This is a blueprint for NBA front offices. Take notes, then take action. It starts at the top.
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 and has reshaped the Clippers image from that of a Donald Sterling mess to an NBA juggernaut. He clearly had a 5-year plan.
As soon as Ballmer took over, his vision was simple: Be the best. Ballmer has not wasted any time. He brought in NBA legend Jerry West as a consultant, gave Executive Vice President Lawrence Frank the final say on basketball decisions, and influenced Doc Rivers to strictly focus on coaching. From 2014 to 2017, Frank and Rivers shared the General Manager role. This change took place after Ballmer realized having the head coach serve as GM could create a difficult dynamic for players.
It is easy to buy in when your owner is the richest owner in American team sports history ($50.4 billion net worth). It is even easier when your owner is this enthusiastic. The story of the Clippers’ transformation reminds me of the Arab oil infusion into European football, namely Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. These two clubs were taken over by the 1% of the 1% and were immediately given an extreme makeover.
We knew Ballmer was serious about winning when the Clippers re-signed Blake Griffin to a $175 million contract in 2017 and retired his jersey (despite trading him 6 months later). He wanted his franchise to breakout of the shadows of the big brother Los Angeles Lakers. It wasn’t going to happen if they didn’t take it seriously.
The Clippers aim to build a recognizable culture for its players. In Foxborough, Massachusetts you have the Patriot Way. The Pittsburgh Steelers and San Antonio Spurs are two more franchises whose players know they are part of something bigger than themselves. If you don’t want to buy in, it is going to cause problems (i.e. Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and ironically, Kawhi Leonard). Enter Patrick Beverley. Beverley inked a 3-year deal this summer to be the “brand ambassador” of the Clippers. Tough, hard-nosed, and in your grill. The red and blue squad in Staples wants nothing to do with the “Showtime” Lakers. They want to shove them out of the way.
Success in business begins with a clear focus and a plan. Ballmer brings both. This past week, the Clippers released the newest rendering of their stadium plans with the intent of creating “the best home in all of sports.”
“Our goal is to build a facility that re-sets fans’ expectations,” stated Ballmer. The arena is set for use starting in 2024 when the Clippers’ lease at the Staples Center expires. With the Rams and the Chargers playing right across the street, the LA sports epicenter could be shifting away from the Staples Center and into Inglewood.
You would think the city of Inglewood would be excited about this news, but that isn’t the whole story. Many residents have sued and voiced their concern over rising housing costs. The Clippers also face a second hurdle in this construction: James Dolan. The Knicks’ owner also owns the neighboring Forum and accused Inglewood officials of secretly agreeing with the Clippers to build an arena on land Dolan once leased through his Madison Square Garden Company. This is another example of the stark contrast between two leaders.
Ballmer is as intense as it gets and will do whatever it takes to find success in the NBA. See this Inside the NBA interview to get a better understanding of Ballmer’s commitment to greatness:
He’s focused. Meanwhile, Dolan is busy touring with his band JD & the Straight Shot and suing opposing owners on the other side of the country.
I can’t stress enough the importance of good ownership in professional sports. Steve Ballmer is a disciplined Jerry Jones. Jones prefers to take a hands-on approach in building a franchise, while Ballmer places confidence and decision-making power into the hands of his employees. Ballmer has assembled quite the brain trust in Lawrence Frank, Jerry West, and Doc Rivers. He simply “trusts his guys” and provides them with the resources to build something special.
Dedicated NBA fans tend to develop a liking to bright-future NBA teams. At first glance, the Clippers don’t seem to fit that billing, but I would argue that the Clippers have the brightest future in the NBA. Why? Because they are creating a vehicle for sustained success.
They don’t have the best young talent but they arguably have the most talent. Pat Bev, Lou Will, Kawhi, PG, and Montrezl Harrell is the lineup I am most excited to see this upcoming season. They’ve yet to step on the floor together but I envision this five having an identity similar to that of the Warriors’ Hamptons Five (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green).
Looking ahead, who wouldn’t want to join that group? Why would you want to play for the Lakers over the Clippers? The decisions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to join the Brooklyn Nets over the New York Knicks parallels Kawhi’s decision to join the Clippers. I expect this to be a recurring trend until the Knicks and Lakers find organizational stability.
My recommendation for the rest of the Association is to take notes on what has transpired under Steve Ballmer. Narrow your focus and eliminate the noise. Put smart people in charge and create a positive perception around your team and the rest will follow. This is the recipe for relevance in the NBA.