Monday, July 13, 2009

Son of a Pritch!

Ridding Portland of the 'Jailblazers' moniker was no easy task. No quality of coaching, resources or fan loyalty could cleanse the Blazers of the sex offenders, dog fighters, drug addicts, and plain knuckleheads (as for fan loyalty: Bonzi Wells famously stated in a 2002 interview interview, "They [fans] really don't matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street.") The front office had failed for years to move the likes of Qyntel Woods, Ruben Patterson, Bonzi Wells and Zach Randolph, among others, which resulted in a string of losing seasons almost immediately following the years in which they contended with the Lakers and Kings atop the Western Conference. Then Kevin Pritchard took hold of the reigns.

For all the awesome debates raging among NBA fans today - who's better, Kobe or Lebron, who's a better coach, Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson, etc., - there's one assertion concerning 'the best' that is exceedingly hard to refute: Kevin Pritchard has been the best GM in the league over the past few seasons. Upon inheriting a 21-61 team with virtually no valuable pieces aside from mental case Randolph, Pritchard did everything within his power to transform them from league doormat to Western Conference power. Three years into his tenure, they're a 54-win team, and the average starter on the 2008-09 squad was about 25 years old.

Which makes Pritchard's decisions over the past few months so alarming.

Pritchard's first uncharacterisic action was his pressuring the league's other 29 teams not to sign Darius Miles, the former Blazers swingman who typically did nothing to warrant his ludicrous salary while in the black and red. Miles had in 2006 suffered a potentially career-ending injury, and few expected him to ever play again. Doctors ruled that the injury was severe enough for the Blazers to be relieved of having to pay the $18 million remaning on his contract, so it came as quite a shock to them when they realized Miles was healthy enough to suit up, and they would therefore not be granted that precious cap relief. The Blazers immediately sent out an email warning teams not to sign the 27-year old, but no one budged, and Pritchard was criticized for his attempting to bully the other organizations. Many wrote it off as overblown due to Pritchard's squeaky clean record, only for it to seem like a legitimate omen to just about everybody eight months on.

The 2009 off-season has thus far been similarly beguiling, the first blunder being the mishandling of free agent Hedo Turkoglu. I don't necessarily hold Portland's losing him, after apparently signing him, as a great failure on Pritchard's part, though it certainly wasn't a positive. The Blazers need a veteran small forward like Marbury needs his entourage, seeing how Portland needs someone with experience to bolster exceptionally young big men Alrdridge and Greg Oden, a player to take pressure of Brandon Roy and step up in the clutch. Turkoglu is all that and more. His playing there may never have truly been a possibility, if we are to believe his decision to play in Toronto was motivated by his wife wanting to live in a more European city, but still, with him in their clutches, losing Hedo might mean losing out on a trip to the Finals in the next couple seasons.

That was semi-understandable. Now, it gets personal.

As a Utah Jazz fan, I'm incensed by their pursuit of power forward Paul Millsap, a player who by all accounts they don't need, and who is not worth, to them at least the $36+ million they're offering him. $36 million for a backup power forward? Are you crazy? A 24-year power forward to back up a 23-year old power forward? Yes, the Blazers have $9 million in cap space and yes, they are a little slim down low, but wouldn't they rather save that money for 2010, when they'll be able to get most every free agent on the phone and lock down someone who's actually a semi-decent fit? Why didn't they pursue Brandon Bass or Glen Davis, talented young power forwards similar to Millsap and half as expensive? Just because they have salary cap room does not mean they have to spend it. They would save $9 million, key in this economy, I'd assume, and could next year find someone who's more compatible with their squad.

This is just wrong in so many ways. The Blazers are scurrying to improve, as any team should, but are overreacting like the Yankees when Boston signs a fifth reliever. The truth is, they don't need to go out and get anyone - in fact, signing a big free agent might only make things worse. Keep in mind, this is a team that's improved it's win total by 11 (21-61 to 32-50), 9 (41-41), and 13 (54-28) games over the past three seasons, solely through the development of their young players. And they managed 54 wins last season, a monster accomplishment in the West, despite suffering a number of setbacks: Martell Webster, who averaged a career high 10.7 ppg in 2007-08 missed 81 games, Greg Oden missed 21 and was developing the whole year, and Steve Blake missed 13. Does Pritchard not think they would be able to improve if Webster was healthy the whole season and Oden improved the slightest bit? Pritchard got to this point by honing talent he acquired in the Draft - why try to fix what ain't broke?

One of the most puzzling aspects of all this is why they're so gung-ho on Millsap when they're biggst needs are at point guard and small forward, where they're trying to upgrade. Why not pursue proven veterans Andre Miller or Kirk Hinrich, both of whom are on the block? And, most mind-boggling of all, where is Lamar Odom in all this? The versatile Odom would be the perfect complement to Roy, Aldridge and Odom, and they could have him for the same price as Millsap, who they would have backup Aldridge, who plays 37 minutes a game. Not only has Pritchard not pursued Odom - they haven't mentioned him once.

The sad thing is, despite being a die hard Jazz fan, I secretly root for the Blazers a bit. I love how they've altered their image, how they approach the NBA draft like its an expansion draft, and I think Brandon Roy is one of the five best players in the league. None of these misteps of his may prove to be cataclysmic, but we've come to expect more from the newly minted golden boy of the the managerial scene.

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