August 19, 2009
It's hard to call Bob Johnson the worst owner in the NBA, because the awful owner culture is so varied. It really is a choice of whatever rotten fruit you fancy least.
Los Angeles Clippers boss Donald Sterling is the go-to guy, and has been for decades. But for the last half-decade, his stank of parsimony has been lessened. Sure, he doesn't want to pay for two coaches (by firing Mike Dunleavy and hiring a replacement), or for a coach or GM at the same time. But he has spent money to improve the team's roster and practice facility. Where he falls short is his revealed status as an awful, awful person.
Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf is a pretty nice guy, unless you're negotiating with him (he likes to "win" negotiations, even if you get the money you ask for, by insulting you as you sign the dotted line, leaving you ticked even if your bank account stays happy). He pays through the teeth to keep his beloved White Sox afloat in the pennant race, and makes more money off his NBA team than any other owner in the league. He doesn't really care much for his NBA team, though, and refuses to pay the luxury tax for his crew. Pretty crummy.
Memphis' Michael Heisley was far, far into debt when he moved the Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis. He then proceeded to spend huge gobs of money putting together a series of penny-wise but pound-foolish 50-win teams (based around Pau Gasol(notes) and a series of vets, very little upside), while paying large of amounts of cash to advisors and GMs like Dick Versace, Chuck Daly and Jerry West. When he could borrow no more, he hired a patsy GM (Chris Wallace) to take the slings and arrows of the uninformed or the biased, ran the show himself cheaply and poorly, and he'll be lucky to hit 15 wins this year despite years of rebuilding.
New York's James Dolan is just a privileged son gone mad. He's the type of guy that ruined baseball card shows for you 20 years ago, a middle-aged man spending heaps of his dad's cash on whole sets and rookie Gregg Jeffries cards while you cobble together quarters for a late-era Lou Brock Topps. Then, as you got older, he ruined guitar stores for you; buying up all those Mesa Boogies and Tube Screamers while you were in just to dollar bill your way for another pack of D'Addario 10s. The Knicks have stunk from the top down since he started pushing his way around back in 2001.
George Shinn? He's not as meddlesome, or as cheap as he used to be. But you know something's coming.
Mark Cuban? Deserves inclusion for this picture alone. Sorry, Mark.
Glen Taylor's pretty bad, but his blind allegiance to Kevin McHale can be argued away by the fact that McHale did draft KG, and while he didn't make nearly as many good moves as he did awful moves, the former Timberwolves GM wasn't some Isiah Thomas-failure from top to bottom. He still made enough sound moves to keep Minnesota in the playoffs from 1997 to 2004. That was mostly KG, but it wasn't all KG.
Chris Cowan? Too obscure and depressing to go through. Just a bad, bad era for a fan base that deserves a Spurs-styled winner.
Abe Pollin? MLSE? The shadowy Hawks owners? Robert Sarver killing Seven Seconds or Less? Sure, they're all up there.
But where does Bob Johnson fit? The Charlotte Bobcats owner has only been in place since 2003 or so, and he's about to sell the team after a disastrous 144-266 run. That's a 29-53 average, over five seasons.
Let's review ...
Johnson was handed the keys to the city of Charlotte in a (rightfully) guilt-laden move from David Stern, who couldn't stand the way Shinn ruined his chances in the community with the Hornets, but didn't want to set a bad negotiating precedent by stopping any potential Hornets relocation. So an "expansion" team of sorts was in order, but the league and Johnson forgot one important thing.
Charlotte wasn't an "expansion" city. All the bells and whistles and teal outfits that may have lured fans to watch a crummy Hornets team in 1988 just wasn't going to work in 2004-05, the first year of the Bobcats' existence. Johnson had to come correct, early, and didn't. Bobcats fans were just a few years removed from rooting for the Hornets in 2001-02. They knew about the salary cap, they knew about expansion team draft restrictions, they knew who Bernie Bickerstaff was, and they weren't about to be fooled.
This didn't mean they were dubious, sight unseen. It just meant the Bobcats had to act like they'd been there before, because the fans had. And with the chintzy logo and pathetic "Bobcats" moniker, World League of American Football (or NBDL, take your choice)-styled uniforms, and penny-wise maneuvers, the Bobcats just couldn't get it right. These fans weren't going to be wowed by 33 wins and a "wait ‘til next year!" ethos that could see the team hit 41 victories. In the East, no less. They knew better.
But that didn't stop Johnson.
Name recognition. Popular guys that you've heard of, for whatever reason. I realize there's a pretty large gulf between the greatest player of all time and Raja Bell, but the thinking remained the same. The Bobcats just wanted to be full of guys you'd heard of, in hopes that you'd fill the arena in return.
These weren't all bum moves. Richardson can play, Brown can coach, Bell can contribute, May could even play when he was healthy (before last season, at least). But that hardly matters when your absolute ceiling is a few games under .500, and fans still aren't coming out.
Would you? Heading into 2007-08, sure, this was an encouraging team. It all rested on May's health, really, but that was a team that could have made the playoffs. But other than that, where's the long term payoff? Where's the upside? Where's the, "well, 2009-10 won't be much, but you'll see where we're at in a few years once [flighty prospect] comes around"?
This is on Johnson. He didn't have the foresight, he didn't have the patience, he didn't come through with the effort needed to take what needs to be a six- or seven-year plan (at least) and do something great with it.
If expansion teams are making the playoffs in their fourth or fifth years (as Charlotte attempted to do last season), it means they're banking on limited upside players, and a roster that won't make the playoffs in its sixth season. Count on it.
Hell, Orlando made the Finals in its sixth season only after being handed two No. 1 draft picks in a row, with one player acting as the dominant force of his generation. And they were swept.
Otherwise, it's a slow roll. But done right, it can be a lasting push to the top. You have to ignore temptation, stay honest with your fan base, honest with yourself, and most of all? You have to trust the fan base.
Especially in Charlotte,
where the fans knew better. Johnson had the best chance of any "expansion" owner,
because he had a fan base already in place that understood NBA rebuilding. That
understood what it took to be a champion. That rued the day the Hornets,
impatient and pound-foolish, overspent on Larry Johnson, only to see Alonzo
Mourning(notes) bully his way toward a trade a year later. That knew better. You're
telling me a sniff test, much less a five-figure expenditure that polls and
characterizes fan expectations, couldn't have revealed this?
Perhaps Johnson ignored it. We knew that he's losing money, but it's also become pretty obvious that he was more interested in the flash and dash of being an "NBA owner," as opposed to the warming security and pride of being an "NBA champion."
And for a community like Charlotte, that has had to deal with two of these bums in a row, it just isn't fair.