The NBA Ownership Overhaul of the 2010s
I believe that the only curses in professional sports are those of bad ownership. The most famous "curse" in 20th-century American sports is the so-called Curse of the Bambino, which haunted the Boston Red Sox in an 86-year championship gap between 1918 and 2004. Coincidentally, the Red Sox chose to be the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, which helped set them back for a generation. And coincidentally, the team won its long-awaited post-Bambino World Series two years after a progressive new ownership group took over.
Ownership matters. Mark Cuban's purchase of the Mavericks in Jan., 2000, was the catalyst in transforming Dallas from one of the league's laughingstocks in the '90s to one of its premier franchises in the 2000s.
One of the big-picture NBA stories developing in 2010 is that we could see as many as six or seven franchises experience a change in controlling ownership this year. Consider that, for the entire decade of the 2000s, nine franchises changed hands, and three of those occurred in the year 2000. Consider also that there are a handful of septuagenarian owners with uncertain succession plans, and we could end up seeing half the league change hands in the 2010s.
What's striking to me is that many of the teams in question have experienced particularly good or particularly poor ownership, so the landscape of the NBA - and its standings - could be ripe for a drastic transformation in the 2010s. Let's take a look into the crystal ball:
THE 2010 SALES
New Jersey Nets
I don't know that there's much that I can or need to add to the bravura 60 Minutes interview with Mikhail Prokhorov which heralded the Russian billionaire's impending arrival as an NBA owner.
Kevin Pelton's recent analysis of future team assets indicated that the Nets might be poised for a shockingly quick rise from the basement even before Prokhorov's billions are taken into account. Indeed, with deep pockets, a sparkling new arena coming soon, cap space and a high draft pick, Prokhorov has the opportunity to quickly change the destiny of a franchise which has had few bright moments since Dr. J was sold to the 76ers at the time of the NBA-ABA merger.
Lest you wonder if Prokhorov might throw around his money indiscriminately, note that CSKA Moscow - for whom Prokhorov was principal owner from 1997-2008 - has been on one of the most successful runs in European basketball history over the last decade, making the Euroleague Final Four every year since 2003, and winning the European championship in 2006 and 2008.
All signs point to Brooklyn becoming an NBA hot spot in the 2010s.
Golden State Warriors
Free at last, free at last, with Chris Cohan finally ready to sell the team, long-suffering Warriors fans are quite nearly free at last. With Cohan's successor presumed to be Oracle CEO/Founder Larry Ellison, the Bay Area can rejoice even further.
Ellison, an intensely competitive man who recently won the America's Cup, would surpass Prokhorov, Paul Allen, Mark Cuban and everyone else to become the richest owner in the NBA. Couple Ellison's wealth with one of the league's more intriguing collections of young talent, and a passionate fan base which has supported the Warriors loyally through thin and thinner, and Oakland, too, could become one of the league's signature destinations in a hurry.
With the fanfare surrounding the ascension of Michael Jordan and Mikhail Prokhorov to NBA ownership, the recent transfer of the Washington Wizards to Ted Leonsis has flown somewhat under the radar on a national level.
Abe Pollin, who died in November after owning the Bullets/Wizards since 1964, was a good man who sparked the revitalization of downtown Washington with the opening of the Verizon Center, which he financed privately. However, Pollin was thoroughly unable to spark similar results on-court, as the franchise has not won more than 45 games in a season since 1979.
D.C.-area sports fans have suffered through several years of underachievement from their beloved Redskins, Orioles, Wizards and now Nationals, yet the one bright, shining light on the pro sports scene has been the NHL's Capitals, owned by Leonsis since 1999.
Leonsis has been fan-friendly, innovative and forward-thinking as he's built the Caps into one of the NHL's more formidable teams. Just last Friday, he suggested that he strongly believes in analytics in basketball, in a radio interview which left this Wizards blogger "incredibly, incredibly impressed."
The Nets, Warriors, and Wizards climbing up the standings? It's crazy to think, I know, but I do believe these new owners can make it happen. Beyond having three impressive gentlemen poised to take the helm, I'd note that these are currently three of the four worst teams in the league, so there's a good chance that John Wall or Evan Turner will be delivered to these franchises to help jump-start a new era.
Michael Jordan said in a recent ESPN interview that he expected to be like Mark Cuban as an owner, and I wish the G.O.A.T. well - I certainly wouldn't take any pleasure in seeing MJ fail, not after all the joy he's brought me in this game.
That said, color me skeptical that Jordan will be able to have the same impact as an owner as Prokhorov, Ellison or Leonsis. My skepticism stems primarily from a funding standpoint. The Bobcats rank near the bottom in terms of revenue, and Jordan's pockets are shallow compared with his brethren on the NBA Board of Governors.
MJ's certainly made some good moves in turning the Bobcats into a playoff team, though I wonder if he sacrificed a bit of the team's future for the short-term gains. Hopefully, at the very least, Jordan can start to re-energize a fan base which once filled the Charlotte Coliseum regularly, and get the Bobcats on the road to becoming a healthy franchise. I'd love to see the first player/principal owner succeed.
New Orleans Hornets
News is surfacing out of the Big Easy just this week that George Shinn - who has owned a controlling stake in the Hornets since they entered the league in Charlotte in 1988 - is poised to sell his share of the team to minority owner Gary Chouest.
This sure seems to be an upgrade for New Orleans basketball fans, as billionaire Chouest is wealthier than Shinn, and he's a Louisianan, to boot. Chouest has also been visible as a fan, in his courtside seats. The state of the New Orleans Hornets - so tenuous post-Katrina - suddenly seems secure. Currently perceived as penny-pinchers, the Hornets may - if Chouest is willing throw his money around a little - now be able to focus on how they can thrive in the Chris Paul era instead of merely wondering if they'll be able to retain the point guard into the future.
THE CENTRAL'S SENIOR CITIZENS
Bill Davidson died in March, 2009 after a Hall of Fame run as an owner dating back to 1974. Mr. D's tenure included such innovations as The Palace of Auburn Hills, the standard-bearer for modern NBA arenas, and Roundball One, the first team plane.
While the Pistons have tumbled down the standings in the past couple years, the Davidson era produced impressive results on-court as well as off-, as the franchise won three championships and has advanced to at least the conference finals 11 times since 1987.
Davidson's widow, Karen, has indicated an interest in selling the team, and it appears that a sale could occur sooner rather than later. Rumors have suggested that David Katzman, recently a part-owner of the Cavs, was poised to purchase the team, though an investment consortium has also expressed some interest.
There has been some unease in the Detroit area about whether the Pistons may be in danger of leaving. A move now seems unlikely, especially if Katzman, a Michigan State grad, takes over. Katzman has to be potential to be a strong owner, like his former partner Dan Gilbert of the Cavs, though the Davidson legacy leaves behind some mighty big shoes to fill.
75-year-old Herb Simon has been an NBA mainstay since buying the Pacers in 1983 along with his brother Melvin, who passed away last year. The main issue which has arisen in Indy is that the Colts have a much sweeter lease at new Lucas Oil Field than the Pacers do at Conseco Fieldhouse. Couple that with the continued fallout from the Artest fight, not to mention the horrendous economy, and the Pacers are experiencing some extreme financial distress.
While the fundamentals of a good building and a proven fan base suggest that there's a way out of this mess, the future of the Pacers is anything but secure. In 2009, Herb Simon told the Indianapolis Star: "Is it prudent to stay [at Conseco] if economic conditions keep deteriorating? No.... We're here, not to keep the team here for as long as I can afford it, but to keep the team here even after someone else ... takes over this team."
Forbes reported somewhat mysteriously in March that Simon would be receiving an offer of about $230 million within two months. Simon responded to the Indy Star by saying, "There was an article in Forbes -- and I don't know where it came from -- but there's been no talk with anyone about selling this team. I'll continue to own this team."
In 2008, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported that the city fathers had some unease about the lack of a clear succession plan for the Pacers, and it still seems as though "uncertainty" is the watchword when it comes to the future of Pacers ownership.
If you want to talk about a sleeper team that could see its fortunes change with an ownership change in the 2010s, look no further than the Chicago Bulls, where 73-year-old Jerry Reinsdorf has hurt the club repeatedly in the post-Jordan era by being arguably the cheapest owner in the league.
As a big-market team which has seen the gigantic United Center filled consistently even in the depths of the initial post-championship years, the Bulls are one of the premier cash cows in the league. Forbes currently ranks the team third in estimated value ($511M) and second in operating income ($51.0M), just behind the Lakers, in the NBA. An owner who was prepared to unleash that fortune might be able to get Chicago back up near the top of the standings.
However, Reinsdorf doesn't show any signs of slowing down, as he's recently made an attempt to buy the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. In 2005, he told the Chicago Tribune that
- he "hopes" not to sell the [White] Sox or Bulls, "but you never know," he said. "If something happened and I got real sick, then I think I would because I don't want to stick my kids with this. Maybe the Bulls. I might let them hang onto the Bulls because that's a sensible business, it's not that hard to run.
The situation the Bucks are in now seems perilously similar to where the Seattle SuperSonics stood not too long ago: a franchise dating to the '60s, with a lone championship from the '70s, and an arena that has quickly moved from being considered state-of-the-art to one deemed to be inadequate, with no public appetite for further funding, and no clear solution in sight.
The main thing holding the Bucks in place seems to be that its owner, Herb Kohl, is also a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, and his options are politically imprudent. However, Kohl is also 75 years old and single with no children, so at some point, something's gotta give. I'd deem it likely that the franchise will have new ownership by the end of the decade. I hope the team is able to stay in Milwaukee beyond then, but hey, I'm a Seattleite, so I don't know that I have a lot of optimism to pass on to the good people of Wisconsin.
The Grizzlies are another franchise which seems to be a prime target for an Oklahoma City-style takeover by a purchaser who might want to take the team out of town. Memphis owner Michael Heisley has made it very clear that the team is for sale. A month ago, he said this to the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
- I'm 73 years of age. My family is not going to take over this basketball team. My point is very simple. If the right person makes a reasonable offer for the team I will sell it. If the minority (local) owners want to come up with a reasonable offer, I would love to sell it to them. I think they would make great owners. If it's not to be, it's not to be.
However, the terms of the Grizzlies lease with FedEx Forum are such that it'd be nearly impossible for the team to move before 2014, and the terms remain onerous enough thereafter that a move would be unlikely before the late 2010s. But if the team's revenue situation hasn't improved by then, I'd consider it a stone cold lock that a new owner will have the Grizzlies in a new city by the end of the decade.
Now we move expressly into the speculation portion of the program, for sure. The Lakers have been considered the NBA's marquee franchise and the Clippers its doormat for so long that it seems like it must be fated. Yet, I'd argue that it's no coincidence that Jerry Buss has owned the Lakers since 1979 and Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981.
Buss turns 76 in June and is in the process of turning over control of the Lakers to his children, while Sterling turns 77 this year, so it seems reasonable to assume that his tenure may mercifully come to an end at some point this decade.
Is it crazy to think that the Lakers and Clippers could experience a reversal of fortune with new ownership for both franchises? Well, maybe a little, but I think you'd be crazier to assume that it couldn't happen. Ownership matters.
It was announced Monday that Jerry Buss will be part of the 2010 class inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. Dr. Buss has always struck me as an owner with just the right touch - someone who's known exactly when to step in, and exactly which decisions require his input. And with his poker-player's instincts, he's generally made the right calls on the big decisions and been a shrewd operator in contract negotiations.
Buss is handing the Lakers over to his children Jim and Jeanie. As he said in a recent interview with on ESPNLA.com: "Eighty percent of the basketball decisions are made by [my son] Jimmy and all of the business side is handled by [my daughter] Jeanie. I don't have anything to do with that."
To me, the jury is still out on whether the Buss children will be able to coexist effectively in the ownership suite, as well as whether they will have their father's wise touch. On his blog Lakernoise, respected author Roland Lazenby has suggested that there is already internal tension in the organization, especially around the contract status of Phil Jackson.
How will Jackson's future be handled? What about in a few years, when the team may need to be effectively handed over from Kobe Bryant to Andrew Bynum, as it was from Kareem to Magic and from Shaq to Kobe in days gone by - how will that be handled?
The Lakers should certainly be a championship contender for the next couple years, but as this decade moves on, their fortunes will not be decided by fate or championships banner already hanging at Staples Center. It'll be decided by the performance of the Buss children.
Donald Sterling loves being an NBA owner so much that he turned down a reported $1 billion dollar offer for the team, according to an adamant Bill Simmons in a recent column. Not much is known about Sterling's three children, but they certainly aren't visibly entering the basketball business, as the Buss kids are. It seems reasonable to assume that the Sterling family might be tempted by a lucrative offer if and when the team is passed on to them.
Considering that L.A. is easily the no. 1 most desirable market for players, and with all the money and all the pro basketball fans in Southern California, I think that the Clippers easily have all the raw materials to become an NBA power under the right ownership. Imagine an energetic Cuban-type - there must be plenty of candidates among all the rich fans in L.A. - who perhaps rebrands the team as the Hollywood Stars, as Simmons suggested last year, for a new beginning. I believe it can work.
Also note that the Clips rated very high in Pelton's analysis of future assets, though we'll see how well Sterling executes on this potential in the immediate future.
Yes, we may still be a few years away, but Sterling has to give up the reigns at some point, doesn't he? It's not like he's Monty Burns. Um, on second thought, forget I said that.
THE SEATTLE BILLIONAIRES
Portland Trail Blazers
The first job I ever had was for a Paul Allen company and it was a great place to work. I wish Mr. Allen nothing but the best in his fight against cancer, but the frightening reality is that non-Hodgkins lymphoma is a very serious illness. The Portland Oregonian reported on the future of the Blazers following the announcement of Allen's cancer diagnosis in November:
- Few billionaires invest so much in their personal passions, and few Northwesterners have so profoundly affected the region. His legacy as Microsoft's co-founder is secure, as is his imprint on Seattle's landscape and character.
Less certain is the fate of his sports teams and technology investments, imbued with Allen's own fervor. Allen is the rare billionaire who never married and has no children. He is close to his sister, Jody, who runs Vulcan [Allen's parent company] and lives near him on Mercer Island, just outside Seattle.
Many people survive Allen's condition, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but nearly as many do not. Neither Allen is speaking publicly in the wake of his diagnosis. Team officials, past and present, uniformly expect that the cancer won't slow Allen down. They're optimistic he'll beat it, as he did an earlier bout in the 1980s.
Many of them also predict that whenever the company changes hands, the Blazers will, too.
But Vulcan and Blazers officials maintain that the team, back on an upward trajectory, is the company's jewel and a cornerstone of Allen's empire. They insist it will remain that way indefinitely.
"Regardless of what happens, I believe that Vulcan will be proud to be the owner of the Blazers," said Larry Miller, the team's president.
Allen may very well live for many, many years, but all wealthy people eventually leave their heirs a large estate tax. With the value of pro sports franchises soaring, Vulcan could have to pay huge taxes just to hold on to the Blazers and Allen's pro football team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Although Vulcan could certainly afford that bill, some wonder whether it would want to pay it absent Allen and his very personal ties to the team. Together, the teams would certainly fetch more than $1 billion if sold.
For those who have dealt extensively with Allen's sister, the fact that the team is losing much less money than in the past matters less than the fact that it continues to bleed red ink.
"There is a constant sort of drumbeat from Jody and the people who work for Jody to cut the losses," said one former team executive, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They're doing their job, trying to look at the portfolio as a business. I can't fault them for that."
"Paul's ownership of the franchise has always been a struggle between his emotion for the team and the sport and the business reality," the executive said.
Forgive me for the 206 homerism, but it's my list, so I'm adding the Microsoft CEO. Ballmer fits the Paul Allen template as a potentially great NBA owner: he has billions and he passionately loves basketball. Beyond already floating a last-ditch proposal to attempt to save the Sonics and renovate Key Arena, Ballmer has been a booster for the development of the basketball program at his alma mater, Harvard.
What's more, when Ballmer's "secret" Twitter account was finally uncovered, it turns out the account, LakesideBball, was actually a vehicle to tweet updates of his son's basketball games! Get this man a team already!
Here's hoping the Seattle SuperSonics are back by the end of the 2010s, under the control of majority owner Steve Ballmer.
Note: I didn't include Sacramento because I think the Maloofs will retain ownership even if the team moves, and I didn't include Utah because the team has stayed in the hands of the Miller family following the death of patriarch Larry last year, and son Greg seems as though he is keeping the franchise on course.