An NBA owner reportedly berated his coach for winning.
That speaks to the league’s tanking epidemic, even if Adam Silver is just moving toward acknowledging it. This is part of a much larger debate about the league’s incentive structures.
But it’s also a single case with a very important question: Which owner did it?
We can limit our search to eight teams that clearly tanked this season: Suns, Grizzlies, Hawks, Mavericks, Magic, Kings, Bulls and Knicks.
Adrian Wojnarowski reported the win came on the road over a “pretty good team” in the “last several weeks of the season.” Even if we broadly limit opponents to the NBA’s 18 winning teams and dates to all of March and April, that eliminates half the tankers. The Suns, Mavericks, Magic and Bulls beat no winning teams on the road in March or April.
Unfortunately, we can’t simply say it’s one of four owners. Teams have many minority owners, and Wojnarowski doesn’t specify it’s a controlling owner. Having access to a coach and using it to berate him for winning would be quite on-brand for a minority owner.
But we can size up which team that owner – principal or minority – came from. The candidates and their suspicion-raising wins:
Grizzlies (controlling owner: Robert Pera)
Beat Timberwolves on March 26
Why it was a Grizzlies owner: Robert Pera reportedly wanted to fire Dave Joerger as coach when a one-one-one game between the owner and Tony Allen fell through. If that were enough to warrant firing the coach to Pera, certainly a harmful win would cause some outrage.
Memphis also has plenty of owners. It takes only one. I want to believe it was Grizzlies minority owner Justin Timberlake, and without much clear evidence pointing at anyone else in particular, why not just choose to believe that?
Why it wasn’t a Grizzlies owner: The Grizzlies’ owners with the biggest shares – Pera, Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus – had bigger fish to fry. They were involved in hashing out a complex buy-sell option when Memphis beat Minnesota.
Pera, who retained his controlling interest, is reportedly open to keeping interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. That’d indicate Pera approved of Bickerstaff’s performance, maybe including the win over the Timberwolves (though Bickerstaff did plenty of losing otherwise).
Hawks (controlling owner: Tony Ressler)
Beat Jazz on March 20
Beat Wizards on April 6
Beat Celtics on April 8
Why it was a Hawks owner: With three road wins over winning teams in March and April, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer provided the most opportunities to enrage his owner.
Tony Ressler is a relatively new owner, so we don’t know much about him yet. But he merely inherited Budenholzer (who seemed tanking-averse while running the front office) and actively hired general manager Travis Schlenk (who executed a teardown).
Though he’s still under contract with the Hawks, Budenholzer is talking to the Suns about their vacancy. Perhaps, that speaks to a disconnect with Atlanta’s ownership.
Why it wasn’t a Hawks owner: Again, we don’t know much about Ressler or his group. He’s the NBA’s newest controlling owner outside Houston. Many of the suspect teams were tanking because years of poor ownership – which can be shown through things like berating a coach for winning – left little other choice. Lacking a clear positive or negative track record, Ressler is ahead of other owners on this list.
Kings (controlling owner: Vivek Ranadive)
Beat Warriors on March 16
Why it was a Kings owner: Vivek Ranadive. Where to start? He’s not shy about sending his ridiculous ideas down the pipeline. Looking at you, 4-on-5. Ranadive has also repeatedly blamed underlings for his franchise’s problems. In a chaotic front office, Vlade Divac seems unlikely to filter a message from Ranadive to Sacramento coach Dave Joerger.
The Kings’ minority owners are also known to complain aggressively. It easily could have been one of them.
These are desperate times in Sacramento. This is the Kings’ last chance to draft a top talent before sending their 2019 first-round pick to the 76ers or Celtics. By 2020, Sacramento’s deep young core (that sorely misses an elite prospect) could have developed enough to stay out of the NBA’s absolute basement and the high pick that comes with being there.
Why it wasn’t a Kings owner: Ranadive previously owned a share of the Warriors. I’m guessing he would appreciate beating a team he’s trying to emulate and one full of people he knows.
This is also the earliest game of the plausible qualifiers, stretching Wojnarowski’s description of “last several weeks of the season.”
Knicks (controlling owner: James Dolan)
Beat Wizards on March 25
Beat Cavaliers on April 11
Why it was a Knicks owner: James Dolan is easily agitated and has repeatedly inserted himself at all the wrong times. He often acts like a jerk.
New York also fired Jeff Hornacek immediately after that Cleveland win. Cause and effect?
Why it wasn’t a Knicks owner: Dolan has gotten involved more often to rush winning, not take the long view.
Hornacek also seemed on the outs even before New York beat Washington or Cleveland. That doesn’t mean Dolan wanted to win those games, but that’d work against a clear connection between those victories and Hornacek’s firing.