Blazer owner sheds light on GMs, CBA and other topics
Paul Allen hadn't done an interview with local media for almost two years - since January 2010, when he gave an exclusive to the Portland Tribune prior to being honored at the Oregon Sports Awards on the Nike campus.
It was a surprise to be included among a small group of reporters who gathered in a Rose Garden meeting room for a sitdown with the Trail Blazers' owner before Monday night's exhibition against the Utah Jazz.
Short notice, but it was worth it.
Allen, Portland's owner since 1988, typically comes off well in interviews about his beloved Blazers, and Monday's 35-minute session was no different, even with questions coming from all angles.
The eccentric billionaire sounded like, well, a pretty regular guy as he gave his spin, er, views on a variety of topics concerning the Blazers and the NBA.
The most interesting stuff came from his comments on Portland's general manager position and the firing of the last two who held the post, Kevin Pritchard and Rich Cho.
Pritchard, Portland's GM from 2007-10, in effect fired himself, Allen said.
The Blazers' owner prefaced his explanation for Pritchard's undoing by calling what happened on draft night 2010 'puzzling and unusual.'
Pritchard - now Indiana's director of player personnel - had set up the club's strategy leading up to the draft, Allen said. They were both in the club's war room at the Tualatin practice facility on draft night when the owner left 'to get a breath of fresh air.'
'Kevin tracked me down and said, 'You've already decided to let me go,' ' Allen recalled. 'I said, 'No, I haven't.' He said, 'No, you really should. Can I just meet with Larry (Miller, the team president) the next day and we'll part ways?' I was like, 'OK, really?' '
Allen said the two discussed the owner's concern about his GM, and that Pritchard 'asked to be let go multiple times. He kept coming back to it. 'Let's just part ways.' '
Pritchard really was on thin ice, by the way. In recent months, he had been excommunicated from sitting alongside Allen underneath the basket near the Blazer bench at home games.
Word was that club higher-ups, including Allen, felt Pritchard was taking too much credit in the media for the club's rise to respectability following the Jail Blazer era. And that Pritchard helped his pal, assistant GM Tom Penn, attempt to get a pay raise and perhaps more prominence in the organization after interviewing for the GM job in Minnesota.
There was some feeling in the organization, too, that Pritchard had acquiesced too easily in signing Brandon Roy to a maximum contract when there was at least some concern about his knees.
When I asked Allen Monday night if he'd have kept Pritchard without their Monday-night conversation, the owner admitted, 'I had some real concerns. We would have had to have a deep discussion, a real heart-to-heart. He would have had to change some things. But he was clear he had decided to go a different direction.'
As for Cho, best I can tell, Allen simply didn't have enough confidence in Pritchard's replacement to keep him after only 10 months on the job.
Allen said when he hires a general manager, he looks for what he calls 'the Golden Gut.'
'That means how good you are at evaluating talent, evaluating character, medical conditions and alll these things,' Allen said. 'Then, how does he relate to the coaches and players? I like to ask questions about things and challenge assumptions and see if we can't come out in a better place.'
Allen's initial impression of Cho - now GM with the Charlotte Bobcats - was good. That feeling faded as the 2010-11 season ensued.
'You can have a good interview with somebody and be optimistic,' Allen said. 'But then it comes to getting into the season, sitting next to him, talking about the players, where you're going, trades ... and sometimes you realize it's not a good fit.
'That's basically what happened with Rich. He's a great person, and I wish him well, but ... if you don't think the working relationship and what he is doing is as good as it could be, it doesn't make sense to keep that person. So we had to make that change.'
Interim GM Chad Buchanan 'has done a good job,' Allen said, but won't hold the position permanently. Miller led a series of interviews through the offseason that produced no finalists. No candidate was deemed serious enough to go before Allen.
'We decided we wanted to look at somebody with a lot of experience from outside the organization,' Allen said. 'We haven't changed our mind about that. I've been impressed with what Chad has done, but we are still focused on getting a great general manager at this point.
'I'm very much looking forward to talking to a few candidates as the season evolves, or more likely when the season is over.'
Allen shed light on his participation in October in negotiations in New York for a collective-bargaining agreement. One writer called Allen 'the Grim Reaper,' and union chief Billy Hunter inferred he was there to intimidate the players' side. Allen corroborated at least part of the story.
'I was representing the small-market owners in the negotiations, and they asked me to attend these face-to-face meetings with the players,' Allen said. 'So I go in there, and one of the other owners said, 'And, we've got some real hard-liners in this group. Like Mr. Allen at end of the table.' I'm like, 'Here I am, taking notes.' ...
'I wouldn't characterize it as being polarizing, but you always have that tension in CBA negotiations. ... And in truth, I did believe we should hold the line on some things more than some other owners did.'
Allen said the new labor deal is good for the Blazers.
'The quandry you get into in a small market is, you have a choice between being competitive and maybe overspending, or not trying to be competitive and trying to break even,' he said. 'That became very dramatic with some teams. We were starting to see some teams say, 'We're not going to be competitive, because it costs too much money, and we're losing too much money.'
'Even the mid-market teams like, say, Dallas ... they won the NBA championship but were way over the luxury tax and lost a lot of money. It was clear that not only did you have to stop the small-market teams from collectively losing a lot of money, but you had to try to level the playing field.'
Allen has often spent many millions in luxury-tax dollars. That won't happen in the future, he said.
'As an owner, you want to do the team right, the fans right, the community right, and build a winning organization,' he said. 'It comes back to the desire to win and enjoy with the fans and the community the success you have. I've invested a lot, but the crazy luxury-tax days are gone.
'It's one thing to say, 'It's a near-championship year, I'll spend a little extra money on free agents.' To do that on a regular basis doesn't make sense.'
And, Allen added with a smile, 'There's no enjoyment to losing money. As you get older in life, you start thinking, 'I could be losing money doing this, or I could be spending money on great research or charitable things.' '
But Allen, 58, said he has no plans to sell the Blazers or the NFL Seattle Seahawks. He has had a pair of heart surgeries and a bout with cancer in recent years, though. He said he is 'doing well' with the cancer. 'So far, with periodic checkups, everything's clean.' But things can change.
'My health is a factor,' he said. 'Other things I'm doing are factors. At some point, if I thought things were getting stale or we were going to be a lottery team forever ... if I felt like we were going right back into (rebuilding), that would be a challenge. Every owner at some point thinks, 'What's the future going to be?' '
The immediate future, he hopes, is some playoff success. But he doesn't seem willing to predict it.
'It's a crazy year, with a shortened season,' the Portland owner said. 'We have new players on the team, and the implication of our injuries ... it's going to be real interesting.
'There are usual suspects at the top of the conference, and there's a bunch of us right below that. Are we just barely a playoff team, or are we going to get out of the first round and do more damage? At this point, everyone in the organization is optimistic, but nobody knows for sure.'
One thing is for sure. Allen ought to make himself available more often to the media. His team's loyal fans deserve a direct word once in awhile from the man who makes it all possible.