The Paul Allen-owned Portland Trail Blazers fired one executive, and another may be in trouble. The NBA team's situation seems similar to massive changes for the NFL's Seahawks, another team owned by Allen and run by Vulcan.
PORTLAND — For the past three seasons, the Portland Trail Blazers appeared to be a testament to owner Paul Allen’s ability to remake a fallen franchise. The NBA team vaulted back into playoff contention and rekindled the passions of fans.
Then, on March 16 the team fired Tom Penn, vice president for basketball operations. The next week, Kevin Pritchard, the team’s general manager widely credited with engineering the turnaround, indicated to reporters that his job also was not secure.
These developments have revealed serious strains within the Blazers organization and triggered fresh scrutiny of the franchise’s leadership under Allen and his executives at Seattle-based Vulcan Inc.
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“If anything has become clear to me over the past week it’s this: Anyone under Kevin Pritchard in this organization loves him and swears by him,” wrote The Oregonian’s Jason Quick in a column Tuesday.
“Anyone over him appears uncomfortable with him or threatened by him. Is it because the Blazers fan base reveres him so strongly? Or is it because there are people who think he gets too much credit? Or are there simply too many people making decisions in the organization? It’s hard to say. Paul Allen and his Vulcan company has never been an easy bunch to figure out.”
The unrest in Portland comes less than three months after Allen made big changes in the leadership of the Seahawks, selecting a new coach and general manager.
The Seahawks’ search for a franchise savior took them to Southern California, where they interviewed USC coach Pete Carroll before deciding to fire Jim Mora after one season. Mora had three years remaining on his contract and is owed about $12 million.
In Seattle, it was clear why changes were made. The Seahawks had bottomed out with two dismal seasons of losing records of 4-12 and 5-11.
The situation in Portland is quite different. Though the Blazers have struggled with injuries this season, the team has been one of the NBA’s success stories. A talented core of young players, led by former Washington star Brandon Roy, has stirred hopes of championship runs.
There has been fierce speculation in the Portland-area and national sports media about the roots of the discontent. Some suggest that Pritchard did not hold firm enough on contract talks with Roy, and was too open about complaining that his compensation should be higher. But there have been few public disclosures from Allen or Blazers management.
Penn, a close friend of general manager Pritchard, has expertise in NBA salary caps and collective-bargaining agreements. Larry Miller, the Blazers’ president, cited “philosophical differences” in announcing Penn’s firing on March 16 and declined further comment. Penn also has declined to publicly explain what went wrong.
Pritchard was rattled by Penn’s dismissal, and in a meeting with reporters Monday appeared shaken and uneasy when asked if he thought he would keep his job.
“I don’t know that,” Pritchard replied. “I am going to give it everything I have every day. I want to be here.”
Miller said he “didn’t know anything specific that ownership is not happy about” with Pritchard, according to a transcript of his comments published by The Oregonian. But Miller refused to rule out dismissing the general manager once Allen has a chance to evaluate the team’s performance this season.
Many within the Blazers organization say they detected no signs of a souring of Allen’s relationship with Pritchard.
“He was the fair-haired boy who was always in touch with Allen and sits next to him at the games. The two have seemed as tight as a drum,” said one person who has worked for the Blazers but asked to remain anonymous.
For the first time since Penn’s firing, Allen showed up at the Rose Garden on Thursday for the Blazers’ 101-89 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Allen has been undergoing chemotherapy to combat non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and looked thin and somewhat frail. Dressed in a black suit, he walked slowly through the Rose Garden to take his customary courtside seat.
Some fans held up signs declaring their loyalty to Pritchard.
“There should not be any doubt that he should be brought back next year,” said Chris Garner, a fan from Portland. “Allen should say this guy is not going anywhere.”
Allen’s written statement, released just before the start of the game, offered no such assurance.
“When the season ends, we will evaluate how best to move the Trail Blazers forward,” Allen said.”That’s no different from the way we have operated for the past 21 years.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org