Sometimes the business side of sports makes no sense. Okay, all the time.
An NBA team’s coach is usually on the hook if the team is losing. Even if he’s good, it’s easy to fire a coach as a goodwill gesture to the player and fans; it’s a statement, even if entirely false, that the team is committed to turning things around.
This year, the trend is different: it involves getting rid of your GM when your team is doing well.
It graduated from an incident to a trend when the Portland Trail Blazers fired Kevin Pritchard, one of the league’s most-respected GM’s, in odd fashion just an hour before the NBA Draft. Pritchard took his post in 2007 after a year as assistant (to the?) GM. And the Blazers haven’t exactly been bad in that stretch.
Pritchard can take most of the credit/blame for drafting Greg Oden, but perhaps most remarkable is how well this team has fared even when decimated by injuries (including Oden’s parade of wonky knees). Oden went down in the beginning of December this season, after having played only 20 games; the other center, Joel Przybilla, went down three weeks later, having played 29 games. Neither center made it back in the course of the season, leading Pritchard and the Blazers to exhume Juwon Howard’s body and also make a very, very intelligent trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for veteran big Marcus Camby.
Now add in the fact that Brandon Roy was missing for a couple stretches of the season, including the beginning of the playoffs, and it’s downright remarkable that the Blazers won 50 games and took the 6th seed in the uber-competitive West.
Not bad personnel management, if you ask me. And Blazers president Larry Miller—or owner Paul Allen—wouldn’t even give a reason for his dismissal.
The next case is former Phoenix Suns’ GM Steve Kerr. On the record Kerr officially retired, to spend more time with his family and go back into broadcasting. With his team on the brink of an NBA Finals appearance, with one of the league’s deepest benches and with the chance to become a Phoenix hero by resigning Amar’e Stoudemire, raise your hand now if you think those were the only reasons for him leaving.
Okay. Apparently Suns owner Robert Sarver asked Kerr to take a pay cut, even after assembling this ferocious roster that played so well together. This points to differences in ideas: if you’re already in a situation where you don’t work well with your boss, and then that boss tries to cut your pay, you go. It’s like firing, but without the severance.
Still, Kerr built this team. He brought in Jared Dudley and Jason Richardson by trading away Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, which was controversial at the time but has paid huge dividends. He brought in Goran Dragic, who was the single most exciting player in the 2010 NBA Playoffs. He brought in Channing Frye, who reinvented his career in a Suns uniform.
The black mark on Kerr’s record is the Suns’ extremely-ill-fated 2008 trade for (and subsequent dumping of) Shaquille O’Neal, which every Suns fan would rather forget. It’s true that it was a disaster, but there’s also a source saying that it’s only 10% Kerr’s fault. I’m staying out of that one. You decide.
What makes the canning of Pritchard and the canning (wait—yeah, canning) of Kerr so remarkable is that there are GMs in the league that are much, much worse. But they’re hanging on to their jobs.
Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn is widely regarded as the worst GM in the league—a train wreck of an executive who would lose to his wife every season in a fantasy league (fact: the T-Wolves lose every season in real life). He’s famous (infamous?) for his performance in the NBA Draft last year where we watched, mouths gaping open, as he drafted four point guards (Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson, and Nick Calathes).
We thought it couldn’t be topped, but he pulled out the stops in this year’s draft. Kahn drafted two straight small forwards (Wesley Johnson and Luke Babbitt, who was later traded for Martell Webster), and just when it seemed like he had straightened out and drafted a power forward (Trevor Booker), he turned around and traded him to the Washington Wizards for two more small forwards (Lazar Hayward and Nemanja Bjelica).
Four point guards in 2009. Four small forwards in 2010. Bravo, Mr. Kahn.
And just because no conversation about GM quality would be complete without mentioning Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder, let’s take a gander at how Mr. Presti made his colleagues look foolish this year.
The Thunder were able to move up in the draft by cashing in some cap space that Presti had carefully cultivated. First they landed Miami’s #18 pick simply by being willing to also take on the $2.1 million salary of Daequan Cook. With that pick in tow, they packaged up the #21 and #26 picks and sent them to New Orleans in exchange for the #11 pick, plus another salary dump player.
The result? They managed at #11 to snag Cole Aldrich, the highly-regarded center from Kansas, to shore up a frontcourt that started Nenad Krstic in the middle most of last season. Advantage, Thunder.
Then, having gained some momentum, Presti went ahead and traded away Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe after taking him with the #18 pick, to the Clippers for a future first-round pick. And Clipper first-round picks, as a rule, tend to be higher than #18. Game, set, match.
Needless to say, one of the Blazers’ first moves after inexplicably firing Pritchard was to give Presti a call to try to pry him away from the Thunder. And there’s already been rumors floating around Phoenix of trying to lure Pritchard to replace the departed Kerr. It’s a strange NBA world we live in.
The good GMs get fired. And the worst hang around.