NBA owners have the luxury of patience
When you cut the checks, you get the benefit of learning from your mistakes.
Vivek Ranadive, the controlling partner in charge of the Kings, is in the center of a firestorm in Sacramento. Two weeks ago he fired coach Michael Malone, a decision that looked irrational at the time and has only gotten worse. The Kings have been horrid since Ty Corbin took over and the glimmer of hope many fans had that the dismissal would lead to the hire of a better coach like George Karl has disappeared. There are more conspiracies about Chris Mullin’s Machiavellian ploy in comment threads than there are Jay-Jenn theories on the Serial subreddit.
DeMarcus Cousins has become more vocal about his distaste with the decision. Local media has been more critical of Vivek and the front office. And a wide swath of fans are as apoplectic as they’ve been since the Maloofs tried to pitch the team to Seattle.
But Ranadive has something basically no one else in the organization has: time.
The NBA is not exactly a place known for its patience. Head coaches last, on average, less than three years. General managers don’t get much longer. With new rules decreasing the maximum length of contracts and reducing incentives for players to sign extensions before hitting free agency, we’re seeing more movement from players and can expect to see even more in coming years. Thanks to the perverse incentives of the NBA draft, teams often rebuild before their potential is used up. The only projects that wait for tomorrow are the ones with no hope today.
One group of NBA actors, though, is afforded a great deal of patience primarily because they run the whole thing. And that’s from whence Vivek’s salvation will come.
Consider his contemporaries. Joe Lacob, the managing partner in Golden State, didn’t have too hot a start. He got booed by Warriors fans shortly after ridding them of horrendous Chris Cohan … for the crime of trading Monta Ellis! Lacob seems to be much more popular these days.
In Memphis, Robert Pera drew ire and consternation after firing Lionel Hollins, pushing Jason Levien out, nearly trading Dave Joerger and then claiming Graduation was the best Kanye album. Despite those teapot tempests, things have worked out for the Grizzlies. Why? Because Pera was never under any pressure. Because he’s the boss.
The only thing that can knock out an NBA franchisee is fiscal insolvency (George Shinn, the Maloofs) or easily consumable racism (Donald Sterling). Not even complicated racism, like Sterling’s old housing discrimination lawsuits, can do the trick. As long as the checks clear and TMZ isn’t publishing conversations with your mistress, you’re safe. That’s not the case for GMs, coaches or even players. There’s only patience for one tier of power, which is probably how it ought to be.
Though I’ve long been skeptical of the moral authority of franchisees, they do cut the checks. It is well within any franchisee’s right to hire and fire as they please. This is a results-oriented business, for better or worse, and there’s something to be said for the positive morale that comes from proactive action. When a team is not meeting expectations, fans want decisive remedy, whether that’s a new coach, front office changes or personnel shake-ups. There’s little worse than a disappointing team that stays the same.
Vivek’s mistake was in firing a coach that neither the community nor the team thought was doing a bad job. Sacramento didn’t see Malone’s overall record and bristle. Fans saw progress, extenuating circumstances and hope. And Vivek’s decision threw all of that out of the window.
There’s a second level at play in Sacramento. General manager Pete D’Alessandro is not particularly trusted by most fans. Every deal he’s swung, even the ones that have worked out (like acquiring Rudy Gay) has looked a bit puzzling at first. He’s given up some popular players (Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas) and no one trusts Mullin, who was a pretty bad GM at Golden State a decade ago. As the Malone dismissal has been framed as D’Alessandro’s decision, that has deepened the mistrust of Vivek. Why did he side with Pete D. over Malone?
Finally, the “kooky” moniker has been the source of deep consternation. The NBA snarkerati has had a (justified) field day with the reports that Vivek wants to experiment with 4-on-5 and other goofy things. The Kings were the laughingstock of the NBA for years during the Maloofs’ reign. Now Sacramento is back in that boat. It’s hugely frustrating, and that comes down on Vivek, the source of the ridicule.
That said, all it will take for all to be forgiven is wins. Just as the Splash Brothers turned opinions around about Lacob and Marc Gasol’s MVP campaign made Memphis stop talking about Pera’s cruel summer, success can make the jokes stop.
That’s especially the case in Sacramento, where the Kings haven’t been good in nearly a decade and where a new arena made possible by Vivek is around the corner. (While I understand fans’ unrest, I have been stunned by the vitriol considering there is a massive construction project in downtown Sacramento going on right now. You don’t need a 10,000-foot view to see the good Vivek has brought the city. You can just walk over to L Street.)
Malone wasn’t afforded much time. D’Alessandro might not have much either. But Vivek? As long as those checks clear and he isn’t a secret racist, he has all the time in the world to change hearts and minds in his city.