During his time with the Toronto Raptors, USC coach Kevin O'Neill was fond of the phrase, "You're either selling wins or you're selling hope," which I happen to think is the pithiest way anyone has ever explained the concept of the success cycle.
When the Portland Trail Blazers fired Maurice Cheeks late in the 2004-05 season, they more or less declared their intention to begin rebuilding. It was only fitting that Cheeks was replaced on an interim basis by Kevin Pritchard, then the Blazers' obscure director of player personnel best known as the starting point guard for Kansas' 1988 NCAA champion team. Pritchard's role was always intended to be temporary, and that summer Portland made a splash by hiring Nate McMillan away from the rival Seattle SuperSonics with a lucrative contract while Pritchard returned to his scouting job.
The expectation was that McMillan would become the face of the new Blazers regime, especially with no player on the roster capable of filling that role. McMillan's character and steady hand provided a welcome change, but he never quite connected with fans. Portland would not entirely succeed in selling hope until Pritchard's role in the organization grew with the departure of general manager John Nash in May 2006. Though Pritchard wasn't promoted to general manager until a year later, when team president Steve Patterson followed Nash out the door, he got credit for the draft that landed Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge and turned the Blazers around.
With his penchant for completing trades on the night of the draft, Pritchard soon became a cult hero among Portland fans, who coined the term "Pritch-slap" to describe his seemingly one-sided deals and flooded the web with praise for the GM. The Blazers' growth lived up to the rising expectations, as the team became a .500 team by 2007-08 and returned to the playoffs the following season, the culmination of a long but effective rebuilding process that was at the time seen as a model for other clubs.
There's a danger to the hype, however. Eventually, expectations became impossible to meet. That's what Pritchard discovered during this past season. Racked by injuries, Portland saw its development stall, losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder did the Blazers one better, reaching the postseason with an even younger roster and usurping Portland's role as the rising young power in the Western Conference.
Within the Blazers' organization, the question began to be asked whether Pritchard was the right leader to help the team take the next step in its development. Simultaneously, Pritchard took the wrong side in a complex battle for power within the front office, backing Tom Penn when his former right hand man was abruptly fired as assistant GM in March. It has also become clear that the over-the-top adoration Pritchard received from fans ultimately worked against him because of the feeling that he received a disproportionate share of the credit for turning the organization around.
When we take the critical step of removing the hype on both sides of the equation, what is left is a general manager who fell short of his public perception, but also one whose performance hardly merited dismissal.
Ultimately, Pritchard's greatest legacy will be showing the Portland front office a better way than the team had operated under his predecessors. As problematic as the final teams Bob Whitsitt assembled were off the floor, ultimately Whitsitt's biggest shortcoming was his inability to recognize how the luxury tax would change the equation for teams and reward flexibility. (There were few complaints about the risks Whitsitt took when the team was reaching the Western Conference Finals.) In fairness, overspending was common among wealthy teams at the time. The New York Knicks are only now recovering from their tendency to spend first and ask questions later, while Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had his share of early missteps as a tax payer.
Whitsitt's successor, Nash, cleaned up the team off the court and shed the "Jail Blazers" reputation but maintained a high payroll with hefty contracts for players like Darius Miles and Theo Ratliff. It was Pritchard who pointed the Blazers toward more sensible salary management, ultimately getting the team below the cap last summer.
One of Pritchard's key realizations was the value Portland could reap from young players on cost-controlled contracts. Understanding the concept of replacement level (part of his development into a stat geek, which saw the team embrace advanced analysis), Pritchard stopped overpaying for middling veterans and aggressively mined the draft for talent. He also realized that Allen's money was better spent not on salaries, since they could be taxed, but on buying additional first-round picks. The strategies ultimately netted the Blazers no fewer than seven rotation-quality players on their first contract last season. The upside is that the scouts responsible for many of those selections, Pritchard hires Mike Born and Chad Buchanan, recently signed contract extensions to stay with the team after his departure.
Of course, the Pritchard pick that ultimately received the most scrutiny was taking Greg Oden No. 1 overall after Portland won the lottery in 2007. Since No. 2 pick Kevin Durant has quickly developed into a generational talent while Oden tries to shake a series of injuries, revisionist historians have criticized Pritchard for the selection. Injury wasn't a legitimate concern at the time (Google News' archive reveals a grand total of one article calling Oden injury prone prior to the draft, published in the Salt Lake Community College Globe), so despite Durant's immense potential, nearly every team in the league (including the Sonics, who took Durant) would have chosen Oden.
I'll grant that criticism of Pritchard's ability to mold an elite team cannot be conclusively dismissed. The Blazers have been unable to pull of a major deal that would consolidate their talent dating back to the 2009 trade deadline, when the team was dangling Raef LaFrentz's expiring contract. Pritchard made a good deal for Marcus Camby before last year's deadline, but lucked out a bit with last year's other marquee addition, guard Andre Miller--the team's third choice in free agency after forward Hedo Turkoglu, who would have been an expensive mistake, and forward Paul Millsap.
At the same time, positioning the change at the helm as a matter of moving toward a championship sets a high standard for Pritchard's replacement. Short of luring Jerry West out of retirement, the Blazers will be hard-pressed to find a new general manager with that kind of proven track record of high-level success. Should the team fall short of expectations, fans won't soon forget the way Pritchard was cast aside.
Portland is now in the business of selling wins. The Blazers may discover that selling hope is often much less difficult.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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