Editor's note: Veteran NBA reporter Ric Bucher will be writing a weekly column on the Association for Bleacher Report this season.
In a poll of NBA executives about their primary concern entering the 2013-14 season, Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King's response stood out as unique. In that it actually involved basketball.
The rest of the half-dozen executives queried requested anonymity because the first challenge that came to mind involved forces above rather than below them in the league’s power structure. Namely, their owners.
The most common concern among the execs: correctly setting the expectations of the people who pay the bills. Promise too little, one team vice president said, and the owner is sure to question why more work wasn’t done to build a team whose bar could be higher.
Promise too much, though, he said, and you run the risk of a comeuppance when the team falls short.
Granted, keeping the owner satisfied has long been high on any team executive’s priority list, but if the focus has become all-consuming, it’s because the path to that satisfaction is more difficult to map. The number of owners with grandiose expectations and precious little patience is at an all-time high; credit that, in part, to the fact that so many of them recently became owners, buying in at record-setting prices. (Five teams have changed hands in the past 18 months alone.)
Once upon a time, back when the majority of owners had franchises whose value already had trebled their original purchase price, team executives were under far less scrutiny—and the demand for immediate and constant results simply wasn’t the same. Making the playoffs, by and large, assured continued employment and, more often than not, served as grounds for a contract extension or raise.
Those days are gone. The combination of seeing a host of 50-plus-win coaches get the axe (Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, George Karl) and new faces taking charge of basketball operations for nearly one-third of the league has many executives less worried about the formula for success than the formula for survival.
“The rhetoric from the owners about their expectations is at an all-time obscene level,” said one former executive who remains plugged in with his former colleagues.
And yet many of those self-same owners are also demanding that their front offices operate with less expansive resources. First-time head coaches with commensurate novice-level salaries abound, as do teams under strict orders not to incur the league’s increasingly punitive luxury tax for spending too much on player salaries. The do-more-with-less credo that seems to be increasingly popular among merging and downsizing companies in the everyday world has clearly found its way into the NBA.
That’s what makes King somewhat of a surprising exception, seeing as he has a first-year head coach and has composed an obscenely expensive roster—costing a league-high $101 million-plus, $15 million more than the next highest, that of the defending champion Miami Heat.
Yet King said he’s focused, first and foremost, on how to guide coach Jason Kidd in managing the minutes of the team’s phalanx of aging stars. That means allowing Kidd to prove he can be a successful head coach, despite never having coached in any capacity at any level before, while finding a way to preserve the health of such vital components as Kevin Garnett (37), Paul Pierce (36) and Jason Terry (36).
King said his initial intention of reducing the Nets’ salary for this season was turned on its head while riding a train from Philadelphia to New York. That’s when he worked out a formula conducive to the league’s collective bargaining agreement in which he could acquire Garnett, Pierce and Terry from Boston without sacrificing his other three stars, center Brook Lopez, shooting guard Joe Johnson and point guard Deron Williams. After the team’s capologist, Bobby Marks, confirmed the machinations could work, the idea was presented to owner Mikhail Prokhorov to green-light.
Prokhorov’s largesse apparently does have a limit; if anybody goes down, there will be no replacements signed even on a minimal contract, King said.
And if King didn’t join his peers in seeing the shaping of the owner’s expectations as his No. 1 objective, perhaps it’s because he knows it’s too late for that. Those expectations, stated or otherwise, were carved into the top of King’s desk the minute Prokhorov agreed to spend nearly $180 million on player payroll this year, factoring in the additional (and league-record) $75 million in luxury tax the Nets will pay.
For fans, the idea of their GM constantly being under a microscope probably seems appealing. Never mind that the path to building a perennially successful team is rarely a straight line or a short one. Or that a GM consumed with keeping his job can easily be inspired to make moves to win now that have long-term consequences. But there’s no escaping the fact that there are more NBA owners today who think and act like fans running a fantasy-league team; how well that actually works is one of the league’s big-picture storylines that bears watching.
• When I first heard Clippers coach Doc Rivers extolling the virtues of center DeAndre Jordan, I chalked it up to a psychological ploy or simply keeping the peace; this, after all, is the same Rivers who always spoke glowingly of his former charge, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, in public despite sources saying they repeatedly clashed in private. Jordan’s lack of focus and fundamentals were a similar burr for the Clippers’ former coach, Vinny Del Negro, who was less circumspect about hiding that fact. But an opposing scout says there has indeed been a decided change in Jordan’s approach. “He’s more engaged than ever before,” the scout said. “He’s constantly talking on defense, and that’s new."
• Free-agent center Jason Collins, who announced he was gay last spring, has yet to land a job despite the paucity of big men willing to play defense and practice hard without knowing if they’ll get minutes or touch the ball when they do. Several GMs said the aversion to Collins isn’t over concern about how his sexuality will play in the locker room, but over the relentless media attention it will generate. “If it were just an initial blast and you knew it would settle down after that, it would be one thing,” said one executive. “But you know this is something that he and his teammates are going to be asked about everywhere they go, all season long, and all it takes is one guy to say something a little off and it could really blow up. He’s still good enough to play in the league, but when you throw in the ongoing media frenzy, most teams are going to decide it’s just not worth it.”
• How much has the new collective bargaining agreement benefited the owners? One league source said several teams are already projecting profits without knowing what their attendance figures will be this season, and at least one of those teams is assuredly destined to be in the lottery.
• One GM included in the poll named the shift from commissioner David Stern to Adam Silver, set to officially take place in February, as his biggest worry. The concern is that Silver’s focus on monetizing the league is far greater than Stern’s. “I don’t know how much he thinks about the integrity of the game,” the GM said. “He’s more about selling widgets.”
• The Pacers are a young squad with a player payroll ($71.431 million) on the cusp of the luxury-tax threshold ($71.748 million), but one opposing GM said the Pacers will have a hard time, for financial reasons, ever fielding a team deeper in talent than this one. Veteran swingman Danny Granger’s $14 million contract comes off the books next season, but that savings is wiped out by Paul George’s extension kicking in. Bottom line: Retaining Granger’s heir apparent and free-agent-to-be Lance Stephenson will require stripping the roster of its current depth. “One thing I can tell you,” the executive said, “Indy is not paying the luxury tax.”