On Wednesday, just hours before the Trail Blazers went paws-up, I spent a few minutes on the phone with Bob Barnett. You've probably never heard of Barnett, but I think it's important you do.
Barnett came to the Blazers from Tektronix last fall, when Paul Allen, his long-time friend, made him the capo of the team's computers. In just six months, he has scaled the corporate ladder, to the position of vice president of ticketing.
From his Blazer office, Barnett was telling me that this season wasn't a total wash; that the club has made impressive strides. I asked Bob to describe these strides, since this was stunning news to me, and he quickly pointed to something we had all missed: the Blazers' new, computerized scouting reports.
He was actually serious.
"I don't see anybody in the NBA organizing scouting data like we do,'' Barnett said proudly, as if that data should com-fort the pain of this past campaign.
Yes, this is what we're up against, folks. This is why, as we approach the summer of '89 -- the most critical summer in 13 seasons -- the odds are stacked against us. The Blazers are being run by people who think they know, but don't have a clue.
Bob Barnett is a symbol of everything that's wrong with the Portland Trail Blazers. He's not a bad guy, and he's handy with bytes, but, contrary to what he naively believes, he has no business participating in basketball decisions.
He has no business calling up Stu Inman at Miami, as he did last fall, and asking Inman how he would handle Ronnie Murphy. No business running around Orlando, Fla., as he did last month, trying to learn how NBA scouts evaluate college players.
And he has no business calling Sam Bowie, as Barnett did a few nights before Coach Mike Schuler's sacking, to ask Bowie what the players would think of Maurice Lucas as Schuler's replacement.
Having covered the NBA for the last four seasons, I can say this with full confidence: With the exception of the Los Angeles Clippers and perhaps the Sacramento Kings, no front office has a worse reputation among NBA insiders than your Portland Trail Blazers. Last year they were more a mystery than a comedy, since nobody knew who was making tough decisions: Harley Frankel or Bucky Buckwalter. But this year Frankel was out, as was the secret:
Nobody makes tough decisions in this franchise.
Allen would like to think he does, but he's only fooling himself. One thing Allen has demonstrated, over and over, is that being a season-ticket holder to the Seattle SuperSonics, and a subscriber to Sports Illustrated, doesn't provide one with the insight necessary to be a hands-on owner.
Allen needed to surround himself with bright, assertive basketball minds. Instead, he saddled himself with laymen who knew even less than he did, Barnett and Bert Kolde, and inherited a front office more divided than Lebanon. Thus, at midseason, Allen's misfits were in the middle of the action, helping misshape team policy, right alongside Buckwalter, who wouldn't dare take control.
You know what happened. Despite the fact the Blazers had underachieved in the '87 and '88 playoffs; despite the fact they were 9-22 against plus-.500 teams in the first half of '89; and despite the fact they were null and void of perimeter shooting, Barnett and friends honestly thought this team would turn itself around because of Bowie's return and Schuler's exit.
These poor, deluded men.
It's time for Allen to do what all owners eventually must: Remove himself, and his underlings, from the driver's seat and move back to the rear.
If Barnett wants to be the King of Computers, fine. If Kolde wants to play Money Man in contract talks, terrific. And if Allen wants to OK every personnel decision, that's fine, too. It's his club.
But that's all they should be doing. Anything more, and they're over-extending themselves -- mindlessly leading this franchise straight into Lotteryville.
Allen's first move next week should be to hire Rick Adelman, who has won the confidence and trust of his players, as his full-time coach for the 1989-90 season. Next, Allen and Adelman alone should begin looking for an assertive player-personnel director. Together, they would decide what kind of team they want next season -- what style of play -- and determine which Blazers fit, and which don't.
What worries me, and should worry you, is Allen taking the stubborn approach: keeping things status quo, with know-nothing novices learning on the job, and Buckwalter trying to summon up the courage, and the vision, to make a series of trades. That approach could blow this franchise into smithereens.
Bob Barnett said Wednesday he thinks he and Allen and Kolde can still help this franchise. Sorry, Bob, but we've had enough of your help. For once, just once, we need action.