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.

Results:

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

Seven names popping up as the next coach of the New York Knicks

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David Fizdale is out. Mike Miller is in, temporarily (unless he can work miracles with this roster over 60 games).

The big question now: Who will coach the Knicks next season?

The answer to that question starts with the answer to a different question: Who is the team president of the Knicks next season? Current head honcho Steve Mills is on the hot seat. Does he hold on to his job and get to pick the new coach? If Mills is let go, whoever becomes the new POBO should be allowed to hire his own coach. (Letting Mills hire a coach then forcing that hire on a new president would be a mistake, but not outside the realm of possibility.)

Just because we don’t know who will be making the choice has not slowed the speculation about who is next. Here are seven names being bounced around the league (just know this is far from a complete list):

Mark Jackson: This is a trip down memory lane for the franchise, one that would be a hit with casual fans and certainly would be a marketing success. Jackson’s backers talk about how he built the foundation of the Warriors (and Steve Kerr long credited Jackson for making the peak Warriors a defensive team). However, he was fired in Golden State for good reasons: His offense was old school and heavy on isolation, he was challenging to work with for the front office (Jackson created an “us” vs. “them” mentality in the locker room where them included the front office), he clashed with assistant coaches and asked them to do a lot (he refused to let Mike Malone be an associate head coach), he has a history of distracting personal life dramas (do that in New York and the headlines are much bigger), and the list goes on. There were enough red flags in Golden State that he hasn’t gotten a job since, do the Knicks want to break that trend?

Jeff Van Gundy: Another blast from the past — he was the last coach to get the Knicks to the Finals — and he whet his coaching chops again coaching Team USA’s G-League squads that qualified USA Basketball for the World Cup. He has coached under James Dolan before, he knows what he is getting into. Does he want to leave that cushy ESPN job to be in Madison Square Garden again? Is he a coach for the modern game?

Jason Kidd: Notice how there are a lot of former Knicks on the top of this list? Here’s another. He is currently on the Lakers’ bench, and if the Knicks goal is to once again get a coach respected by players they think can help recruit superstars to Madison Square Garden, Kidd becomes a viable option. Giannis Antetokounmpo credits Kidd for understanding how to be a pro. The knock against him? The performance of his teams in Milwaukee and Brooklyn on the court. He was let go in those places for good reasons.

Tyrone Lue: Another coach whose name comes up for every job, and he has a ring from Cleveland with LeBron James (where he was LeBron’s hand-picked guy). He’s well respected by players around the league and, unlike his reputation among some fans, was a solid tactician. However, when LeBron left and the Cleveland job became a development project, Lue was gone fast — and the Knicks are a development job. Lue is currently sitting next to Doc Rivers on the Clippers’ bench.

Darvin Ham: If the Mills/Perry front office remains, this becomes a name to watch closely. Ham has a championship ring from his playing days (the 2004 Pistons), Perry worked for the Pistons’ front office during that time, and the two have remained friends. Ham has been working at the right hand of Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee (insert your “we can lure Antetokounmpo” conspiracy theory here) and has been one of the assistant coaches at the front of the line for a head coaching job, having been inconsideration in Cleveland, Minnesota, and Atlanta.

Ettore Messina: If James Dolan can lure Masai Ujiri away from Toronto (a very big if), then Messina becomes more likely. After years on the bench next to Gregg Popovich learning the NBA game, Messina decided to head back to Europe and is the head coach of Olimpia Milano in Italy. Messina is very well respected in coaching circles and it wouldn’t be a shock if he got a call.

Becky Hammon: Her name comes up a lot for this job around the league. The six-year Spurs assistant (and the woman most likely right now to get a head coaching job in the NBA) has New York ties as she played for the Liberty in the WNBA. San Antonio has been a factory of head coaches and Hammon has had several interviews with other teams. She would be the first woman to coach in the NBA, and that headline and marketing potential may appeal to the Knicks (if they decide to go with a first-time coach).

Other names to watch: Kenny Smith, Craig Robinson, Sam Mitchell, Mike Brown, and Nate Tibbetts.

Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling becomes first mother to officiate an NBA game

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CHICAGO (AP) — Referee Lauren Holtkamp-Sterling made NBA history Friday night when she became the first mother to officiate a league game.

Holtkamp-Sterling worked the Bulls-Warriors game in Chicago.

The game was the first for Holtkamp-Sterling since she gave birth to daughter Stoan this year. She missed last season with a knee injury that required surgery and the start of her 2019-20 season was delayed by abdominal surgery.

Her husband, Jonathan Sterling, worked the Los Angeles Clippers-Bucks game in Milwaukee on Friday night. The couple met at a college basketball referees event before they became the first married couple to officiate in league history.

“That’s amazing. They probably have a good nanny, I’m guessing. That cannot be easy raising a child with two NBA refs as parents. It’s a pretty incredible story. I’m happy for Lauren that she’s back on the court,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

In 2014, Holtkamp-Sterling became the third full-time female referee in league history.

 

Pelicans to ease Zion Williamson into NBA action, no backs-to-backs at first

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If you didn’t see this coming, you probably donated money to help out that poor Nigerian prince, too.

Zion Williamson is six weeks out from his knee surgery and has yet to start on-court work towards his return, signaling he likely will not make the original 6-8 week timeframe to get back on the court. Williamson is putting in the work and improving, but the fact the Pelicans were going to be “overly cautious” — to use coach Alvin Gentry’s words — with Williamson should not be a surprise, this is the franchise that let him play just one half of one game at Summer League.

Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin went on the Pelicans in-game broadcast recently to talk about the return of Williamson and the team. There he said Williamson is progressing and added the obvious — that there will be some load management of Williamson upon his return. As there should be.

“Yes, he very likely will not be asked to take the pounding of back-to-backs initially,” Griffin said on the team’s television broadcast. “There will be a sort of ramp-up for him to getting back to where you would call him full strength, but he’s certainly going to be playing, and we’re trying to win basketball games. And quite frankly, we’ve done a horrible job of that.”

The Pelicans are 6-16 with a bottom-five defense holding them back this season.

“Where we may be failing in terms of the short term, I’m very confident that we’re succeeding over the breadth of what we’re trying to do, which is build a sustainable winner,” Griffin said. “And we’re well on our way to that, despite the current record.”

Nobody should have expected instant success with this Pelicans roster, despite having Jrue Holiday, and the additions of J.J. Redick and Brandon Ingram. This was going to take time, even if Williamson had remained healthy. Projections of this as a playoff team were wildly optimistic to begin with.

It’s going to take time with Williamson, too. He should not be rushed, he is a physically unique player and must be treated as such.

Griffin is spot on — rebuilding this franchise is a long process and the Pelicans cannot skip steps. Do that and you’re the Knicks. New Orleans has stumbled out of the gate, but what will they look like at the end of the season and if the team has taken steps forward matters a lot more than what they look like now.

Ease your franchise player back into the fold, don’t force things, and the Pelicans will be just fine.

 

Knicks’ president Steve Mills reportedly on hot seat, too

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David Fizdale is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

He also was just a part of the problem with the Knicks. Fizdale did a poor job as chef trying to cook up a decent meal, but he was also given a list of ingredients — the roster built by the front office — that would make a “Chopped” contestant wince.

It looks like the people responsible for putting that roster together — specifically the long-entrenched Steve Mills, who is currently the team president — are in trouble, too. Mills is on the hot seat, too, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

“[The Knicks 18 losses this season] go on Fizdale’s permanent record but the failed Fizdale experiment belongs to Steve Mills, whose days as a Teflon executive under Dolan are about to end.

Mills hired Fizdale over Mike Budenholzer, and [Phil] Jackson and without even considering [Jeff] Van Gundy. Mills looked at Fizdale as the hip young coach with connections to today’s young stars. The Knicks were all in on the free-agent class of 2019 and Fizdale was going to be the guy to get their foot in the door.

We all know how that went — the Knicks didn’t even get a meeting.

These last two seasons fall directly on Mills, who, according to sources, will either be reassigned or simply removed from the building. His expiration date is long overdue. The Athletic reported last month that Dolan will try again to pry Raptors President Masai Ujiri from Toronto. If that doesn’t work, maybe NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will point Dolan toward R.C. Buford, Sam Presti, Neil Olshey and Daryl Morey. The Knicks are in the early stages of another massive overhaul that will only work if Dolan gives his next executive savior full autonomy.

What happens to Mills is a bellwether to watch.

Not simply is he removed as team president (and before he can make trades to try to save his job at the deadline), but is he re-assigned to a new position with the Knicks — so owner James Dolan keeps his man in the building — or is he shown the door? It matters. A lot. As Isola notes, when Phil Jackson was hired he was told he would have full autonomy over the front office, but he wasn’t allowed to remove Mills or other entrenched figures (and when Jackson was let go Mills was promoted to his spot). Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to have that shot down.

This is the real test for Dolan. If he going to spend the money to hire Ugiri or some other big name, will he give that person the complete autonomy to overhaul basketball operations, like New Orleans did last summer with David Griffin? Then, is Dolan willing to be patient enough to wait years for it to all come together? The Knicks do not need another quick fix, another shortcut to getting back in the playoffs. They need to build a culture, a foundation that can succeed for years. That takes time. And the right guy steering the ship.

We’ll see if Dolan makes that step, or if the Knicks continue business as usual.