A lot of NBA fans — especially Lakers fans — still think of the Clippers as the stumbling, bumbling, never can win anything franchise it was for decades when cheap (and racist) Donald Sterling owned the team. Blowing a 3-1 lead in the bubble to Denver only reinforced that view.
Inside the league, Steve Ballmer and his spending have changed the perception of the Clippers into a player-friendly franchise in a major market that is a top destination.
Case in point, a survey by Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic talking to executives, agents, front office personnel, scouts, and coaches about the best owner in the sport.
Steve Ballmer won.
“He’s given the Clippers every resource they need,” a scout said. “He lets his people do their jobs.”
“I would say Ballmer is No. 1,” said another scout. “His enthusiasm, his willingness to spend money, what he’s done with the Clippers, forging into L.A., creating their own identity, and building their own building now, that’s bad news.”
The survey found the Heat’s Micky Arison second, followed by Mark Cuban (Dallas), Joe Lacob and Peter Guber (Warriors), and Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca (Celtics).
There’s a pattern with those owners: Deep pockets and a willingness to spend — not just on players but on staff and equipment — but also they stay out of the way of basketball decision-makers for the most part. Ballmer was behind the push to move on from Doc Rivers for the Clippers, but he has Jerry West on staff in part to talk him into ideas the front office likes and keep Ballmer in check. Cuban is probably the most involved of those owners on the basketball side — and the Mavericks have certainly had their culture issues in house — but he allows the decision-makers make the calls and his relationships with players matters.
The survey also did look at the worst owners from the perspective of the league executives. Vivek Ranadivé in Sacramento and Robert Sarver in Phoenix were nearly neck-and-neck at the top of the list, with James Dolan of the Knicks third. No surprises on that list. Ranadive has the reputation of a meddling owner, while Robert Sarber is seen as both meddling and a guy who cuts corners when it comes to spending. Dolan spends but does not hire well and for too long injected himself into basketball operations.
Ownership remains an underrated part of winning in the NBA — it matters. A lot. Franchises that are poorly run may win for a few years (if they get lucky in the draft), but it will not last. Sustained success points to ownership — the Buss family with the Lakers, the Holt family with the Spurs. Those organizations are not winning year after year on accident.
While this survey did not talk to players, you can be sure that players and agents talk about this. For most players a decision on where to play will come down to the team willing to pay the most, but for players with options, then the owner — and the organization, how it is run — come into play (as do weather, lifestyle, taxes and more, depending on what matters most to that player). Some smaller markets struggle to get free agents not because of the market but because players with options look at the organization and go a different direction.
Expect the Clippers to consistently win with Ballmer at the helm. He gets it, and players know it.