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Malcolm Gladwell says owners shouldn’t expect to make money

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Is owning a sports franchise a business or a toy?

Right now, the NBA owners are telling you the NBA is a business, and a bad one at that. One that needs to be fixed. Even if it means costing an NBA season.

But you look at owners like Mark Cuban and you see him treat it like a toy — he has said the Mavericks have lost money every year. He has been sued over it. He can kind of erase that on the books because he also owns American Airlines Center and he has said he will cover the debt. But he treats this as a toy and bought himself a title. (Go ahead and say the Heat are trying to buy a title, but the Mavericks paid $20 million more last year in salary and in the last decade only the Knicks have paid more.) Of course, Cuban has made his money on franchise valuation, that has flattened out a lot for owners who bought recently.

In an interesting piece over at Grantland, social commentator Malcolm Gladwell — he of Blink and Outliers and TED — says that NBA owners shouldn’t expect to make financial profit off a team. He notes that owners get a “psychic benefit,” an emotional benefit from owning the team that is what makes owning a sports team different than owning a car repair shop.

The rationale for the NBA lockout, from the owner’s perspective, goes something like this. Basketball is a business. Businesses are supposed to make money. And when profits are falling, as they are now for basketball teams, a business is obliged to cut costs — which in this case means the amount of money paid to players. In response, the players’ association has said two things. First, basketball teams actually do make money. And second, if they don’t, it’s not the players’ fault. When the two sides get together, this is what they fight about. But both arguments miss the point. The issue isn’t how much money the business of basketball makes. The issue is that basketball isn’t a business in the first place — and for things that aren’t businesses how much money is, or isn’t, made is largely irrelevant….

The Financial Times recently interviewed Diego Della Valle, the chief executive of the Italian luxury goods manufacturer Tod’s. Della Valle owns the celebrated Italian football club Fiorentina. “I ask if the decision to buy the club was made from the heart, or for business reasons,” the Financial Times interviewer writes. Della Valle replies: “With football, business reasons don’t exist.” Exactly.

The question to me has become, “has that attitude changed among owners?” I would say Gladwell’s perspective was true 20 years ago, it has shifted some now. The guys who form a partnership and spend hundreds of millions to get a team — guys who are leveraged — get their psychic benefit but do not let that get in the way of the bottom line. They are the hardliners pushing for change.

But should they feel that way? Or should they enjoy the psychic benefits (and the profits they will make when the team is sold) and stop treating their toy like a business? Not sure there is one simple answer to those questions.

John Wall undergoes surgery on both knees, expected to be ready for start of next season

Washington Wizards guard John Wall speaks during a media availability before an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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John Wall tried putting the Wizards on his back and carrying them into the playoffs.

Washington fell short, but the process still took a toll.

Wizards release:

The Washington Wizards announced that guard John Wall underwent a successful procedure today to excise calcific deposits in his left patella tendon in order to eliminate pain and assist healing.  He will begin the rehabilitation process immediately and is expected to be available for the start of the 2016-17 season.  Wall also underwent an arthroscopic lavage on his right knee in order to remove loose bodies.

If the Wizards are just using the next date most fans care about, this might not be such a big deal. That would open the door for Wall being healthy at any point over the summer.

But if the start of next season is his targeted return, that’s more troubling. Sitting an entire offseason is a big deal, and that means potential complications are more likely to cause him to miss games. It’s also a worse indicator for his long-term health.

As the Wizards enter free agency primed to spend, the last thing they need are questions about the length of their franchise player’s prime.

Larry Bird shows courage in his convictions by firing Frank Vogel

Larry Bird, Frank Vogel
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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Larry Bird sounded cruel.

The Pacers president announced to the world that Frank Vogel begged for his job. Not only did he oust the coach anyway, Bird seemed to toy with him at a press conference today. Asked what he’d tell someone checking Vogel’s references, Bird answered with a resounding: “He’s the best.” What will Bird look for in the Pacers’ next coach? The same things that led him to Vogel during the last search.

So why did Bird fire Vogel?

“My experience has been good coaches leave after three years,” Bird said.

And maybe Bird is cruel, foolish, self-absorbed or any other adjective being thrown at him today.

But also realize he sincerely believes this.

After all, he also ousted a coach who went 147-67, reached two conference finals and an NBA Finals and won Coach of the Year in his three-year tenure.

Himself.

Bird coached Indiana from 1997-2000, and even though he guided the team to the 2000 NBA Finals, he still stepped down after that third season.

“Three years is enough for a coach in any one place” Bird said he told the Pacers when they hired him.

Despite all his success, he stuck to it.

Bird said he spoke to Red Auerbach about the value of coaching turnover, and Boston had plenty. Bill Fitch got four years at the helm of Bird’s Celtics, K.C. Jones five – “nicest man I ever met, and they let him go, and we were having success,” Bird said – Jimmy Rodgers two and Chris Ford two (and another three after Bird retired).

Vogel coached Indiana five-and-a-half years.

“That’s a long time for me for a coach,” Bird said.

As so many teams across the NBA chase continuity, Bird actively rejects it – maybe to his detriment. Five of the six longest-tenured coaches in the league are still alive in the playoffs: Gregg Popovich (Spurs), Erik Spoelstra (Heat), Dwane Casey (Raptors), Terry Stotts (Trail Blazers) and Mike Budenholzer (Hawks). The Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle is the exception.

Bird just doesn’t want to follow that model.

“Every day the same voice and the same, I think guys sometimes tune that out,” Bird said. “It happens. It’s unfortunate.”

It is unfortunate, and it cost Vogel a job he appeared to be succeeding in and wanted to keep. You can wonder whether Bird and not just players tired of Vogel’s message, even if it were a wise one. Bird clearly believes he can assemble a roster, and he has own ideas about how he wants it coached (small, up-tempo, dynamic).

But don’t wonder about Bird’s intentions when he brings up three-year term limits for coaches.

Right or wrong, he believes in them.

Larry Bird: Kevin McHale won’t coach Pacers

Larry Bird
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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1. Kevin McHale withdrew from the Kings’ coaching search.

2. The Pacers fired Frank Vogel.

Will McHale reunite with former Celtics teammate Larry Bird in Indiana?

“I would not do that to Kevin, have him to work for me,”Bird said at a press conference today. “That’s just not fair. I respect the man too much, and we’ve been through too many battles together to bring him in here and be my coach. I would love for him to be my coach, but it ain’t going to happen, because our relationship.”

It would have been compelling to watch Bird and McHale work together, but I’m not convinced McHale is the best coach available – though that’s not the only concern.

After all, Bird just ousted someone who might be a better coach than any replacement.

Frank Vogel out as Pacers coach

Larry Bird, Frank Vogel
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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After leaving Frank Vogel hanging for a few days – something he explicitly said he hoped to avoid – Pacers president Larry Bird finally ousted the coach.

“It’s time for a new voice around here,” Bird said at a press conference today. “Sometimes my job really sucks, and this is one of the toughest things I’ve done.”

Bird clarified that Vogel wasn’t fired, that his contract had expired and wasn’t being renewed.

Will there be a search now to replace Vogel? Kevin McHale has already been mentioned as a candidate, and he’d make sense. He played on Bird’s Celtics and learned an up-tempo system with the Rockets.

Vogel is now free to interview with the Rockets, and I think he’d be a home-run hire. Vogel’s defensive skills are badly needed in Houston, and perhaps the the Rockets’ institutional knowledge could fine-tune his offense.