Another Finals Preview

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I will find any excuse to use this picture

The upcoming NBA championship offers enough to distract me from what looms on the other side of the finals, a potential lockout, and what lies in Portland, doubts about the competency of team leadership. It has me giddy. The Mavericks and the Heat impressed during the conference finals. Both teams created victory with a mix of stunning superstar play, significant role player support, defense, and an ability to close out games that outclassed the opposition. Both teams also had the luxury of facing an opponent that relied on a twenty-two year old to close out playoff games, a luxury that no longer exists. The Championship will be hard earned.

I can’t guess which team will win, not just because I hate predictions, but because nothing I know is heavy enough to tip the scales one way or another. Dallas has classic advantages of size and depth. Less tangibly, they may have an edge as an aging collection of championshipless players that grasp the specialness of their opportunity and will not let it slip away. (Does this actually exist or have I seen too many sports movies?) Miami has superior athleticism on the perimeter. They also have home court advantage, which becomes even more of an advantage as the game format shifts to 2-3-2 for the Finals. In twenty seven years since adopting the current finals format the team that starts on the road has only won the series only six times. That does not mean it can’t happen, the Heat did it to the Mavericks in 2006.

No matter what the outcome an interesting narrative will result. A Mavericks victory would be the story of a perennially good team finally reaching greatness when the window was supposed to not only be closed but collecting dust and cobwebs. Every stubborn negative label attached to Nowitzki- “too soft”, “not good enough to deliver championship as best player”, “can’t win the big one”- would be obliterated. Dallas fans might even indulge and savor a 2011 championship as redemption for the 2006 Finals, the year they watched their team lose a 2-0 series lead to the Heat.

A Heat victory would push an already overexposed team to a level of overexposure that the English language fails to capture. It would legitimize the team as a potential dynasty. It would prove those that howled joyfully over their early season struggles as premature. Whatever you feel about the Heat now, a championship would make you feel it more. That goes doubly true for LeBron James, who at age 26 (Jordan was 27 when he earned his first title) would add the lone missing achievement to his resume.

My inner fan is rooting for both teams. Dallas was written off as a team that would never be championship material; Dirk Nowitzki was too soft, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry were too old. That makes me like them. The Heat have been collecting a growing reputation as basketball villains ever since The Decision. James’ televised special was ridiculous, but the backlash been a far more ridiculous and negative force. Perhaps it’s simply my contrarian tendencies talking but I would enjoy a Heat victory. Content with any outcome I’m happy to cheer for good basketball, and good basketball is the one thing I can confidently predict will happen in this series.

Paul Allen Hires New General Manager, Fires Him 8 Minutes Later

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Tualatin, OR – Owner Paul Allen announced today that the Blazers hired John Simmons, an experienced top level executive who has worked for many NBA teams, as the Blazers new General Manager. Allen introduced Simmons at a press conference outside the team’s headquarters in Tualatin. Eight minutes later, Allen called another press conference to announce he had fired him.

“I didn’t like the way he took off his glasses,” stated Allen. “He took them off with one hand. You should always use two hands when removing eye glasses. I can’t trust a guy like that.”

Simmons said he was ‘shocked and surprised’ by the firing but thanked Allen for the opportunity. He was in the middle of brokering a deal that would have acquired Dwight Howard for a second round pick when he was given the news.

“I am grateful to the Blazers and the fans for the chance to be a part of this fine franchise,” said Simmons. “Those eight minutes were some of the greatest minutes of my life.”

Paul Allen expressed gratitude toward Simmons for his hard work and dedication to the organization but said there were many factors to why he chose to let him go. He went on to tell reporters that Simmons’ handshake was ‘a little too firm’ and that he smelled ‘sort of like butterscotch.’

“It doesn’t matter that John Simmons was able to restructure Brandon Roy’s contract to clear cap space in the eight minutes he was here,” added Allen. “I felt no chemistry with him. We have nothing in common. I asked him how many Jimi Hendrix guitars he owns and he said ‘none’.”

President Larry Miller said that once you learn what Mr. Allen wants to hear, he can be a great boss to work for. He says you just have to know the basic stuff, like the influence biotechnology had on the work of French artist Jean Dubuffet.

“Paul made the right decision to fire Mr. Simmons,” stated Miller. “The next choice he makes will also be the right choice and so will the one after that.”   

Allen argued that he is not a difficult man to get a long with. He just wants to find a general manager who can bring a title to Portland and knows how to make an extra dry martini while talking quantum physics.

Blazer Tweet Beat: Armon Johnson

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The Blazers are becoming an increasingly Twitter friendly bunch. Indeed, the pull of social media and the push of resident advocate Patty Mills are difficult to resist. The Blazer Tweet Beat highlights the Blazer tweets you may have missed if you are too smart to waste all of your time on twitter. Then, for no reason, a winner is chosen. Make sure to follow us @pdxroundball.

Armon Johnson has been active on twitter for barely a month but has undoubtedly mastered the medium. He types in all capital letters on purpose. He asks for Portland weather updates when he is not in Portland. He takes time to thank his friends and twitter followers for their support in case the rapture is about to go down. He signs some of his tweets with his initials. He reveals that he is writing a book and then deletes the tweet. (Awe.) He sometimes refers to himself in the third person. He tweets things like this. And he really, really, really wants to be in your dreams tonight.

I asked Johnson to comment on his twitter skills and this was his reply:

He is the winner. Follow this man. Dream of him.

Communication Breakdown

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Larry Miller, Monday, on the firing of Rich Cho

Charlie Rose is a marvelous interviewer. But even he had little luck getting Paul Allen to open up. Nonetheless, their their mostly colorless 35 minutes conversation is about as close to the eccentric billionaire you are likely to get.

In my few years around the Blazers I’ve spoken to Allen once. It was at a rare end of season press conference, the year of Sebastian Telfair and 21 wins, I believe. Otherwise, Allen has been strictly off limits. When he walks down the tunnel after games security personal keep him in a closed bubble.

And so, after the abrupt firing of general manager Rich Cho, we’re left to wonder what Allen was thinking.

Chances are we’re never going to know.

Allen wasn’t at Monday’s press conference. He was out of the country. And if I had to guess, because Larry Miller wouldn’t say exactly where, I’d say in some proximity to Cannes Film Festival, which Allen likes to attend on his 414 yacht, Octopus.

Equipped with a recording studio offering 360-degree ocean views, Allen likes to pull the boat into the French riviera and host parties with rock and movie stars during the annual film festival, which rapped this weekend. I know Allen likes to go because he wrote about it in his book, “Idea Man.”

While thumbing through the post-Microsoft section of “Idea Man” I learned more about the boat than I did about the Blazers. In the bigger picture, given the chance to open up on his own terms, Allen mostly refused. Instead he’s embarked on a seemingly self-serving publicity tour. Indeed, the appraisal of “Idea Man” in the NY Times Book Review was unkind:

Pity Paul Allen. All those billions, but Microsoft’s “other” founder doesn’t receive the credit or respect he feels he deserves…

Gates might have played his old high school chum at the birth of Microsoft, but at least he is trying to do good with all those extra billions that ended up in his pocket. Allen, in contrast, is the accidental billionaire who reveals himself to be little more than an overgrown kid playing with his money.

Reflecting on the news of the day, an earlier passage from the review now stands out:

Allen spends the better part of one chapter demonstrating how a meddlesome owner can foul up a basketball franchise

And of course, as Allen wrote in “Idea Man:”

After replacing Kevin Pritchard (who struggled in the managerial parts of his job) with Rich Cho, we believe that we’ve found a leadership team that can get us back to the Finals.

Well, that idea is kaput. Cho was shown the door by Larry Miller while Paul Allen was… who knows where. The reason for Cho’s termination, Miller explained at Monday’s press conference, was that the owner and general manager lacked “chemistry” which, if I’m not mistaken, was the same basic explanation given for the firing of Kevin Pritchard just 10 short months ago.

It’s been written that Allen and Pritchard used to pal around, texting and talking back and forth all the time about the team’s ins and outs. But over time Allen grew sick of Pritchard.

Some suggest the general manager was taking too much of Allen’s spotlight, which, in light of the book and ensuing media tour, doesn’t seem so far-fetched. So Pritchard got the boot and, perhaps reflexively, the social opposite and fellow-geek Cho was brought aboard. And not long after the reclusive Allen grew tired of Cho’s calculating, less-chummy ways.

Certainly Cho’s dismissal can’t be blamed on performance—the man ran a tight ship and never screwed anything up. So the Blazers again call “chemistry” and jettison another promising young GM without a replacement in the wing—one month from the draft, no less.

To be sure, it’s fair for poor communication to rile an employee-employer relationship. But I wonder: when do repeat “chemistry” problems become Allen’s fault? By all accounts, he’s a pretty odd, awkwardly-social dude.

Now, take away supposed clashes of personality and let’s talk just X’s and O’s. What if Allen has a fundamentally flawed vision of how to build a basketball team and doesn’t like being told as much? What if Allen’s sentimental attachments to players unwittingly prohibit his championship aspirations? What if Cho’s analytical models suggested there was no reason in the world Patty Mills should’ve taken a coveted roster spot on a team with holes?

Maybe Cho, and Pritchard before him, clashed with Allen because he wasn’t allowed to do his job. As the position is coveted, incestuous, and based overwhelmingly on past reputation it is indeed important for a GM to maintain certain standards, professionally speaking.

True or not, the perception is out there that Allen is a tinkerer. The rumors abound: he was enamored with Telfair, Darius Miles, and perhaps many others, past and present. The image was upgraded drastically when, after righting the then-wayward franchise, Pritchard was rewarded with a pink slip. It only grows with Cho’s abrupt firing, amounting to the shortest GM tenure in NBA history.

The Trail Blazers company line, meanwhile, is attempting to pat themselves on the back—for stepping forward to right a wrong as soon as the well became poisoned, they say. Really though, it is another in a string of discouraging moments in executive mismanagement.

Besides casting a pall around the league that has fans and pundits comparing Allen to Al Davis, the King of Failed Egocentric Decision-Making in sports, such behavior stacks more millions of dollars in the Blazers’ red operating budget. Sure, the owner has the deep pockets to suck it up. But that he consistently finds himself paying for players and now two ex-general managers after they’re gone is not a sign of NBA title-caliber executive excellence.

It’s not a problem for Allen, though. It doesn’t effect his bottom line—the yacht has gas, Larry Miller does the dirty work, and the Blazers once again start over at position with one hand tied behind their back.

There’s talk swirling around the organization that now-acting GM and head of college scouting Chad Buchanan would make a fine replacement—he has, after all, developed a rapport with Allen that goes back a few years. But rather than comfort, this gives me pause: I don’t want a GM who’s going to kowtow before Allen’s whimsy. I want a basketball genius who fights in the trenches with an eye on one thing: titles. The kind of guy who’d rather be fired than make poor, sentimental or uniformed decision.

Of course, in light of today’s developments, that candidate seem lesser than ever to emerge. The buck stops with Allen—he pays the bills, plain and simple.

But if history is any guide, perhaps it’s time for the Idea Man to take a step back and see what the proven basketball professionals are capable of.

Rich Cho Fired, Reports FOX 12 Oregon KPTV

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Seems Like Fun

Local Portland news station Fox 12 KPTV is reporting that Blazers GM Rich Cho has been fired:

Breaking news: The Portland Trail Blazers have parted ways with general manager Rich Cho.

Marc Stein has verified that Cho has been let go and asks the natural question. Unless Cho was axed for some blatantly fire worthy offense that we are not aware of this action adds to the questions surrounding Portland’s top leadership.

UPDATE:

Joe Freeman reports that the Blazers have scheduled a 4:00 PM press conference hosted by the lovable Larry Miller. Blazers scout Chad Buchanan will be interim-GM until a successor is named. (Or until he disagrees with Paul Allen, I assume.)

Meet Nikola Vucevic

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If you follow Pac-10 basketball (you poor, poor soul) you likely know Nikola Vucevic. The big man had an impressive season with USC averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. Vucevic has the size and mid-range shot that could make him valuable as a pick and pop center in the NBA. At the combine he measured as the tallest (6’10.25”), second heaviest (260 pounds), and second longest reaching (9’4.5”) player in this year’s draft. (Also, being so tall and heavy with only 6% body fat is freaky even amongst NBA humans. I can’t find another player in the DraftExpress database that compares.) The 20 year old showed improvement every year at USC, which perhaps indicates something about his work ethic and ability to get better.

The reasons Vucevic may be available for Portland to select with the 21st pick relate to his athleticism. He didn’t seem fast or get above the rim much in college. In the NBA this could make him limited offensively and a liability defensively. Given his size and minutes (34.9 per game) last season his 1.4 blocks per game (career high) is underwhelming. His draft stock would improve if he can demonstrate some speed and explosion at the combine. Size and length can cover for some of this, so his fantastic measurements should help, but NBA teams are always weary of drafting a “stiff”.

Vucevic probably does not have the potential to fill an immediate need of the Blazers like Kenneth Faried. There is some confidence that at the very least Faried will be able to rebound in the NBA. It is less clear what Vucevic will be able to do. Still, Vucevic is more likely than Faried to be available with the 21st pick, and Portland may be intrigued enough by his size and skills to bet that he can continue to improve.

Meet Kenneth Faried

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The NBA Draft is still a month or so away, which gives me plenty of time to tell you about Kenneth Faried. Faried blipped on the national radar during the NCAA tournament when he helped his #13 seed Morehouse State team upset #4 Louisville. If you believe the Blazers have a need to add depth with a physical power forward that plays defense and rebounds (he broke Tim Duncan’s NCAA career rebounding record), and I hope you do, Faried seems like an excellent choice.

Faried does not have a lot of offensive skills (EXCEPT DUNKING ON FOOLS), he might be undersized, and he did not play in a major conference. Those are the reasons to doubt Faried, and the reasons a player with his talent might be available for Portland to select with the 21st pick. In a draft considered to be weak he may go earlier in the draft, but here’s to hoping. Check out the below interview with Faried from the ongoing draft combine. He talks about modeling himself after Ben Wallace. This man is after my very heart.

UPDATE:

DraftExpress has released player measurements from the combine. Faried measured at 6’6” tall without shoes with a 7’0” wingspan.

NBA Draft Lottery

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The guy from Reno 911 is ready for the draft lottery

The NBA Draft Lottery is on ESPN Tuesday at 5:30 (prepare your luckiest varmint for rubbing), and before you leave one of those “I don’t care about this” comments know that nobody cares that you do not care. Take heart though, this time around many of us are feeling too cool for school. I enjoy most NBA Draft related happenings and barely heard that it was lotto time. SJ, a founder of Rip City Project and all around basketball person worth your time, identified a host of factors contributing to the lack of lottery interest this year: there is no consensus super famous player that all teams want, there is really good playoff basketball on TV, and a potential lockout is looming. In case you manage to overcome all of those apathy inducing factors remember that the Blazers won’t be participating.

Still, for draft fans the lottery is a fun appetizer. On Wednesday the pre-draft combine starts, followed by a month of pontifications on draft order based on things like who is working out who and who has the most freakishly long arms before the actual draft takes places on June 23rd in New Jersey. (Not sure how the “the 2011 draft sucks” advocates have not made jokes about the draft being so bad they had to move it from Madison Square Garden to Newark. Too easy I guess.) I’m excited enough to prepare snacks.

Lamarcus Aldridge Makes Third Team All NBA

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Mike Tokito of The Oregonian (and my dreams) reports that LaMarcus Aldridge has received third team All-NBA honors. Gerald Wallace received one vote.

Aldridge becomes the six Blazer in history to earn All NBA honors. He also becomes the thirty fourth player in NBA history to miss out on the All Star team but receive All NBA recognition in the same season. If you need me I will be out dancing in the street with twitter people.

Learning From The Dallas Mavericks

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The Mavericks walked into Jotunheim and slew the Frost Giants.

On Sunday I took my Mom to see Thor instead of watching game four between the Mavericks and the Lakers. I don’t normally skip playoff games but it was Mother’s Day, and even though Mama Johnston is a fan of hoops neither of us felt compelled to watch. When I finally saw the outcome of the game, a blowout win for the Mavs, I experienced the thrill of commonly held basketball beliefs being violated. The Mavericks were not supposed to win that series. The Lakers were not supposed to lose, and certainly not supposed to get swept. There is a lot to chew on when we get reminded that our ideas are not natural laws. One lesson from the Mavericks’ sweep is an important one for fans of the Blazers: perennially good can become great without suffering through a rebuilding effort.

The Lakers are the defending champions, one of the most storied franchises in the NBA, are in a major (and perhaps more importantly, glamorous) market, and have famous people seated farther away from courtside than they would ever tolerate at any other NBA game. Things have gone the Lakers’ way for a while, and being confronted with failure so far from the title was a shock. Magic Johnson went on ESPN talking about the need to blow up the team for crying out loud, a sentiment that is not his alone.

The belief that the Lakers need to start all over strikes me as that initial emotional and irrational reaction we humans often have to a surprising and unwanted situation. The team has excellent and proven players, a less dramatic re-tooling seems like a better strategy at this point in time. I have a pet theory, incubating since watching so many Blazers’ fans declare the need to rebuild earlier this season, that people tend to forget what a rebuilding effort really feels like and too easily believe in the necessity of it. It is a very uncertain path that often involves a lot of losing. (Can we blame this on the same human component that throughout history has lead people to believe than an oncoming war will be more brief than it turns out to be?) A total rebuild is a tough path but justifiable when necessary. It is necessary less often than many seem to think it is.

Look at the Dallas Mavericks. In the minds of many, as recently as a week ago, they were destined to spend eternity being good enough to win fifty games a season without ever truly competing for a title. After making the Finals 2006, the Mavericks won over fifty games every season and never advanced beyond the semifinals of the playoffs. In three of those seasons they lost in the first round, including losing to the eighth seeded Warriors in 2007. The Mavericks did not blow it up. They made changes, they searched for the best formula, they tinkered and took risks, but there was no complete rebuild. Now it looks like patience is being rewarded. The Mavericks swept the Lakers and look every bit like a serious championship candidate.

The Lakers are NBA royalty and it follows that discussion of their defeat will focus more on what is wrong with them than what is right with Dallas. Lost somewhere in the Mavericks victory is an important lesson to basketball in general and the Blazers in particular; a team can leap from perennially good to great without having to endure the pain of being gutted first.