The Golden State Warriors are continually presented as the team who got lucky. Whether we would like to admit it or not, that idea is a perpetuation of our preconceived notions. The idea exists that championships are won, and dynasties are born, by dominant defenses manned by behemoth bigs, and offenses built around the isolation play of a post player or large transcendent wings. The idea that size matters. The idea that offenses built around tiny guards penetrating into creases and sharing the ball only succeeds in the regular season.
The idea, lastly, and the subject of this column, that brash, in your face ownership personalities like Joe Lacob, don’t preside over dynasties. The idea, we have been told, that the best owners are only those owners who remain quiet, in the shadows, as their management teams take all the credit for franchise success.
It is true that many hands on, active in the conversation owners have floundered when building NBA teams, sometimes in epic fashion. James Dolan and Mikhail Prokhorov are legendary meddlers, and their constant involvement in their teams’ plans has submarined their respective franchises, at different points in time (Dolan in the early and mid 2000’s, and Prokhorov now). Vivek Ranadive has famously asked his Kings to incorporate tactics from young girls’ recreational basketball (cherrypicking!), demanded who his team draft despite doing a feature on “crowdsourcing” to show the masses the organization’s trust in the analytics process (“Stauskas!”), the firing of Mike Malone, and general dysfunction.
Lacob’s success, further, defies the preconceived notions of many. Great owners, we thought, don’t fire their coach, and then embark on a continuous public campaign to go after him. For that matter, it is inordinately common that when an owner fires a coach after an above or at expectations season, that the owner is seen as impulsive, of the type who will never succeed at his job. “Blame the players,” they say. “The coach did all he could,” they also say. It should not be forgotten that Lacob was in that camp after the 2013-2014 season. The Warriors were a 23 win team when Mark Jackson took the job, and a 51 win team in his last season.
Obviously, firing Jackson was the right decision. The facts clearly show that the Warriors, after bursting onto the scene in 2012-2013, hit a plateau in 2013-2014. There was some mild criticism that a team with their talent should not be average offensively, and it cannot be said that Steve Kerr simply built off Jackson’s foundation. He scrapped Jackson’s take turns, post up heavy offense, and implemented the dribble drive, move off the ball, create open 3’s Warriors offense the league fears today.
Indeed, Lacob is the owner at the top of the sport, despite meeting the stereotypes, superficially, of some of the league’s worst owners. Some would say that is nothing but a stroke of luck. And indeed, not only is luck a factor for every champion ever, but to an extent, the judgment of ownership and management in sports can be results oriented. When the Warriors and Kings have multiple faces in the decision making room, it’s called the sharing of ideas when the former is discussed, dysfunction for the latter. When the Warriors sign James Michael McAdoo – legend Bob McAdoo’s cousin — to a roster spot in 2015 and he does nothing for them, it gets nary a murmur – if they were struggling, it would be portrayed as a team not being resourceful and diligent in filling its roster, instead pandering to a legend’s bloodline. You have not seen allegations that Alvin Gentry (struggling mightily in New Orleans) and Steve Nash were hired due to their friendships with Steve Kerr, rather than their coaching acumen, when this very well may be the case. You may, if Kerr did not catapult the team forward.
All of that aside, the Warriors have shown they have become one of the league’s great organizations, and the evidence of that is not based on just luck and results. Rather, Lacob and his front office have exhibited so many qualities, and prioritized so many important interests, in ways that show that they are to be taken seriously as a great organization – not just now, but for the foreseeable future.
A FRONT OFFICE MODEL OF DELIBERATENESS AND INCLUSIVENESS
This podcast between Adrian Wojnarowski and Bob Myers, on Yahoo!’s new podcast, the Vertical, is a must listen. One of its many significant takeaways is how Warriors General Manager Bob Myers described the patience of the front office, in how decisions are made between a group including primarily himself, Jerry West, Travis Schlenk, and Kirk Lacob (another of those “wouldn’t it be criticized more if the team was losing” hires, for obvious Doc Rivers-Austin Rivers like reasons).
Myers won Executive of the Year in 2014-2015, and the podcast reflected why that award was so well deserved. For starters, Myers’ stated that no front office decision is officially made without it being discussed, as a group, and then until there is a group consensus. The directive that one individual is not to make significant decisions alone, but that the voices of all are to be heard and respected, starts with Lacob as owner and helps exhibit why the Warriors have made so many good decisions as an organization. Simply, more voices breed more perspectives on a transaction, which breed more ideas regarding potential positives, negatives, and short and long term implications. The NBA is a tough place to win, no matter how smart you are. Want to maximize your chances? Get more perspectives on the deal. The Kings, after a large Crowdsourcing effort said “draft Elfrid Payton,” drafted Nik Stauskas. The Nets, because Prokhorov wanted to brand his organization, relinquished 3 first rounders and swapped a fourth for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and given they now wish to rebuild around youth, seemingly did not consider the consequences. True, success in the NBA can be as simple as getting it right, but getting it right is not just about luck: more perspectives simply increase the likelihood of getting it right. And if you look up and down the Warriors roster and how they acquired their players, the Warriors have done that, a lot. At some point, it’s not just “lucky.”
Another huge point on the Woj-Myers podcast that highlights Lacob’s smart ownership style? While encouraging the sharing of ideas in his front office, he has given Myers’ final authority to make decisions, an authority Myers uses well. Myers discussed the idea of asking a ticket salesman what he thought the Warriors should do at a given time. The idea there is not to empower marketing personnel to make decisions, but to get alternate perspectives on transactions. Sometimes, you can acquire tunnel vision analyzing an issue, and it never hurts to see what a fresh face has to say. Lacob’s inclusive front office culture understands that.
Lastly from the podcast, was the idea that a decision is virtually never made instantaneously, but always slept on, or tabled to think about at another time. That time to reflect allows for time to contemplate other perspectives and distance oneself from the impulse of “let’s get this done so it can get done!” For all the talk that Lacob must be impulsive because of his talkative, and active, persona, he has fostered a front office culture of intense deliberation and thought, a front Office of smart basketball and analytics people whom Lacob empowers to do their jobs, and the Warriors run like a well oiled machine as a result.
AVOIDING THE TEMPTATION TO MAKE A SPLASH OR CATER TO FAN DESIRES: THE KEVIN LOVE NO TRADE AND MONTA ELLIS TRADE
Multiple organizations in the Warriors’ position in mid 2014: a pseudo contender who just hit a plateau – would have traded Klay Thompson and portions of the farm or future for Kevin Love, so long as Steph Curry was not in the deal. The Warriors could have made big waves, began printing season tickets to sell like hot cakes, by dealing for Love. The stereotype of the hands on owner is that he is going to make that deal.
Not Lacob. Lacob is never portrayed as the patient type, but he and his front office approached the Love no trade with the calmness of the San Antonio Spurs, or the league’s other great front offices. What would acquiring Love do to our defense? To the culture of continuity? The issues were debated, and debated some more, but Lacob never allowed the temptation of positive press, a splashy presser, or the inevitable influx of ticket sales, to interfere: the front Office reached a conclusion that the deal was not in the best interests of building a winner, and therefore the trade was not made.
A similar style move was made under Lacob’s ownership in 2012, when the Warriors dealt fan favorite Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, which was met by an epic chorus of boos from Warriors fans. Ellis was loved in Oakland, while Bogut was coming off an injury (he is injury prone), and fans were incensed at seeing their guy go. The trade freed the Steph Curry Klay Thompson backcourt to play together, and Bogut has been an anchor defensively for the Warriors since – anyone complaining now?
Lacob knew that move would not help sell tickets, or make a splash. But, as with the Love trade, Lacob’s front office, based on the culture of deliberateness he created, put out of their minds the idea of making a splash or pandering to fans, and simply did what they thought best, upon a long evaluative process. The process Lacob has instilled works.
FIRING MARK JACKSON: FORGETTING ABOUT BAD PUBLICITY, AND HAVING HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Clearly, the Jackson firing in 2014 was partially motivated by dislike between Jackson and Lacob, and Jackson and many in the organization. However, the Jackson firing reflected two more good qualities in Lacob’s ownership. First, he is always willing to make moves he believes are best for the Warriors, regardless of what anyone thinks.
Second, is the healthy nature of having high expectations. It is true that an owner, in consulting with management, should know how good his team is, and should not make decisions out of line with the team’s abilities due to unreasonable expectations. But there is nothing wrong with an owner, as Lacob, having high expectations of a talented roster, and, while empowering management to make decisions, consistently demanding excellence. That demand is reflected in the firing of Jackson. Many owners in Lacob’s position would have said, “he inherited a 23 win team, and we took the 56 win Clippers to a game 7 without Bogut, so he should not be fired,” and just left it at that. And often, we see these kinds of results based hirings or firings in sports: how often is an NFL coach in Week 17 coaching for his job, as if that one game shows if he is the coach to bring a championship or not.
Rather than being content, however, Lacob, due to his high expectations, continued evaluating Jackson, as he likely does all his employees. That evaluation led to the conclusion that a team with Curry, Thompson, Green, Barnes and all the talent in Golden State simply should not rank 13th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. For all the talk of Jackson’s strained relationships, that issue with his offense was critical, and justified his demise as coach. Look at the offense now – Lacob clearly spearheaded a tough, but correct, decision.
Indeed, in discussing Jackson, Lacob used a metaphor from his Silicon Valley experiences about startup and larger companies, which actually was profound: how many coaches are seen as the guy who can get players motivated and playing hard (which Jackson did), but not the guy that can win the big one (which Kerr did).
Lacob is not an impulsive owner who makes decisions on a whim – the Love and Bogut decisions bear that out. But he is an owner who is committed to constantly evaluating everyone under him, with the understanding – as he likely saw in Silicon Valley – that a good employee today is not always a good employee tomorrow. That type of commitment will prevent the Warriors organization from being complacent as they continue to win in the coming years, rather than continuing to problem solve and work with the hunger of an organization that has never done it before.
So, are the Warriors lucky. Sure, they are lucky. Every single NBA team that won a championship got lucky, somewhere along the way, and calling the Warriors lucky is no backhanded compliment, but a recognition of reality. That all said, success for an NBA franchise is not all about luck, but occurs at the inflection point where strong front office values, hard work, and persistence pay off, and then intersect with the right dash of luck. So while it is easy for teams who are not successful to rationalize that by calling the more successful “lucky,” that could not be more untrue. The Warriors are patient rather than impulsive, value doing what is smart over what makes the back page, value relationships with agents and other teams (listen to Bob Myers’ podcast with Woj: he calls building relationships with other teams and with agents “Business 101”: Sam Hinkie failed largely here), and incorporate the right mix of caring about their players – Kerr worried about how Love rumors made Klay feel, with not letting what stars’ whims dictate front office decisions and instead instilling a culture where no player is bigger than the team — Curry did not want Jackson fired and many teams would have complied, but the Warriors refuse to operate that way.
Joe Lacob may come off as the classic meddlesome, overly involved owner to some, and his team may present as a creature of good luck. Make no mistake about it. The Warriors, once a laughingstock, are now an incredible organization, from top to bottom. They are a model for both organizations with rotten luck and paltry histories that they too can become great organizations, and a model for organizations with owners as boisterous as Lacob that they can improve as owners, if they hire smart people and keep their egos in check.
And much of it starts with Joe Lacob.