Can new NBA owners outsmart the system?
In the latest edition of FLANNS & ZILLZ, we discuss the Kings’ shakeup and whether the system can be outmaneuvered.
The Kings fired Michael Malone on Sunday, and though he hasn’t said a word, the team’s managing partner Vivek Ranadive is at the center of the story. We took the opportunity to talk about Vivek, the new class of NBA ownership and the perils of innovation in this, the latest edition of FLANNS & ZILLZ. Enjoy.
FLANNERY: So, this Kings thing doesn’t make a ton of sense. I don’t know if Michael Malone is a good coach or not — 100 or so games just isn’t enough time to make that kind of assessment — but he had them playing really well before DeMarcus Cousins got hurt. I know the Kings want to win yesterday, but the timing on this is awfully strange. If this isn’t really performance-based, how bad can those “philosophical differences” be?
ZILLER: There’s a strain of thought that Pete D’Alessandro and Chris Mullin never really wanted Malone (he was hired before them) and that they finally had an opening with three straight absolutely brutal losses and a dwindling win percentage. There have been some signs of minor discord with the team’s style, though nothing that indicated this was coming.
What’s so goofy to me is what this says about Vivek Ranadive. We’ve heard about his — ah — innovative ideas, like playing 4-on-5 defensively or going with a full-court press. We know the front office has installed a heavy-on-threes system in Reno, where the D-League team gets nearly half of its shots from beyond the arc. We know Malone, an old Van Gundy and Mike Brown guy, is way more traditional. The question is why the heck Vivek hired Malone knowing what he wanted and who Malone was.
I’m also deeply concerned that Vivek looks at this roster — one with the best pivot scorer in a decade and few good shooters — and thinks a Grinnell style offense will work.
FLANNERY: Couple of three things here. First, if the GM and the coach aren’t seeing eye to eye, it’s better to make a move and get everyone on the same page than allow something like that to build into a him-or-me situation. That rarely, if ever, ends well. (Even Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause started off as allies.) And look, Vivek isn’t the first owner to have second thoughts about his initial hire.
Second, the notion of preferred style versus actual personnel on the roster. Everyone wants to play like the Spurs, but the Spurs didn’t play like the Spurs until they realized that Tony Parker was ready to take on a larger load and that Tim Duncan was willing — eager, even — to let it happen. And then they went out and methodically added players who fit the system, like Danny Green, Boris Diaw, et. al. As you say, this Kings roster doesn’t lend itself to a helter-skelter pace.
But you also bring up an excellent point about not just Ranadive, but many of the new owners entering the league. My perception is they think they can outsmart the system, yet the system is pretty impenetrable. That’s not to say there can’t be tweaks and innovations, but style of play ebbs and flows with the times. It’s not about being first, it’s about doing it better.
ZILLER: That’s so true and such a problem with the current crop of franchisees. Consider Vivek, a pioneer in the field of real-time finance data. He did outsmart the system in his field of expertise and he thinks he should be able to do it again. (That he led his daughter’s team to success by breaking the mold probably doesn’t help.)
Other franchisees are molding teams in their image. Mark Cuban did it a generation ago. Isn’t Josh Harris’ investment M.O. basically all about leveraging depressed assets, a la tanking? Robert Pera tried to innovate in Memphis; at least he had the agility to bring Mayor Chris Wallace back in the fold. The innovation in Golden State seems to be a front office by committee, which is reflective of ownership and front office.
It seems like we’re in a time in which franchisee egotism is at an all-time high. Or am I overreacting?
FLANNERY: Well, John Y. Brown damn near ran Red Auerbach out of Boston.
ZILLER: John Y. Brown!
FLANNERY: Mind you, that was after running through half the ABA with the old Kentucky Colonels, folding the franchise to get into the NBA, trading almost everyone on the Buffalo Braves roster and then TRADING FRANCHISES with Irv Levin, who eventually moved the Braves to San Diego and gave the world Donald T. Sterling. So, no I don’t think owner egotism is at an almost high.
What I think we’re seeing is a bunch of new-money owners who are bringing their business practices with them to the league. Some of that may be positive; you’d have a hard time convincing me a guy like Cuban is bad for the NBA. Like all rich guys, they want to have fun with their new toys just like the “sportsmen” of old wanted. In any era, there will be good owners who hire smart people and let them do their jobs. There will be owners who think they can spend their way to a title and there will be cheap owners looking to wring every last cent out of the enterprise. There will also be owners who think they know best, and many times they don’t.
Ranadive’s timeframe confuses me. I imagine Kings fans are thrilled that he saved the team and is getting a new arena built. He’s got DeMarcus. Why not trade off that goodwill and build patiently to have a potential powerhouse in place when they move into the new building?
ZILLER: Your point about persistent egotism is well-taken; we should all remember that the ruling class is forever enamored of its own prowess. I think that’s the issue with Vivek here, too. He could be patient and pragmatic and sane. But he went from $50 in his pocket to founder of a billion-dollar company. He took a group of overmatched 12-year-olds to a championship game. He believes in his ability to outsmart everyone, which carries with it a belief that the system is ripe to be outsmarted.
Funny enough: that’s probably what made Vivek hire Malone in such rash fashion in 2013. The normal path — hire a GM who hires a coach — was too Basketball 2.0 for the league’s next great innovator.
I should say here, of course, that I do think the Kings and league will benefit from franchisee-led innovation, as it has. But it can be a bit much.
FLANNERY: That’s sort of the bottom-line, isn’t it? Do you want Vivek Ranadive, who maybe cares too much and has big ideas, or the Maloofs, who are bereft of any? There is no such thing as a perfect owner. I guess someone like Peter Holt or Mickey Arison comes pretty close, but there are so many things that have to be put in place for something like that to happen.
The NBA is a weird ecosystem. The NFL, for example, is a place where year-to-year innovation can actually be beneficial if you manage to stay ahead of the curve. I’m just not convinced there’s all that much a management team can do in basketball that’s never been done before. The bottom line, always, is talent; you’re just not going to win a championship without major talent. Maybe you can win a trade here or there or find a hidden gem in the draft or free agency but even the best evaluators swing and miss occasionally.
One of the side-effects of the new wave of ownership is front offices have become smarter. There are fewer suckers and even less lopsided deals to be had in the day and age. I think the thing that separates teams is the willingness to be flexible and adaptable, depending on circumstances. That’s harder to do when an owner has a set vision for what he wants.