NBA: Off the Court

NBA: Off the Court

Off the Court
The Gold Sheet

There’s one thing that never seems to change about meddlesome sports owners.

It’s rarely a good thing.

Oh, sure, sometimes the egomaniacal bosses win in spite of themselves. George Steinbrenner won a couple of World Series crowns with his Yankees in the late ‘70s while constantly interfering with the process, but any apologists for “The Boss” have to also note that the greatest successes of his Yankee regime came after he mellowed considerably in the late ‘90s, mostly staying out of Joe Torre’s way when the Bronx Bombers won four World Series between 1996-2000. Remember, there was also a long non-title gap the Yankees endured, much of it due to Steinbrenner’s meddling, in the ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s. Likewise, Jerry Jones won three Super Bowls with his Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s, but eventually began to think that it was he, and not the architect of that success, Jimmy Johnson, who was responsible for those Super Bowl rings. After a Johnson-built team won a Super Bowl for Barry Switzer in the 1995 season, it’s been one misstep after another in Big D, with Jones, who now fancies himself a football personnel maven, at the vortex of most of those mistakes.

Perhaps the most meddlesome owner in recent memory, however, was former Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts boss Robert Irsay, so impetuous that he reportedly had the temerity to call plays for HC Mike McCormack from Irsay’s owner’s box during a game against the Eagles in 1981 (one in which the Colts lost, 38-0). The success of the Colts in the last decade came after Irsay passed in 1997; son Jim, who inherited the franchise, apparently inherited few of his father’s shortcomings and by all reports has been a model owner. Jim’s hiring of Bill Polian to run the football operation in late 1997, and subsequent hire of Tony Dungy to coach the team in 2001, are strokes of football genius that were never associated with papa Bob.

And if we want to go global with our analogies, we could certainly bring up soccer, where we wouldn’t have the room to list all of the teams that have suffered due to egotistical owners getting too involved with the on-field product.

Which brings us to the NBA, and apparently the newest member of the “Jerry Jones Club” of owners, Phoenix Suns supremo Robert Sarver. According to Yahoo Sports, Sarver is reportedly involved in his own trade talks before next week’s NBA deal deadline (February 19). Among other things, Sarver is rumored to be brokering deals for F Amare Stoudemire on his own, while his hand-picked GM, Steve Kerr (more on him in a moment), and VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin, operate in their separate sphere of dealmaking.

Of course, Sarver can do what he wants with the Suns. After all, owners do have certain privileges with their teams. Whether or not it’s a good idea for Sarver to be pursuing his own agenda while potentially undermining Kerr and Griffin is a different matter entirely.

Still, this looks like another case of the age-old saga of sports owners believing their successes in other business ventures automatically translates into their sports teams. But the on-field, or on-court, success of teams is usually reserved for owners smart enough to hire capable executives, administrators, and coaches, who are familiar with the inner workings of the sport, to run the show. Since Paul Brown’s death, and the demise of Al Davis, there have been very few pro sports owners who were capable of injecting themselves into the construction of the on-field product. The best example of “the way to do it” continues to be authored by the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose owner, Dan Rooney, has famously stayed out of the way and allowed his coaches and front office personnel the space to do their jobs. And Rooney has been rewarded with two Super Bowl titles in the past four seasons with his Steelers.

Sarver, however, appears to be a different (and potentially most dangerous) sort of sports owner, born into a wealthy family. Granted, he’s had successes in his own business ventures, and during the first five years of his ownership, the Suns were arguably one of the NBA’s most exciting and entertaining teams. Until, that is, Sarver apparently decided that it was time for him to start making basketball decisions. Reportedly, it was Sarver, along with Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, who got the wheels rolling for last year’s controversial Shaquille O’Neal-Shawn Marion trade, one that hardly worked out for Phoenix. And now, if reports from the Valley of the Sun are to be believed, Sarver could well be acting unilaterally regarding Stoudemire and perhaps another deal involving Shaq, potentially undermining whatever Kerr and Griffin are able to come up with on their own. Given the reports of Sarver’s impulsive nature, it’s a recipe for trouble in Phoenix.

We don’t think Sarver would care to listen, but if he truly wants to be “part of the show” with the Suns, perhaps he should emulate Dallas owner Mark Cuban. Although certainly not a model owner due to his own ego and desire for attention, Cuban manages to stay in the limelight while at least granting almost all of the basketball decision making to GM Donnie Nelson, with whom Cuban works well hand-in-hand. We don’t think Cuban would go behind Donnie’s back to make any deals on his own. We’re not sure, however, that Sarver would do the same with Kerr and Griffin.

As for Kerr, we’re still not sold on his front office acumen, either. Although we held great respect for Kerr during his college and NBA playing career, and enjoyed his TV analysis on TNT before he moved full-time into the Suns’ administrative ranks in 2007, we question his objectives in Phoenix. Prior to Kerr’s arrival in the front office, the Suns were a hurricane of a team during HC Mike D’Antoni’s years, parlaying a fast-paced, fullcourt (if non-traditional) style into serious contention status. Indeed, the Suns were the talk of the league for a few years. And if not for a controversial call in the West playoffs against the Spurs (suspending Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for an important game), Phoenix, and not San Antonio, would likely have been the NBA champ two years ago.

Since inheriting that exciting Suns team, however, Kerr championed change, supporting the wasteful deal for O’Neal while voicing a desire for the team to become more forceful on the defensive end. Normally, it would be all well and good on the latter, except that if it was at the expense of what made the Suns a force (their racehorse) in the first place. Subsequent trades of Diaw and Raja Bell have further stripped away the core of the go-go Suns, and the apparent imminent trade of Stoudemire could soon leave Phoenix with Steve Nash and little else from the exciting D’Antoni years. And Kerr will have succeeded in almost completely deconstructing the contending team assembled by predecessor Bryan Colangelo and D’Antoni (who, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, abandoned the desert after last season for challenges anew in New York).

Maybe Kerr is getting what he wants, a run-of-the-mill NBA team that supposedly emphasizes defense more than the D’Antoni versions. But to tear apart a serious title contender with a unique and exciting style just to mold it into more of a “traditional” NBA team is foolish.

Kerr apparently would like to turn the Suns into a model of his Chicago Bulls teams that won six titles in the 1990s. But there’s no Michael Jordan in Phoenix. And there was nothing wrong with the Suns team Kerr inherited, which if anything needed only a minor tuneup, not a full-fledged overhaul.

If you don’t believe us, just check the NBA standings.

ELGIN...ARE YOU SERIOUS?

We have to admit that we were a bit startled to read that Elgin Baylor was filing a discrimination lawsuit against the L.A. Clippers after being dismissed from his GM post last year. Among other things, the suit alleges that Baylor was “discriminated against and unceremoniously released from his position with the team on account of his age and race” and that he was “grossly underpaid during his tenure with the Clippers, never earning more than $350,000 per year, when compared with the compensation scheme for general managers employed by every other team in the NBA.”

Maybe we should just tip our hat to Baylor attorney Carl Douglas, a protege of the late Johnnie Cochran, for having the nerve to spell out Baylor’s complaints. And, to be fair, there might be a lot more to Baylor’s lawsuit than meets the eye, so we’ll withhold any further comments on the suit itself.

But, for a moment, let’s reflect on Baylor’s career as Clippers GM, one of the least-successful runs of any front office executive in sports history. It’s rare that any GM lasts 22 years in a job, let along hanging on despite recording losing mark after losing mark. There have been just a few well-placed blips of minor success on the Clippers’ radar screen the past 22 years. Mostly, the Clippers set the NBA standard for ineptitude during Baylor’s regime.

Imagine the Detroit Lions allowing Matt Millen to stay on as GM for 22 years!

It can be argued that Baylor was retained for so long by the Clippers solely because of his name and beloved status in the L.A. hoop community. After all, Baylor was a superstar for the early versions of the Lakers in the ‘60s, and was indeed one of the game’s all-time great players. But he was hardly one of its great GMs. Moreover, it’s also worth noting that most of those familiar with Clipperland believe one of the reasons Baylor hung on for so long was the fact he was willing to work so cheaply for notoriously-penurious owner Donald Sterling. And what was to stop Baylor from seeking employment with another team, or another team seeking Baylor to join its organization?

Usually, we just scoff at such peripheral sports stories, but we find this one a bit more curious than most, so we’ll keep our eye on developments. And we’ll again give credit to attorney Carl Douglas, who never mentioned the mostly-terrible performance and record of the Clippers on Baylor’s watch.

After all, besides Billy Crystal, who paid much attention to the Clippers the last 22 years, anyway?

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