Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Michael Heisley, Annotated -- Part Two

Posted By on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 at 5:31 PM

Reviews are pouring in for Michael Heisley's Chris Vernon Show interview, and they aren't good. At least not for Heisley: On ESPN's True Hoop blog, Henry Abbott questions Heisley's thoughtfulness and wisdom. CBS Sports calls it an "abject trainwreck." At Fan House, Tom Ziller first compares Heisley to Donald Sterling and then comes back with a few tips about other collective bargaining agreement clauses Heisley might want to check out.

I waded through the first half of Heisley's Chris Vernon Show interview here. Let's now finish it up:

Vernon: Why are you responsible for making the basketball decisions?

Heisley: Why? I'll tell you why. Because I'm the guy who makes up the difference between what we bring in in revenue and what we put out to pay for players. And believe me, kid, that is a lot of money.

Vernon: But you would admit that's not your expertise?

Heisley: What's not my expertise?

Vernon: Basketball.

Heisley: I know as much about basketball as most people. I've been a pro sports basketball fan for longer than most of these people have been alive.

This is a common refrain whenever Heisley gets pushed on Grizzlies-related issues, bringing it back to financial issues even when the questions are not related to financial issues. A year or so ago, after a "chalk talk" with fans, Heisley held an informal press conference. I asked him three different times about issues relating to the team's organizational structure — his increased and increasingly public role as decision maker, the lack of input his general manager had in assembling most of the team's basketball staff, the rare-if-not-unprecedented 1.5 year contract his coach was then working under. None of this was at all related to spending and yet, each time, Heisley started barking defensively about how people said he hasn't spent, but he'd spent plenty.

The generally unprovoked defensiveness about spending pops up in this interview as well, but preceding exchange offers a different spin on financial justification. Heisley's losses, in his mind, justify his hands-on approach, regardless of the wisdom or effectiveness of the approach.

A little later, Heisley made references to his various advisers — in and outside the organization — which prompted a puckish retort from Vernon:

Vernon: I would hope you would stop talking to whoever told you to take Thabeet.

Heisley: Oh, so now we're going to talk about how bad Thabeet was? I would love for you to go back and do a little research, partner. In the front page of the Commercial Appeal, do you remember what they advised me about Rubio? They told me if I didn't everybody in Memphis would run me out of Memphis. Read [Geoff] Calkins' article. Some of the people who told me to go with Thabeet are supposedly some of the best basketball minds in the NBA. Use your imagination.

So much to unpack here, and I won't even get into his focus on the media he alleges to not care about.

For starters, Heisley seems to think he dodged a bullet by not taking Ricky Rubio. Setting aside the reality that there were other viable options (such as Tyreke Evans, James Harden, and Stephen Curry), the truth is that Rubio would have been a much better pick than Thabeet.

For starters, instead of paying Thabeet roughly $9 million in guaranteed money in his first two seasons as a purely developmental project, the team could used his roster spot on a more useful free agent while Rubio was developing overseas. (This is under the assumption that Rubio would not have played in the NBA last season as a #2 pick. I suspect he would have still remained in Spain, but that is not certain.)

Then, if Rubio eventually came over to play for the Grizzlies, the team would have a far superior player ready to contribute. (I think Rubio will be a star.) And if Rubio balked at playing for the Grizzlies, the team would still be able to trade his rights, which, I would argue, would fetch something more valuable than Thabeet.

Secondly, Heisley's provocative final assertion about who advised him to take Thabeet seems to be alluding to Jerry West. Knowing what we know about whom Heisley talks to, I don't know to whom else he could be referring.

Finally, if you've been paying close attention, Heisley has referred to Vernon as "son," "kid," and "partner." At this point, I was waiting for him to drop "pilgrim," but maybe Heisley isn't a John Wayne fan.

Heisley: I'll tell you something. In 10 years I've been in Memphis, we've made the playoffs three times, okay? Go back and look at all of the small market teams in the NBA and see how many over the last 10 years have been in the playoffs three times. I think you'll find out we're in the middle of the list. … The hardest thing I ever did in my life was try to make a winner out of a small-market team in the NBA. Not many places have done it.

Okay, Mr. Heisley, we'll do that. According to Wikipedia, here are the 12 smallest markets in the NBA, ranked according to the number of playoff appearances made over the past ten years. (Rank, from smallest to largest, among market size in parenthesis):

San Antonio Spurs (8th smallest market): 10
Utah Jazz (1st): 7
Orlando Magic (9th): 7
New Orleans Hornets (2nd): 6
Indiana Pacers (6th): 6
Sacramento Kings (11th): 6
Milwaukee Bucks (5th): 5
Cleveland Cavaliers (10th): 5
Portland Trailblazers (12th): 5
Memphis Grizzlies (4th): 3
Oklahoma City Thunder (3rd): 1 (in two seasons)
Charlotte Bobcats: (7th): 1 (in six seasons)

So, actually, no: The Grizzlies rate of playoff appearances for a small-market franchise is not in the middle of the list. Among the teams that have existed in their current city for a full 10 seasons, the Grizzlies are actually last. And as Fan House's Tom Ziller pointed out on Twitter, the Bobcats and the Los Angeles Clippers are the only franchises with fewer wins than the Grizzlies since Michael Heisley purchased the team.

Heisley: We're in the low 60s in our payroll this season. That puts us above more 50 percent of the teams in the NBA.

It's hard to fully fact check this assertion until closer to the start of the season. I have no quarrel with the team's overall spending this season, but I'm skeptical that this claim is accurate. I will revisit this when the information is easier to access.

Heisley: Jerry West and I talk frequently about what I should do.

Again, does Heisley have any sense of how publicly trumpeting Jerry West's informal advisory role undercuts his current general manager? Is there any other owner making public comments about seeking high-profile advice outside his own organization?

Heisley: I don’t know why they don't do it and quite bluntly I don't really care why they don't do it. I basically am trying to run my team. I'm trying to run my business. They're trying to run theirs. It's a good question. Why don't they do it? I don’t really care what the answer is.

This is, again, in reference to the Henry negotiation, but the attitude Heisley expresses has wider implications. The Grizzlies aren't just an independent business that Heisley owns. It is also one of 30 franchises in a pro sports association. It competes with other franchises on the court and in pursuit of talent and it is governed by the same set of rules. Any owner or team operator should care very much about how other teams operate and about how his team functions within the context of the league. This doesn't mean a team shouldn't be free to buck precedent and waver from standard operating procedure. But when you do so, you should have a sense of the implications. Heisley doesn't seem as if he can be bothered to put his actions in a wider context.

Heisley: [You say] everybody I've got is a yes man. I'm sure Lionel Hollins would love to hear that you called him a yes man. Because I'll tell you one thing, you don't know Lionel Hollins. He's definitely anything but a yes man. I just don't believe that to cast these people who are working for the Grizzlies as a bunch of yes men, I don't think it's the case. They do not have the authority that Jerry West had. That's very true

Hollins has definitely shown backbone and earned respect for it, so no argument with the owner defending his coach here. But, again, Heisley undercuts his top executive, this time by immediately naming an ostensibly lower level (lower in terms of the organizational chart, which theoretically runs from owner to GM to coach) figure as a response to Vernon's negative criticism.

This exchange continues:

Vernon: The reason I say that is that given any opportunity to neuter them publicly and act as if they have less power, you do it.

Heisley: What?

Vernon: Almost across the board, you take every decision on yourself, which makes us all sit back and say, what are these other people responsible for?

Vernon: So, you're saying that all the other owners in the league don't sit down and make decisions?

This is the crux of the problem. Though he says he doesn't care how other teams operate, he seems to think he's operating in the same manner as other teams. But there's only one other owner who seems to be as directly involved in such a wide range of basketball decisions and as prominent in media reports as a quoted source about all manner of team operations. And that's Dallas' Mark Cuban. And you know what? Heisley is no Cuban. I'll give Cuban something of a pass as an exception to the norm for two reasons: 1. His history of success. And 2. His demonstrated knowledge of team-building concepts, league practices, and cutting-edge basketball ideas. Cuban is knowledgeable enough to have moderated a panel at the last Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It's unimaginable that Heisley (or, to be fair, most other NBA owners) could do the same.

The Grizzlies buzz phrase of the summer has been "best practices," which is what Chris Wallace has deployed to defend the team's negotiating stance toward Henry. But Michael Heisley should tune into how most successful franchises operate and adopt another league-wide "best practice": Owners who hire good basketball operations personnel, set up a set of goals and operating strategies, then step back and let them do their jobs, especially without a constant stream of distracting and spotlight-hogging public appearances.

Wrapping up, I can't leave out this near aside toward the end:

Vernon: All of your basketball guys wanted you to resign Hakim Warrick.

Heisley: That's not true at all. … We tried to sign Hakim Warrick and he wouldn't sign the contract. If we hadn't have withdrawn the offer, he could have held us to it until December, the trade deadline. I hated to get rid of Hakim Warrick. We didn't try to get rid of Hakim Warrick. We tried to keep Hakim Warrick.

I don’t even know where to start with all of this. First, the trade deadline is in February, not December. Second, if the Grizzlies had kept the offer sheet out to Warrick, it would have resolved itself by the start of the season, not December. This all seems so nonsensical that I fear I'm overlooking something that would better explain what Heisley is trying to say.

As for his assertion that there was not internal disagreement about pulling Warrick's offer sheet — well, I guess I don't know what Heisley people said to him on the subject, but I feel comfortable in saying that most if not all of Heisley's top level basketball staff would have preferred to keep Warrick. So either Heisley is misrepresenting the situation or private misgivings were not fully expressed.

Finally:

Heisley: I love arguing with you.

Heisley thinks this was all great fun, but as the national attention has demonstrated, it was in fact a poor — I keep wanting to use the word distressing — performance that did no help to either his reputation or that of his franchise. Heisley may love mixing it up, but the way he goes about it is not productive. His good time is bad for his team.

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