PORTLAND, Ore. -- So, who’s next?
The Portland Trail Blazers have fired three talented executives in a little more than a year, canning assistant GM Tom Penn, former GM Kevin Pritchard and Pritchard’s replacement, Rich Cho.
Despite that carnage, the basketball operations staff still has plenty of pieces thanks to a unique group dynamic that features two assistant GMs – Bill Branch and Steve Rosenberry, hired by Cho -- and two directors of scouting – Chad Buchanan and Mike Born, installed into their positions by Pritchard. Blazers coach Nate McMillan and president Larry Miller also contribute to basketball decisions, as does owner Paul Allen, who has rightfully earned a reputation for meddling.
With all of those cooks in the kitchen, determining a chain of command can be tricky, if not fruitless. However, the Blazers did announce one official organizational move other than Cho’s firing on Monday by designating Buchanan as Acting GM in Cho’s absence.
“I’ve never really set a GM position or anything like that as a goal,” the typically aww-shucks Buchanan told CBSSports.com on Monday night from Minnesota, where he’s scouting in advance of the NBA Draft. "Whatever is on my plate, I’ll put my full effort into it. I didn’t set out to want to become a GM when I was hired by the Blazers. I just wanted to win a championship. That has not changed.”
Despite all the drama and internal political nightmares, Buchanan, 38, is as fresh-faced as he was seven years ago when he first joined the Blazers. After playing two sports at Simpson College, in Iowa, he began working his way up through the scouting and coaching ranks, including stops in the ABA and at Drake University.
The task facing Buchanan is a large one. McMillan has made it known he expects roster changes, particularly in the backcourt. The team has already committed major money to forward LaMarcus Aldridge and guard Brandon Roy, but Roy is dealing with ongoing knee issues. The Blazers also face a decision on oft-injured center Greg Oden, who is a franchise player this summer.
Buchanan said he wasn’t sure how many moves it would take to get Portland into a position to contend for a title after three straight first round playoff exits. “You have to have some cornerstones that we’re building around. We feel like LaMarcus is definitely that and we’re still evaluating who might be another pillar for us. As far as how many moves away are we, that’s a really tough question to answer. Our team has needs. Whether we can address that with one move or three moves, it’s hard to give you an exact number of how you fix what your roster needs.”
While Blazers president Larry Miller said that Cho struggled developing “chemistry” with owner Paul Allen, raising questions about Cho’s communication style, Buchanan said he appreciated the style Cho brought to the organization. “He allowed you to do your job. He listens. He’s a great listener. He stays out of your way. He wants to hear your opinions as a scout, that’s all you can ask for.”Miller said the team has no timetable on hiring a full-time replacement for Cho but admitted that the organization could enter training camp without hiring someone. He was vague, however, on whether Buchanan would be considered as a full-time candidate. "Once we determine what the criteria are and what the qualifications are that we are looking for. If any of those guys meet the criteria or those qualifications then they will be considered for sure."
While the organization's criteria are unclear, Buchanan's skillset is fairly obvious. He's a basketball talent evaluator, a skilled communicator and an endlessly loyal employee. The next co-worker to speak ill of Buchanan publicly will be the first.
He's perhaps best known in Portland for his in-depth scouting report breakdowns and encyclopedic knowledge of players’ strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. For years, he's been tasked with briefing the media on the players that the Blazers bring to Portland for pre-draft group workouts, and he seems to relish the opportunity to share his year's worth of work.
Asked to break down his own strengths and weaknesses as a potential GM, Buchanan didn’t hesitate.
“My strengths are my overall work ethic and love for the game. I strongly believe in valuing everyone around you. That includes players, coaches, staff. I think everybody has to feel invested and part of what the ultimate goal is.”
Clearly, though, Buchanan is facing a major adjustment period from scout to GM, which he openly acknowledges. “I think I have a strong sense of emotional connection to people, which can also be a weakness for me. I find that trading players can be hard for me because you get attached to players and families. You see them from a human side. Sometimes maybe that’s not a good thing from an executive standpoint, that you have a human connection to people that you’re eventually going to have to make tough decisions on.”
Buchanan also noted that, unlike Penn and Cho, he is not a salary cap wizard. “I’ve never really focused a ton on the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The rules of the salary cap. I have a general understanding of a lot of issues but not the deep layers of it. It’s not something that I’m totally or completely familiar with.”
As Cho was the team’s point man on salary cap and CBA issues, his departure leaves a fairly large hole heading into draft season and free agency. It's unclear how that situation will be resolved in the short-term.
The constant turnover in Portland’s management ranks is enough to turn even the most optimistic fans cynical, but Buchanan did his best to stick to what has got him this far. “I go to bed every night dreaming about what it would be like to win a championship,” Buchanan said. “For this city and for our owner and for our players and coaches. It’s something that drives me every day.”
Still, his first take upon hearing about his short-term (for now) promotion was empathy for his predecessor. “The first emotion is that you feel for Rich,” Buchanan said. “A good person who lost his job today. Has a great family. At the end of the day, we’ve got to regroup, collect ourselves, and find a way to get ourselves moving forward.”
Or, as Jay-Z might say: On to the next one.