Trail Blazers’ GM could be next to go

As executives of Vulcan Inc. discussed the pros and cons of firing Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard last summer, the discussion found its way to this conclusion: Pritchard had proven to be a solid senior-level scout, but largely incapable of running the organization.

Vulcan, the Blazers’ parent company, had watched Pritchard embark upon several selfish and destructive bents, and strong sentiment existed to fire him. Owner Paul Allen and the Vulcan executives no longer trusted him to put the franchise before his own ambitions. The list of transgressions that troubled Vulcan always came back to similar themes: Pritchard’s thirst for public adulation, money and power.

Kevin Pritchard was named general manager of the Blazers by owner Paul Allen three years ago.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Inside and outside the organization, Pritchard harped on how much more Portland coach Nate McMillan made than him. He complained to friends, rivals and relative acquaintances, and that played an immense part in the gulf that exists between the front office and coach.

When negotiations became contentious with star Brandon Roy(notes), Pritchard didn’t stand firm with the limits of ownership’s offer. What’s more, Pritchard tried to cozy up to Roy by selling the notion that it was the two of them together trying to get the contracts they deserved from owner Paul Allen. For the unparalleled resources Allen has provided Pritchard to remake the roster – millions in dollars to purchase draft picks, packaging them in trades or stockpiling prospects overseas – Vulcan was beyond irate that Pritchard still couldn’t present a united front when Allen decided to make a financial stand.

It reeked of Pritchard’s desperation and immaturity, and eventually inspired team president Larry Miller to usurp Pritchard in the talks for Roy’s eventual five-year, $82 million deal. Pritchard would go around the NBA, and surprise peers with questions that included, “How much do you make?” before launching into diatribes about how he couldn’t understand why he was so poorly compensated in Portland, especially in comparison to McMillan.

Allen and Vulcan ultimately decided to strip some power and autonomy from Pritchard, but decided to keep trotting him out to the things he most loved: news conferences and public appearances.

“They left him the public face, but essentially he was neutered,” a league source with direct knowledge of the talks said.

Privately, Vulcan executives wish they had gone further and fired him, sources say. That now appears to be a matter of time, especially with the way Pritchard’s agent, Warren LeGarie, has publicly gone ballistic on the Blazers organization. After Miller pushed to fire assistant GM Tom Penn after a recent nasty, personal exchange in Portland – the culmination of resentment that lingered from a contract leverage ploy with Minnesota – Pritchard finds himself isolated within the organization and devoid of allies.

Since Penn’s firing, LeGarie has encouraged Pritchard to resign, sources say. Pritchard contemplated the possibility, but has ultimately decided to go in a completely different direction. Pritchard has requested a meeting with Vulcan officials, and is expected to speak with them this week.

After several days of scorched earth by his agent, sources say Pritchard is desperate to find a way to save his job. After months of listening to LeGarie tell him he’d be in great demand on the market, Pritchard is finding that might not be the truth.

“Pritch has figured out that all those jobs that Warren promised him aren’t there,” one GM said.

Yes, Pritchard had lost his support within Vulcan, and LeGarie’s public assailing of Allen and franchise officials has only deepened the resolve within the Blazers to fire him. Miller has increased his influence on the basketball side over the past year, including taking a prominent role not only in the Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge(notes) talks, but he also has become involved in much smaller matters, like ironing out a deal for second-round draft pick Patty Mills.

In some ways, Miller, a former Nike executive, has started work on the job. Miller’s plan is to hire a GM, but still keep a strong hand in the day-to-day basketball operations.

“The transition away from this regime has already started,” one source with knowledge of ownership’s plans said.

Looking back, maybe Allen should’ve just let Pritchard leave for the Minnesota Timberwolves when he wanted to go interview with them. Pritchard wanted to talk with them, a source close to him says, but Allen refused to grant permission. Pritchard and LeGarie hatched a plan to push Penn for the job, who never seriously considered taking it. After all, the control of basketball operations in Minnesota belongs to the owner’s son-in-law, Rob Moor, who acts as team president.

Once Penn leveraged Minnesota for an offer to take back to Portland, league sources say the three of them – LeGarie, Pritchard and Penn – exaggerated the package and control offered Penn as GM. Still, Portland gave Penn a raise and a new contract. For a brief time, this thrilled Pritchard. He believed this was a way to backdoor into a new deal for himself. If Vulcan had taken care of his assistant, they would feel compelled to take care of him.

Only, Vulcan told him to get lost. Portland ownership had already spoken with Minnesota’s team president and believed it had been duped into an excessive deal for Penn. This is business as usual with LeGarie. It wouldn’t be long until LeGarie became combative with Portland ownership, and all hell broke loose in the past week when the agent went public with columnist John Canzano of The Oregonian.

Now, LeGarie has overplayed Pritchard’s hand in Portland, ripped his bosses, and here’s Pritchard’s dilemma: Does he stand strong with LeGarie on his scorched-earth policy, or dump the agent and throw himself upon Allen’s mercy?

Through it all, here was the most fatal flaw of Pritchard: He let himself be convinced that ownership would value him on par with McMillan. It isn’t the case. With Vulcan’s offices in Seattle, most executives have a long history and respect for McMillan back to his coaching and playing days with the Sonics. So far, McMillan has been unwilling to sign a contract extension past the 2011 season, but that would likely change with Pritchard out of the picture.

McMillan is a dutiful pro, never interested in intramural politics or fighting battles behind the scenes. He has been around the league a long time, and privately never believed that Pritchard’s DNA showed staying power.

“Kevin was in a constant battle to position himself to get credit away from Nate for whatever success they were eventually going to have there,” one NBA executive friendly with both said. “Nate knows enough not to flap his gums and pound his chest – especially when your team hasn’t even won a playoff series yet. He’s secure in himself, in a way that Pritchard never knew how to be.

“If Kevin just kept his mouth shut, cut out all the arrogance and insecurity, I think he probably would’ve had his extension a long time ago.”

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 22, 2010