's ownership, that certainly does not appear to be functioning like it has in the past.