Henry Abbott’s piece on the end of Kahn’s wrath offers a brief review of the transaction track record and public statements that made you stop and wonder: In what kind of world can a man capable of speaking such ridiculousness attain such a lofty position as running an NBA front office? How was such a wrap sheet allowed to grow so lengthy at all? For all of the mess left in Kahn’s wake, is it possible things could have been worse?
There are specific answers to some of those questions, but Abbott’s piece focuses on the fact that for all the bluster of his blunders, Kahn’s record as decision maker isn’t as poor as his publicity would suggest — it’s mostly a reflection of his bizarre personality.
Things went haywire around Kahn. Here was a man who got under people’s skin. His tenure at the Oregonian ended in messy legal fingerpointing. Many around the NBA like to tell the stories of Kahn’s infighting while at the Pacers. I’ve heard praise for his work in the D-League, but that’s hardly where NBA executives head when everything is on track.
Strange things came out of his mouth, like when he seemed to casually disrespect Michael Beasley’s privacy by going on the radio and saying that Beasley once “smoked too much marijuana” but wouldn’t be doing that anymore. If your boss talked like that in public, you’d probably call a lawyer. And Kahn is a lawyer.
After his most famous gaffe — drafting Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio to play the same position — he spent a summer explaining how well they could play together, only to have the coach he hired, Kurt Rambis, immediately announce it would be “extremely difficult” to play the two together.
Nothing about that stopped Kahn from his bewildering optimism. This is how Kahn was talking in August 2009: “The singular objective, is to be a championship-contending team. I don’t want to put a time frame on it, but it seems that three to four years is probably realistic.”
View from 2013: Whoops.
In 2010, Kahn said he wanted compensation from the Trail Blazers because they traded him Martell Webster with an improperly disclosed back injury … well that was a new issue to me as a sportswriter. So I did the homework, calling the Timberwolves and Blazers as well as impartial people who know about such things — people at the league and at other teams — to assess Kahn’s chances of getting compensation. Those who’d talk to me were unanimous: Kahn had no chance. Only one person would let me quote him, and even then without a name. He pointed out that Webster’s injury happened in front of a nation of NBA fans:
“We’re all laughing about it. You can’t watch the freaking playoffs? That was a pretty obvious incident, right on national TV.”
The Timberwolves wouldn’t talk about Webster for my story. But in the day that followed the publication of that quote, they called several times. More than once I ended up on the phone with Kahn. The tone was mind-blowingly, ear-bleedingly nasty. Worth mentioning: he was also aggressively misguided. He was livid at a particular something that simply had not happened. I tried to explain, to no avail. Later he called back to apologize for his tone, but that call quickly devolved, too. I assume we’re both glad we have never spoken since.
All of which is to say I have glimpsed Kahn’s odd, bitter personality. I can guess why his various stops have been short, and why he has been in the business for a long time without developing many allies. I join a big crowd in not crying for Kahn today.
So yup, call him an iconoclastic crank who’s short of friends and long on big, pompous mistakes.
But please, don’t call him the worst GM in the NBA.
And note this: Sources say Kahn actuall won that Martell Webster dispute, with the Blazers agreeing to pay the Timberwolves $1.5 million.
But for the occasional Sam Presti or R.C. Buford, GMs basically all have Kahn-like collections of mistakes in their records. A third of the league is out of contention every season largely because of self-inflicted wounds; the NBA transaction list is littered with trades that were destined to failfrom day one. How much better could the Kings be? What about the Suns, Nets, Wizards, Pistons and Raptors?
Kahn might belong on your poster of front-office incompetence. But surely not alone, and he surely doesn’t even get to kneel in front holding the game ball. He’s the king when it comes to making a spectacle of poor decision making. But when it comes to actually making the decisions, plenty of others have done worse.