Why no one can save the NBA Owners from themselves

Accountability is a big theme in this lockout. The thing is, the owners are the ones with the (mostly closed) books, the ones doing all the accounting. They would like players to be accountable for league-wide rises in non-player costs, and for the number of rotten contracts lousing up locker rooms and lineups from Sacramento to New York. Owners are also acknowledging their own by forcing concessions on system issues designed to save owners (and the fans) from themselves.

But even guaranteed year-to-year profitability, robust revenue sharing and stricter controls on the way players can switch teams and be paid won’t save owners from themselves, or the greater system they enjoy—one that encourages political gamesmanship in NBA front offices. The goal for general managers, team presidents and others isn’t just to do your job well, but to please the owner.

Some owners, like Mark Cuban, seem to make running their teams into a full time job. Cuban is occasionally criticized for being such a public force, but try to think of another 4 billion dollar industry, outside of sports, in which the people who are in charge of the business are expected to be somewhat disengaged in the work of running it.

Of course NBA owners aren’t held to the standard of the CEOs of major corporations because NBA owners didn’t found their teams with funds from investors then work their way to the top through shrewd basketball decision-making and innovative marketing. They are owners because they have money, and whether inherited, stolen or earned fair and square, that money (except, ironically, in the case of Michael Jordan) had nothing to with basketball.

So owners run teams by proxy, hiring smart people who “know the game” then camping out in courtside seats. How many owners do you think understand usage rate and adjusted plus minus, or can articulate the nuances of Thibodeau’s strong side pressure defense? It’s a fair bet that Paul Allen would blink angrily at such a quiz, but I’d wager Wyc Grousbeck would give a reasonably informed response.

Who owners hire in the front office is undoubtedly one of the two greatest factor in team success (the other is luck). And it’s no surprise that people who spend tremendous amounts of money to own an NBA team would much rather sit in a meeting with Larry Bird than Sam Presti. But is Bird, who is President of Operations, any good as an executive?

Turns out he’s OK, having drafted two players of note: Danny Granger 17th (a very nice value) and now Paul George 10th in seven drafts. Bird also undoubtedly adds value as a consultant and adviser to the coaching staff, but based on performance alone–discounting the intrinsic value of getting to work with one of the great legends in NBA history–shouldn’t Herb Simon be a bit disappointed?

Owning an NBA team isn’t awesome because of the money or because of clever cap moves or sneaky trades, but because owners get to hangout with NBA guys in NBA spaces and know that it’s all theirs. This is akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s famous psychic value, but the concept extends past why owners own teams to how they own teams.

Owners can’t be fired or told what to do (other than by fans who stop showing up), and even those who are dedicated fans aren’t particularly well-versed in the finer points of professional basketball. They also have the power to buy out and fire people on a whim, creating a system in which a person concerned with keeping his job has more incentive to cow to the owner’s tastes than do everything possible to do a great job.

In a publicly traded (as opposed to publicly funded) enterprise worth $450 million, appointing the CEO’s son the company’s fourth in command right out of undergraduate studies would tack eyebrows to hairlines. But when Joe Lacob made his son Kirk the Director of Basketball Operations, no one even blinked. Regardless of Kirk’s talents and intelligence, it’s hard to imagine anyone in his circumstance being totally ready for such a complex and demanding position.

An NBA front office isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a royal court. Palace intrigue abounds, because everyone needs to please the king to keep his or her job.

A GM in Portland never knows when the someone else will whisper in the king’s ear, then it’s off with his head.

Some high-level front office personnel persist in employment because they’re really good at convincing a relatively ignorant boss that they know what they’re doing. There’s a fraternity of rotating GMs, coaches and high ranking personnel who talk each other up to owners. Outsiders like Darryl Morey are relegated to PR maneuvering with Bill Simmons as transparent efforts to convince the public, and his boss, that his new, stat-based way of doing things—the way that threatens the type of people who impress coaches by claiming they think stats are lame—is brilliant and makes the organization (and the owner) look good.

The only true source of owner accountability, fans deciding to tune out terrible teams, has been subverted by the owner’s ability to force a too big to fail type bailout at the expense of the labor and taxpayers. Now the owners are trying to impose some kind of logic on a system that is inherently tainted by their own unchecked power. If they really wanted to make the league better, they’d seek the same standard of competency and competition from themselves as they’re demanding from the players.

Related posts:

  1. 2011 NBA CBA Rumblings: What Constitutes “Loss” for NBA Owners?
  2. NBA owners: it’s not about you, and never will be
  3. 2011 CBA: Why winning the PR battle would be bad for the owners


  1. [...] have been sifting through the rubble, sieve in hand, extracting the themes below the surface. Beckley Mason talks about the lockout as a hypocritical quest for accountability. Ethan Sherwood Strauss finds the owners proposal a representation of a drab and frustrating [...]

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