Marquee talent, shrewd coaching and a heaping helping of luck are all integral elements in a winning NBA formula. But in today's increasingly competitive NBA, nothing matters more than good ownership.
As a preliminary matter, it's important to mention that there are lots of ways to run a team effectively. There's no clear blueprint to follow. In the same vein, there are practically endless methods for running a franchise into the ground.
The point is this: The fate of every NBA franchise is tied more strongly to ownership than anything else. Success (and failure) really does start at the top.
It's appropriate that we begin with the Sacramento Kings, as they provide the league's most recent "before and after" snapshot of an ownership change.
Joe and Gavin Maloof (and the other less visible members of their clan) buried the Kings by functioning as absentee owners. They allowed a toxic climate to develop in the locker room, ignored everything from player development to arena amenities and then, after it became clear that the franchise was an utter, money-bleeding wreck, tried to sell the team to a group of buyers that planned to move it to Seattle.
Other than that, the Maloofs were just terrific.
Enter Vivek Ranadive, the business-savvy buyer from Silicon Valley and a former minority owner with the Golden State Warriors. Upon purchasing the team, Ranadive and his cadre of executives set about changing personnel in an effort to change the culture.
We won't know whether or not some of the team's biggest moves in its new era will pay off for at least a few more months. Right now, the decision to give DeMarcus Cousins a massive, multiyear contract is looking like a significant risk.
But the toxicity in the locker room has dissipated, and the experienced minds in the front office (general manager Pete D'Alessandro and adviser Chris Mullin, to name two) are much better equipped to engineer a turnaround than anyone in the previous regime.
Critically, Ranadive is taking the long view of things.
Per Tim Bontemps of the New York Post, he said: "It's going to be a process...but we'll get there."
Fortunately for the Kings' new ownership group, they've got a terrific example on which to base their plans just 80 miles away: the Warriors.
When a group led by Joe Lacob took control of the Warriors from the roundly despised Chris Cohan, everything from the carpet in team headquarters (no, seriously, they upgraded the actual flooring) to the entire management structure changed.
Lacob brought in Jerry West to advise, hired Rick Welts as president and took a gamble on Mark Jackson as a first-time head coach. Bob Myers assumed the role of GM and started hitting home runs with every move.
In a nutshell, Lacob trimmed the fat, changed attitudes and brought in minds that belonged at a top-end organization. Before long, his team became one.
Bold decisions that weren't popular with shortsighted fans (think Andrew Bogut for Monta Ellis and the ensuing boo-fest) along with a genuine passion for making every aspect of the Warriors' franchise the best it could be have made Lacob the architect of one of the most thorough turnarounds in professional sports.
He provided a great example of the trickle-down effect of good ownership in an interview with Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
We get approached all of the time by agents with really big names who say, "Hey, when my guy’s contract is up, we’d really like to consider playing for the Warriors, because you’re building something the right way." We can’t talk to them, because it’s illegal, but you can see that we’re building something for the future, and people can sense that.
Lacob made a point to pay attention to the details throughout the organization, and everyone—from players to agents to opposing teams—took notice.
It also doesn't hurt that he's wildly passionate about his team.
I guess when it's technically your floor, you can run out onto it whenever you want.
The Unpleasant Alternative
There are two teams in New York that have fallen on hard times because of the decisions of their ownership groups.
In a symbolic exercise of impatience, we'll start with a Brooklyn Nets franchise that only cares about the present. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov started his tenure off with the promise of an NBA title within five years. That was more than three years ago, which means Brooklyn is running out of time.
Prokhorov's commitment to immediate success is directly responsible for the utter disaster that is the Nets' current roster. Aging, injured and muddling through a horrendously disappointing season, Brooklyn is in trouble.
And because the team gave up so many of its future draft picks in order to acquire talent that could lead to present success, the Nets don't even have the assets necessary to start over.
Prokhorov's legendary impatience would never allow him to sit through a slow, deliberate rebuilding effort. That's fortunate, because the Nets don't have the ability to start one anytime soon.
Nearby, James Dolan has done everything but fly the New York Knicks' charter plane into a mountain.
His misguided leadership is much stranger and more complicated than Prokhorov's, and it revolves around a series of bizarre allegiances to entities like Creative Arts Agency, a firm that represents Carmelo Anthony and Mike Woodson.
Dolan has made an effort to acquire headline-grabbing players, often at the expense of the Knicks' future draft picks. Worst of all, he refused to make his motivations, plans or sanity clear to the media for nearly seven years.
Bleacher Report's Howard Beck summed up the wild inconsistency that took place during Dolan's "quiet time":
In the intervening years, Dolan has dismissed three general managers and two coaches, raised ticket prices by astronomical amounts and settled a sexual-harassment lawsuit. He has repeatedly infuriated fans with his meddling and his general disregard for their feelings.
When he broke his silence in a chat with the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro, precious little of the reasoning behind his decisions became clear.
One of the keys to effective NBA ownership is a willingness to delegate decisions to people who are better equipped to handle them. That has arguably been Lacob's greatest strength with the Warriors. When it comes to Dolan, he's either not delegating at all, or worse, he's delegating to the wrong people altogether.
Either way, his haphazard management has left the Knicks a rudderless wreck.
When re-signing Anthony to a max deal after his 30th birthday in 2014 is the organization's primary goal, it's pretty obvious that there's a crisis of leadership.
From the Top Down
It makes sense that the quality of ownership matters more than any other single aspect of an NBA franchise. After all, the guy who writes the checks is the one person in the organization who has the ability to touch every corner of a team.
An owner's impatience, greed, desperation and excessive frugality invariably influence the entire organization, imbuing it with whatever bad qualities are part of his makeup.
That's true of an owner's better qualities, as well. The Warriors owe much of their success to Lacob's dedication, boldness and willingness to depend on the skills of others.
In a way, an owner's personality ends up determining the characteristics of his team. That's why nothing matters more than great leadership.