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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Packed houses in Portland could be threatened if GM Kevin Pritchard is fired and the Blazers backslide.
Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Fans hold plenty of cards in Blazers-Pritchard drama


Posted Mar 26 2010 10:57AM

We have a great, unfolding drama in Portland these days. Trail Blazers upper-upper management is in a full-frontal assault on general manager Kevin Pritchard, making for some real palace intrigue, for those into seeing a head paraded about town on a stick.

Letting Pritchard be portrayed as close to irrelevant -- that's what the ownership seems to be doing -- is just the undercard. In the real fight, Blazers bosses seem willing to take on Blazers fans. And we all know how that turned out last time.

Early Vegas line: Fans by 11.

Of all the strange developments in Portland this season -- the emotionless start to the season, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla going down with knee injuries, Przybilla slipping in the shower and re-injuring that same knee, the Blazers mounting a prideful finish to make a stand for the playoffs -- nothing beats the backroom politics gone public. Tom Penn, Pritchard's top lieutenant, was fired last week in what was understandably viewed as a move to flank Pritchard. Now there's a good possibility that the highly successful GM could be shown the gate despite all he has done to right the franchise.

Pritchard is very popular in Portland, and if he goes and the team slides backward, you'll want to be somewhere else. All the hard work throughout the organization to turn the one-time Jail Blazers around again ... and here goes the corporate side, risking so many of the gains. That's the issue.

Executives clash with executives all the time, especially brash executives like Pritchard and double-especially when the other side, the guys at the top of the letterhead, may be looking at an eventual power vacuum creating a scramble for control. Sometimes it gets resolved and everyone moves forward as a happy family. Sometimes it doesn't.

The difference with Portland is that Blazermaniacs are not to be messed with. They are the kind of fan base every organization should want, a nonstop wave of energy that backs the team as a civic institution. And they are the kind of fan base every organization should fear.

Blazermaniacs didn't just get disgusted at the start of the millennium, those dark days when a police scanner, not a box score, was the best way to track the roster. They finally demanded a separation. Put a team on the court we can be proud of and we'll be back, they said, but not until then. Attendance plummeted.

Owner Paul Allen responded. He announced character would become a priority and that citizenship (and talent) should both matter. The Trail Blazers got good players who were also good guys, ramped up the club to 54 wins last season despite inexperience and this season is on pace for 49 victories despite so many woes. Keeping their end of the bargain, the people came back, pushing Portland all the way to third in attendance (as of Thursday).

Allen must be careful what he's risking. If Pritchard is gone, and the Blazers next season reclaim that contender-of-the-future role, the turnstiles will keep clicking. People don't pay to watch the GM.

But if he goes and it's years of unrealized potential, the suits just picked a fight with fans they can't win.

That is the only unavoidable fact in the evolving soap opera in which no one is blameless. Even counterparts around the league -- who credit Pritchard's work -- note his arrogance and how a dose of humility wouldn't hurt until the his team wins, oh, a playoff series. And that superiors went nearly four days without rebutting the bloodying story on Yahoo! Sports is a screaming statement that Allen's corporate side doesn't want Pritchard protected and doesn't care that he looks bad.

When the so-called backing did come Thursday, it smacked of damage control. A brief written statement in Allen's name released before the Trail Blazers beat the Mavericks said, "I support everyone who works for me, including Kevin Pritchard," but contained no commitment to retaining Pritchard for 2010-11, the final season of his contract. And he refused to expand or actually speak up on Pritchard's behalf when approached by the Oregonian.

Again: Fine. It's Portland's choice. But the team's standing with fans and their days of growth are both on the line. It will look real, real bad to force out the guy who contributed so much to the turnaround, after letting him twist in the wind and have his contributions minimized.

Pritchard has been painted as nothing more than a glorified scout, a strange framing for someone who had a major hand in acquiring Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Rudy Fernandez, among others. The criticism of Pritchard for drafting Oden over Kevin Durant -- when every other team would have done the same -- is ridiculous.

The corporate intrigue -- possibly fueled by Allen's ongoing bout with cancer and some possible front-office maneuvering because of his illness -- has engulfed this story. But either Pritchard is your guy or he isn't. If not, fire him or tell him to scout junior college tournaments in Siberia.

This is an ugliness that never needed to happen. Suddenly, the character of upper-upper management also matters to fans.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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