Battle Royale: The three worst owners in the NBA

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Battle Royale takes a topic and seeks to settle the pecking order of a given subject. Today’s topic? Who’s the worst owner in the NBA?

You’re only as good as your owner. After all, you can have great chefs but if your owner doesn’t know how to keep the lights on you’re going to get frustrated when the chicken gets half-cooked before the power goes out. In the NBA, you can succeed with bad ownership, but it’s a pretty severe handicap and it’s unlikely to be sustainable.

We’ve had a lot of changes in ownership over the last year. George Shinn is inching closer to finally ditching the Hornets after years of damage. Warrior nation is finally free of the tyranny of Chris Cohan. There’s light at the end of the tunnel for some teams. Other teams are still staring at the blackened darkness of a brick wall, one that also has a sign to inform you there will be budget cutbacks in the near future. But who are the three worst owners in the NBA right now, and where do they rank?

Here are our contenders:

The Bull-God: Michael Heisley

The man in the Bull-God mask is powerful. He leads his people. He commands the throngs with a heavy lash. He is in charge, of that there can be no doubt. But there’s a few problems. For starters, he can’t see in that thing, so he keeps running into walls. His head’s too big to fit through doors, so he keeps trying to turn sideways, but the horns keep getting stuck. And because he has to keep it up right all the time to make sure the mask doesn’t fall off, he keeps stepping in animal feces.

And that’s a lot like Michael Heisley, owner of the Memphis Grizzlies. who consistently fails to recognize that his attempts to be “The Decider” only hinder his team. Heisley has taken over the majority of basketball operation decisions as the years have gone on, progressively making worse decisions and damaging the perception of the franchise. This latest debacle with the rookies he drafted this year, in which he demanded holding them to incentives for their bonuses is the latest example. Asking players to earn a bonus by actually doing something, you know, bonus? That’s completely reasonable. In actuality, Heisley wasn’t being unreasonable in the slightest with Xavier Henry and Vasquez. Asking Henry to make the Rookie All-Star Game, the All-Rookie team, or average 15 minutes per game on a team with the worst backcourt depth in the league is not a stretch. It’s a low-hanging fruit he asked him to grab.

But following that up by going on a radio show and embarrassing yourself by admitting you haven’t read the CBA, hadn’t even known about the clause that allows for this negotiation, and yelling at the radio host? You ruin any credibility you have. And you didn’t have a ton to start with. That interview wasn’t the reason Heisley lost this negotiation, but it was indicative of why he did. He’s in that bull mask, wandering around, trying to bully people and dictate things, only he keeps running into things, tripping over himself, and stepping in feces. Despite Marc Gasol being a terrific player, the Grizzlies were ripped off in the Gasol deal, drafted the worst player they could have in the top 10 last year in Hasheem Thabeet (nearly every point guard was a hit!), and now this. Heisley has a lot of power, and uses it. He just doesn’t use it well, at all.

The Drunk Guy With The Credit Card: James Dolan

You know this guy. The stock market broker type, or investment banker, who wanders into the bar completely trashed. And he’s making an abject fool of himself nearly every single second. But he is willing to make up for every mistake by buying anyone and everyone a drink. He just old the bartender he wants the goat head hanging behind the bar and to put it on his tab. He’s willing to pay top dollar for pretty much anything, and bottle service sounds awesome, even though he’s wandering all over the bar. That’s James Dolan.

Most owners are problematic because they can’t or won’t spend. And that’s not Dolan. It should be noted up front that his willingness to spend on the Knicks is admirable. He could just rake in the dough in his market and not commit to winning. He’s committed to winning. He’s just not very good at it. Think about how long he kept Isiah Thomas around. Despite all the damage Thomas did, despite all the contracts, despite the humiliation and failure and ridicule, Dolan kept Thomas around for a half-decade. Most people graduate college, get a job, and get a raise in the time Dolan gave Thomas the keys to drive the car off a cliff, into a wall, and then bury the pieces in the dirt.

Dolan’s been recalcitrant with the media, despite owning MSG, which is at its heart a media company. He’s gotten better the last few years, hiring Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni, and springing for Amar’e Stoudemire. But there’s still that constant fear that he’s one impulse moment away from re-hiring Isiah in some capacity. Keep spending big guy, the players will just keep putting their drinks on your tab.

The Mega-Buffoon 3000: Donald Sterling

You knew this was coming. Where do you want to start? The off-court disaster that range from racial discrimination to slum lording? How about gambling on bringing in Baron Davis with all his particular risks, only to lose Elton Brand? Maybe you prefer the years and years of thrifty spending, only to be followed by the recent spree of overpaying for low-character guys who don’t help to win an iota of games?

Sterling is the final boss in the video game of Scott Pilgrim vs. The Bad NBA Owners. He’s the big wig. He could hold seminars on how to alienate the media, your fans, and fail to develop a contender in a system which makes it exceedingly difficult for large market teams to fail. He kept Mike Dunleavey on far too long, despite his clearly not being in a good position to manage the team’s roster. He kept Elgin Baylor on board, then fired him in the worst way possible, and may have kept him on without adequate contract and then fired him for race and age issues.

There’s something further that haunts the Clippers. It’s just hard to come to any other conclusion with the number of busts, injuries, and bad luck they’ve endured. But the reason no one cries out for help for the franchise, why no one considers the Clippers tragic (beyond our empathy for their fans as fellow human beings), is that there’s an unspoken sense of “look at their owner, they had it coming.”

In reality, this debate is over before it even begins. If being bad as an NBA owner were good, Donald Sterling would be the best.


1. Donald Sterling
2. Michael Heisley
3. James Dolan

Doc Rivers: Clippers might blow up roster if they fall short this season

Chris Paul, Blake Griffin DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers
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The Clippers have gone 56-26, 57-25 and 56-26 the last three years – clearing the commonly accepted 55-win bar for championship contention.

But they’ve also won only zero, one and one playoff series in that span.

Zach Lowe of Grantland:

The Clippers have had three cracks at it with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan all in their primes, and they’re not afraid to admit the fourth could be their last — that another flameout will force them to ask whether the core has grown stale.

“We’re right on the borderline,” Doc Rivers tells Grantland during a long sit-down at his office. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”

I disagree with Rivers.

It’s so hard to assemble a roster that can win a title, and the Clippers absolutely have one. If they fall short this season, they’ll probably still have a title-contending roster the following year. They shouldn’t throw that away just for the sake of change.

Paul (30), Jordan (27) and Griffin (26) are young enough for the Clippers to remain patient.

Rivers makes a good point later in Lowe’s article:

“You need luck in the West,” he says. “Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs. But that’s also a lesson for us: When you have a chance to close, you have to do it.”

The Warriors were the NBA’s best team last season, but they also got plenty of breaks. That’s why they won the title.

The Clippers might need more luck to win a championship, but it wouldn’t be an overwhelming amount. The better a team is, the less luck it needs. The Grizzlies can probably win a title with all the right breaks, but they need more than the Clippers.

It’s about being good enough to win with the right breaks.

The Clippers are that. They’ll probably be that unless they do something drastic.

Unless a lopsided trade comes around, I’d stick with Paul, Griffin and Jordan until they really prove they can’t win together. That would take years. A team not winning a title is not proof it can’t win a title. Every year, multiple teams can win a championship. Obviously, only one does.

Rivers has it good with his big three. This shouldn’t be a make-or-break year for them.

51 Q: Which coaches start the year on the hot seat?

Lionel Hollins
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Going into every season, there are a few coaches under pressure to perform or risk losing their jobs. This season, the operative word there is “few.” Looking around the NBA, most coaches are either new on the job or aren’t in any real danger of losing theirs. There are five brand-new coaches: Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City), Fred Hoiberg (Chicago), Alvin Gentry (New Orleans), Michael Malone (Denver) and Scott Skiles (Orlando). The coaches they replaced were mostly the ones whose names often came up in these discussions. Practically everywhere else, there is either a long track record of success or clear signs that ownership is happy with the job the coach is doing. Coaches who are actually on the hot seat are few and far between. But here are a few who might find themselves in trouble if their teams underperform:

Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix Suns): Two years ago, Hornacek was a Coach of the Year candidate for taking a team that was supposed to be one of the league’s very works and making them into almost a playoff team. Last season was another near-miss. This season, the Suns are once again on the bubble of being a playoff team — there’s a chance they could grab the eighth seed in the Western Conference, if a lot goes right. Hornacek deserves a lot of credit for their sooner-than-expected success. The only reason he’s on this list is the potential for a chemistry disaster on this roster. Between Markieff Morris‘ situation and another attempt at a two-point guard lineup (this time with Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight), there’s a lot that could go wrong, and if the Suns fall out of playoff contention. Hornacek could find himself in a little hot water. But that’s unlikely.

Lionel Hollins (Brooklyn Nets): Hollins has always felt like something of a short-term solution in Brooklyn. The Nets tried going young at the head coaching spot with Jason Kidd, who clashed with management over control before leaving for Milwaukee. This Nets roster is middling at best — some solid veterans, not a lot of young talent, no future hope to speak of unless they land a marquee free agent next summer. Their ceiling is the eighth seed and a first-round exit; their floor is a lot worse than that. It would take a catastrophic start to the year for Hollins to lose his job during the season, but there isn’t exactly a lot of long-term security in his position.

Derek Fisher (New York Knicks): It’s hard to see Phil Jackson firing his protege less than two years in, but the Knicks enter the season with the goal of competing for a playoff spot and a lot of potential to be worse than that. Don’t rule out James Dolan stepping in.

Steve Clifford (Charlotte Hornets): Clifford’s chances of losing his job during the season basically disappeared when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a shoulder injury that will likely keep him out the entire season. Without their best perimeter defender, the Hornets’ expectations are a lot lower than they would have been. Now, it’s hard to see them competing seriously for a playoff spot unless Jeremy Lamb makes a huge leap and proves himself capable of being an NBA-caliber starter. If they’re even competitive, it will be an enormous credit to Clifford, who is well-regarded around the league. The story would have been different if they had entered the season with a healthy roster and underperformed, but the MKG injury likely buys Clifford a year before this conversation starts up again.