Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley appeared on The Chris Vernon Show yesterday afternoon and submitted to a 37-minute interview. It was noisy and combative in part because Vernon, always animated, asked tough questions and backed them up with a solid understanding of the way the NBA works, a combination Heisley rarely confronts in his local media appearances. The tenor of the interview was also a result of Heisley's seeming inability to control his tone when challenged.here or also on iTunes, where the show is now available for download. The audio reveals much more than mere words can suggest.
Rather than go through the entire interview — and really, there's enough there to warrant that — I'm going to jump around and pull out a few exchanges and assertions that demand commentary. Even being selective, this is too long for one post, so I'm breaking it into two posts.
On the Xavier Henry contract situation, which takes up a large portion of the interview:
Heisley: The facts are that in the collective bargaining agreement for draft contracts, there is 40% available [for negotiation]. So we put in some performance criteria and the agent for Xavier, Arn Tellem, he thinks that's not right and not fair and he's advised his client not to sign.
Vernon: And you admit this is not the way business is usually conducted with rookies and their contracts and this is why Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez are the only two rookies still unsigned? You understand that you're the ones doing this and you're fine with that?
Heisley: What do you mean? We're the ones doing what?
Vernon: You are adding the performance bonus. It is typically customary to give the player the 120% of their rookie scale, and, in fact, that is what you've done in the past.
Heisley: I'll be very honest with you, I have not handled this in the past. And, quite honestly, I wasn't even aware that was in the collective bargaining agreement until this year.
I'm not going to get into the particulars of the Henry negotiation, because I did that here. Suffice it to say that Heisley makes a perfectly reasonable case that real performance incentives should be the norm for rookie contracts, but his lack of knowledge or concern about league-wide practices and the meaning of going against them is problematic. These issues will come up again.
For now, what's most striking is Heisley's admission that he wasn't aware of the negotiating room built into rookie contracts until this summer. Now, here and throughout our look at this interview, we have to establish that we shouldn't judge Heisley by the normal standards of an NBA owner. Since the departure of Jerry West, Heisley, by his own admission, has taken a more active role in team management. Behind the scenes and as a public voice, he has become the team's de facto president of basketball operations and thus has to be judged by a different standard than owners who allow their executives to operate with more autonomy and less interference.
Though he denies it on a follow-up question, Heisley gives the strong impression of being out of sorts about past rookie performance, which may have led to him taking a more personal interest in negotiations this time. This is one potential answer to the question of why the Grizzlies changed their stance toward rookie contracts this season. But the other comes here:
Vernon: Did this way of conducting business regarding the rookie contracts just come to you after reading the collective bargaining agreement? It appears as if you had this epiphany after reading the collective bargaining agreement — 'Oh my god, why are we conducting our business this way. Here I am reading the collective bargaining agreement and we don't have to do it this way.'
Heisley: I've never seen the collective bargaining agreement.
Heisley: I've never seen it.
Vernon: How is that possible?
Heisley: It's very possible. Are there things you haven't seen in your life?
Vernon: Well, I don't own an NBA franchise.
Heisley: What would you do, study the collective bargaining agreement?
This is where a lot of Grizzlies fans had to start getting very depressed. Apparently, Heisley hasn't demanded stronger performance clauses in the past because he didn't know that he could.
Heisley pushes against Vernon's own knowledge of the CBA here, as if Vernon should be held to the same standard and unaware that his interviewer does actually have decent grasp of league rules. He makes a case for the advisory role of his staff that essentially makes Heisley sound like Jerry West and Chris Wallace sound like Tom Penn (West's assistant general manger during his Memphis tenure).
Intimate knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement may not be a prerequisite for NBA owners, since, typically, general managers and other executives are charged with that. But the problem here, again, is that Heisley has appointed himself the de facto president of basketball ops. Owners always have the final say on major decisions, but this has become something a little different from that norm. And if Heisley is going to be directly driving much of the day-to-day operation of the team (down to something as ostensibly minor as negotiating rookie contracts) then it is not okay that he knows less about the contents of the CBA — essentially the league's team-building rule book — than I do. Have I read the CBA? No. But I've read pretty much all of Larry Coon's essential CBA FAQ. Many who cover the NBA and even many fans of the sport appear to have a broader working knowledge of the league's rules than the primary decision maker of the Memphis Grizzlies. Make you feel good, Grizzlies fans?
Heisley: [Chris Wallace] is the expert on the collective bargaining agreement. If you want to discuss the collective bargaining agreement, you should put Chris on the air.
Vernon: Well, in so many cases, you have made it abundantly clear that Chris Wallace [isn't] making the decisions.
Vernon puts Wallace on the air every week, of course, and they dance around these issues every week, sometimes in painfully awkward ways. Heisley doesn't seem to realize what he's done to his own general manager. Why would you want to bring Wallace on to talk about this when Heisley has made it clear that Wallace has little to do with the decision in question? And when, in fact, it is often understood that Wallace sometimes doesn't fully agree with Heisley-dictated decisions (see: Iverson, Allen, and Warrick, Hakim) and is instead playing the good soldier.
At this point, Heisley goes back to discussing the CBA language governing rookie-scale salaries, which he apparently just discovered this season. Heisley basically says that that provisions were pointed out to him this summer by an employee and he didn't understand why the team hadn't been insisting on stronger performance clauses all along, so he decided to ask for them now. I wonder if the person who drew Heisley's attention to this clause now regrets it?
Vernon: You have 29 other teams conducting themselves one way and then you …
Heisley (nearly yelling): That is not true!
Vernon: What do you mean it's not true?
Heisley: It's not true. What don't you understand about not true?
Vernon: Well, you're the only team that hasn't signed their rookies?
Vernon: You're the only team that hasn't signed its rookies.
Heisley: That may or may not be true either.
Vernon: No, that is true.
Heisley: Wait a minute, I don't know that. But the first statement was not true.
There are two issues here. Heisley's correction that the Grizzlies aren't the only team to ask for performance bonuses in rookie contracts this season is apparently correct. (The Spurs appear to have used some form of performance bonus for first-round pick James Anderson, whom they've managed to sign.)
But it's distressing that, despite personally demanding the inclusion of the performance bonuses and despite giving several interviews on the subject, Heisley seems less aware of the status of the team's negotiations relative to the rest of the league than most fans. Yes, Mr. Heisley, it is true the Henry and Vasquez are the only domestic first-round picks still unsigned.
I will tell you point blank son, the press doesn't influence me one iota.
One of my favorite one-liners of the interview. If you listen to the whole thing, you'll find that, on this issue, Heisley seems to protest too much, given how often he brings up the media.
In part two, we'll get into Heisley's comments on his fitness to call the shots, his team's relative success, the Thabeet/Rubio question, the departure of Hakim Warrick, and more.