Shoals Unlimited: Kevin Pritchard, True Player for Real

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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↵I was raised to think of sports as a world unto itself. One that sometimes overlapped with, sometimes swallowed up, all else we call culture, but first and foremost a place where values were forged and codes followed. Like Wall Street, or a crack house. But if there's one thing I'm taking away from this Darius Miles fiasco (or, if you prefer, The Rise and Fall of Kevin Pritchard), it's just what a range of sub-universes exist within the halls of sports. ↵

↵This much we know: The threat of legal action against any team looking to sign Miles was foolhardy. While the email was "sent" by team president Larry Miller, it sure feels like an ill-advised synergy of Pritchard's aggressive approach and Paul Allen's megalomania. Certainly, Pritchard's detractors in the GM community saw it that way. As for anyone—Blazers or otherwise—trying to claim Miles off waivers at any point, the ethics are questionable, but sometimes, you've got to push the envelope to get ahead. What's notable is that, while Pritchard's been employing this kind of shrewd, take-no-prisoners approach since he arrived in Portland, the majority of other GMs saw it as a one-time chance to get back at KP. Business is a strategy, personal a one-shot stroke of luck. ↵

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↵We always hear that general managers have difficult jobs; when Bill Simmons claims he could take on one of those positions no question, the laughter is swift and riotous. And yet perhaps the most canny move any of them had a chance of making all year fell into their laps, as a byproduct of one of Pritchard's many deft moves. Moves which, it should be noted, have garnered him plenty of notoriety within his peer group. All because Pritchard, like Jerry West or Joe Dumars before him, hasn't been afraid to take the gloves off, put his brain off and really immerse himself in the intricacies of getting over, building a team up and not taking a wrong turn off a cliff. ↵

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↵It's not just that Pritchard is a superior GM to his envious peers. It's that he gets it. On the other hand, I suspect that the insular fraternity of executives, where friends do favors for friends and the only tricks in the book are slashing costs, overpaying big men and scorers, and falling for contract-year wonders, would say Pritchard doesn't get it. There's an honor, an ethics, to being part of this select club, and it sure as hell isn't about an ingenious assemblage of talent, assets and flexibility. ↵

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↵Now, try applying that same logic to life on the court. We hear endlessly about veteran tricks, craftiness that comes with age, guys expanding their games each year and a general sense that the longer you play, the deeper things get. On the other hand, we regularly lambast youngsters who only want to score, expect everyone to kowtow to them and may or may not recognize the importance of all facets of play. Which of these sounds more like Pritchard, and which sounds more like, say, Kevin McHale? When it comes to front offices, it's the traditionalists who come off as immature and close-minded, while an upstart like KP seems wise, or at least engaged, well beyond his years. ↵

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↵In short, it's completely backward. ↵

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↵This isn't to say that execs should conduct themselves like players. Few episodes in recent memory have been as thoroughly embarrassing as Mark Cuban's attempt to trash-talk J.R. Smith by threatening a complaint to the league. But while players are expected to learn and mature, at every other level, those who try to take full advantage of the possibilities before them are both exotic exceptions and, to some degree, pushed into pseudo-exile by others' suspicion (it was once said that, as soon as Dumars or West expressed an interest in acquiring a player, his value instantly inflated). In Pritchard's case, this kind of smart GM-ing led to a perception of him as uppity or smug. You have to ask yourself, however, just how much this has to do with his lack of a Hall of Fame career -- the clout that kept West and Dumars from being vilified. ↵

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↵I can't speak for the man's character, though I've heard he's perfectly accessible and easygoing even with those who probably want to punch the man. But it's clear that Pritchard's ceaseless maneuvering, sheer intelligence and inventive bag of tricks rub some people the wrong way. I can't imagine why, though. That's the stuff business is made of -- not a secret weapon trotted out only when things get personal. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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