Drama, confusion shadow Blazers as draft approaches

TUALATIN, Ore. — The head coach firmly stood his ground.

A tight-lipped assistant coach ran and ducked for cover.

And an embattled general manager finally acknowledged that nearly three months’ worth of questions about his uncertain future had left him fighting for his life as a Portland Trail Blazer.

Stealing a page from the Jail Blazer days of old, drama and controversy overshadowed what was supposed to be a quiet, mundane six-player NBA Draft workout Tuesday at the team’s practice facility.

Instead, Portland head coach Nate McMillan, lead assistant Dean Demopoulos and GM Kevin Pritchard were all forced to answer a series of queries concerning everything from who will help McMillan coach the team next season to whether Pritchard will even be around when the 2010-11 campaign tips off.

Key questions were evaded by all three, while no one appeared comfortable addressing the media, nor eager to speak.

McMillan was the first to face the press.

Foreshadowing the tension that followed, the normally even-keeled McMillan initially walked by a collection of television-camera operators, offering an ironic wave of his right hand and a guarded smile. Then the fifth-year coach — who has been at the core of the franchise’s resurgence during the past three seasons — returned to the fray, carefully choosing his words.

McMillan said he is examining candidates to replace two former Portland assistant coaches: Monty Williams, who last week was named head coach of the New Orleans Hornets, and Maurice Lucas, who will not return after battling bladder cancer.

The departure of Williams and Lucas represents a sea change during McMillan’s reign.

“Two of our guys are gone, so you can’t avoid that,” McMillan said.

Williams spent five seasons with the Blazers, joining the staff in 2005 after McMillan took over head-coaching duties.

Meanwhile, Lucas is a Portland basketball legend. He teamed with center Bill Walton to bring the city its lone NBA Championship in 1977, and Lucas’ No. 20 jersey has since been retired by the organization. In addition, Lucas had served as a Blazer assistant coach for six seasons, often playing a lead role in the development of center Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

McMillan acknowledged Tuesday that Lucas had also played a major part in his 2005 decision to move down Interstate 5, trading home cities and coaching duties while swapping Seattle for Portland.

But McMillan quickly shut down when asked to address reports that Demopoulos and assistant coach Joe Prunty will not be retained once their contracts expire at the end of June.

McMillan did state, though, that he will take his time during the search process, during which he will consider adding an as yet undetermined number of offensive- and defensive-minded coaches.

“You need a balance to make sure you have the things you need to put this team in the best position to win,” McMillan said.

As soon as McMillan walked away, Demopoulos was up next.

But Demopoulos also faked his first move, sprinting away into the Blazers’ weight-training room before returning to field questions.

Then the always-upbeat, fiery-tongued coach who has spent nine seasons working with McMillan in Seattle and Portland spent just 30 seconds addressing his future with the Blazers.

“I’m a Blazer. All right?” Demopoulos said. “I’m working these guys out. Enjoying myself. Peace.”

Then Demopoulos was gone.

Soon, all attention turned to Pritchard.

After offering five standard answers to queries about the June 24 draft and Portland’s assistant-coaching search, the third-year GM then suddenly turned the spotlight on himself.

Pritchard — who is under contract through 2010-11 with a team option for the following season — was asked what he knew about the state of an organizational evaluation process concerning his job performance that has dragged on for more than six weeks.

He responded: “I have no idea. The thing that I do know is that we all know they’re looking for a GM and going through that process. I’m a competitor. I’ve always been a competitor. And I’m not afraid of that. And the big thing for me is, may the best may win. Do your job. Do your search. May the best win.”

Asked whether the Blazers are looking to specifically replace him or are just weighing possible options, Pritchard said he was not sure.

“I’m going to battle every single second to make this the best organization I can,” said a subdued Pritchard, who spoke with a weary voice and conceded that life is not fair. “At the end of the day, they’re going to make their decision. But until then, I’m going to compete like heck. I’ve done it all my life, guys. This is not something unusual. I’m OK with it.”

When reporters pressed, Pritchard said he would only take a couple more questions about his future before moving on.

Then he, too, was gone.

Buffy Filippell, president of TeamWork Consulting, denied a report Tuesday that she is in charge of search firm that has been hired by the Blazers to find a replacement for Pritchard. Filippell acknowledged that she worked in the past with the Blazers, helping the organization hire a previous general manager. But she said she had no information about any details relating to Pritchard’s future, nor published reports that the Blazers have hired a search firm. … The Blazers on Tuesday worked out Osiris Eldridge (guard, Illinois State), Marquez Haynes (G, Texas-Arlington), Dior Lowhorn (F, San Francisco), Gani Lawal (F, Georgia Tech), Elijah Millsap (G/F, Alabama-Birmingham) and Jerome Randle (G, California). … The NBA announced its 2010-11 Summer League schedule Tuesday. Portland will play July 11, 13, 15, 17 and 18 in Las Vegas at Cox Pavillion. McMillan said the Blazers’ roster will be set after the draft. Assistant Kaleb Canales will coach the team. … Portland will today work out Matt Bouldin (G, Gonzaga); Jeff Foote (C, Cornell); Luke Harangody (F, Notre Dame); Samardo Samuels (F, Louisville); Larry Sanders (F, Virginia Commonwealth); and Dominic Waters (G, Portland State).

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