These are tenuous times for the Trail Blazers, and for nobody more than John Nash, the team's second-year general manager.
Nash's mission upon taking the job in July 2003 was to rid the Blazers of their players of poor deportment (e.g., Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells) while maintaining a competitive squad and helping the franchise stay healthy financially.
The results have been mixed. Wallace, Wells and others are gone, but the team's hold on its fan base has continued to erode. The team failed to make the playoffs last spring for the first time since 1982, and it has stumbled out of the gate this season.
It is Nash's contract year Ñ the Blazers hold an option for the 2005-06 season Ñ and he admits he feels the pressure. In a sit-down interview with the Portland Tribune, Nash discusses his job, the Blazer present and what to expect in the future.
Tribune: Eighteen months into your reign as GM, how do you think the process is going?
Nash: Some of the goals we have achieved, some we haven't. Losing is never any fun. Not making the playoffs wasn't fun. But the parameters remain the same. The marching orders are to maintain the talent level, reduce the payroll and pay strict attention to character. Two of those three things we've been able to do without much difficulty. But any time you cut payroll and turn down talent because of character, you possibly will not win as many games.
Trib: So was it a mistake?
Nash: We still believe in the long run it's the right thing to do. When we put together a team with character people, it'll be more effective. To have the highest payroll in the league ($105 million in 2002-03, the season before Nash arrived) and get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs wasn't a good business decision. And especially when the luxury tax is so significant. You just can't stay in business doing it the way it had been done here.
We got the payroll down to $82 million last year, are at about $84 million this year and have about $51 million in salary committed to 10 players for next year.
One of the reasons I came here is the owner, Paul Allen. One of the strengths of this franchise is that Paul has demonstrated a commitment to excellence. He wants to win and has the ability to pay to do that. But it is insanity to lose the kind of money he was losing, to write a $45 million luxury tax check to the NBA.
Trib: Only five players remain from when you first got to Portland Ñ Zach Randolph, Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson, Ruben Patterson and Travis Outlaw, along with the suspended Qyntel Woods.
Nash: One of the first decisions I had to make was whether to re-up Scottie Pippen. I knew it wouldn't be a popular decision (to let him go), but our doctors had serious reservations about his ability to play another year, and he was looking for two. My advice to him was if he had another opportunity elsewhere, to take it. He wanted to stay. (Arvydas) Sabonis was another one. From the day I got the job, I started calling Herb Rudoy (his agent). He told me Arvydas wanted to come back, but at that stage of his life and career, the European season was much better for him. It made more sense for us, too.
Trib: How do you feel about the way the team has played this season?
Nash: Disappointed, obviously. We've played a lot of close games we could have won. Our crying need has been for perimeter shooting. Players have not shot as well this year as they have over the course of their career. We're disappointed in that.
Trib: Your plan was to try to cut enough payroll that you could eventually get under the salary cap and sign free agents. With the contract extension for Theo Ratliff and the new contracts for Darius Miles (six years, $48 million) and Zach Randolph (six years, $84 million), that won't be possible. What's the plan now?
Nash: I think it's to try to do what Indiana did. We have some young guys in the pipeline. We haven't had the chance to see (draft pick) Viktor Khryapa this year, and (draft pick Sergei) Monya is on his way next year. (Center) Ha Seung-Jin is several seasons away, but if he were a freshman in college right now, you would monitor his progress closely. (Sebastian) Telfair is a keeper. With Zach, Darius and Travis, we have three young forwards who are pretty decent. Ha could be a center for us down the road. Theo will hold the position for a while. We just need to keep looking to acquire young talent.
Trib: Word is no other team would have paid Miles, who was a restricted free agent, what he got from Portland. Is that true? Was Denver the only other team in the mix?
Nash: I have no idea. Here is the risk you run when you are negotiating a contract. Denver didn't have the $6.75 million to pay him this year; (the Nuggets) were pushing hard to acquire him from us through a sign-and-trade. We could have matched an offer, but Darius would have been an unrestricted free agent (the next year). If we had done that, you never know whether a player will choose to leave at the end of the year because another team has interest. His agent aggressively postured that if we didn't sign him at that point, he would play the one year and refuse to sign with us after that. When we took a look at the free-agent market, we felt at those numbers, he was a reasonable buy at that age (23).
Trib: How close did you come to making a trade with New Jersey for Jason Kidd?
Nash: The Nets never got to the point with us where they said they would trade Kidd. We've had serious conversations with a lot of teams about a lot of high-level players. My conversations with New Jersey took place in July. It was our position that until Kidd played symptom-free, we wouldn't have interest in taking on a guy with that kind of contract (including this year, five years at more than $90 million). They made it clear that if ownership there maintained the then-current course of action, it would be likely they would trade him.
When (Nets President) Rod Thorn came to Portland in November, we continued to make them aware that we had interest, and they also had interest. They needed to figure out whether or not he wanted to be there long-term, and whether they wanted to have him long-term.
Trib: How close did things come with Toronto and Vince Carter?
Nash: We demonstrated a serious interest in Vince, and were unsuccessful. It was the closest we have come to making a deal.
Trib: How committed are you to making a trade before the Feb. 24 deadline?
Nash: We're continuing to explore it, because we have some contracts expiring at the end of the season. After the deadline, they will be of no value if we don't make a trade unless we decide to keep the players beyond this year. We're pursuing a good trade, but have to be cautious about making a trade for the sake of making a trade and taking on a contract we regret a year from now.
When (team President Steve Patterson and I) got here, this team was performing at a better than average rate, having won 50 games in 2002-03. After taking Sabonis and Pippen from that equation, the remaining players were making about double what the salary cap is, yet we were performing at a .500 level.
It's safe to say that some of our guys are overpaid. Unfortunately, trading players with multiyear contracts who are overpaid is very difficult. The guys we have with one year left, we could possibly acquire a player or two for them, but you don't want to take a player just to (unload another), especially if they have a bad contract. The toughest thing in this business is to do nothing, when sometimes it is the right thing to do. Patience is an incredibly difficult thing. Pat Williams said to me years ago that desperate teams do desperate things.
Trib: Will Shareef Abdur-Rahim's elbow surgery make him untradable?
Nash: Not necessarily. When I was in Washington, I traded Kevin Duckworth to Milwaukee with a broken leg. Shareef's contract will still be valuable. He can get back in five weeks, maybe sooner, which is right around the time of the trade deadline. We have other short-term contracts as well (Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel are on the final year of their deals), so we have options.
Trib: Might you keep Abdur-Rahim until season's end, then sign him to a free-agent deal in the summer?
Nash: It's not outside the realm of possibility.
Trib: How much are you on the road looking at talent?
Nash: Last month, I watched nine college games at points throughout the country, in addition to being at most of our games. I went to the Les Schwab Invitational and watched a junior from Oak Hill Academy. The high school kids in this draft aren't as impressive as last year's, when I saw Dwight Howard, Telfair and Robert Swift play in a triple-header in L.A. I head for Europe on Sunday for a week to watch three games in Yugoslavia and Italy, then watch a college game on my way back to Portland.
Trib: What kind of a job has Maurice Cheeks, who's in the final year of his contract, done with the Blazers this year?
Nash: I don't want to offer any kind of evaluation. It's too sensitive of an issue. No matter what I say, people can turn, twist and whatnot. Bottom line is, we are in this business to win. If you don't win, you have to examine the circumstances and determine what caused you to not be successful.
In Phoenix, Mike D'Antoni didn't win last year, and on his record, you wouldn't have him back. Management recognized the circumstances, and now they have the best record in basketball. To render judgments in season Ñ unless you are absolutely convinced the wheels have come off, or that things are going so well you want to give an extension Ñ is ill-advised.
At the end of the year, you sit down as a group and reflect on what happened. I'm in the same boat as Maurice. It applies not only to coaches, but also to general managers.
Trib: Is two years long enough for you to prove you can get the job done in Portland?
Nash: It's long enough to give your bosses an idea as to what you are about, how well you can execute your plan. It's not long enough to build a team, but it should give an indication as to what type of decision-maker you are.
Trib: How do you feel about the diminishing attendance at the Rose Garden?
Nash: It's disappointing, but it's part of a cycle. When I got here, a lot of people said to me, 'Don't worry about wins or losses; clean up the mess.' But some of those people who were concerned about character have shifted gears. I knew when they said it what they meant was, 'Clean up the mess, and win, too.'
Trib: Patterson has been a general manager in the NBA. Does he have final word on personnel decisions? Do you have the autonomy to do what you want?
Nash: One published report suggested we are not on the same page, and that's absolutely not true. The beauty of working with Steve is, because he has done both sides of the business, he recognizes he can't do both. In order to do justice on the business side, he gives me free rein on the basketball side. Yet we've made basketball decisions together, and in some cases, disagreed. I'd be foolish not to consult with him. He has a wonderful perspective, having the background he does. I find the working relationship about as good as it could be.
Trib: Can the franchise get back on the right track?
Nash: Absolutely, but it's a tough road for teams in transition. Our marketing people are having a tough time, because they're accustomed to selling a superior product. I feel the pressure. We have to win games. And we have to win games the right way. That's what will bring fans back.
I don't know that Portland is all that unique. There has been a disconnect with fans in a lot of NBA cities because of objections relating to behavior of the players.
It's been a long time since this franchise has won a championship, but fans were used to having a team with an opportunity to win one, and felt on an annual basis, they had that type of team. Our mission is to get back to that level.