How Incompetent Teams Handicap their own Future

Bulls

Apr 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo (9) reacts during the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding successful NBA franchises have outstanding infrastructure isn’t exactly rocket science. Strong leaders will always get the most out of the people around them, while poor leaders will continuously find themselves in up-hill battles to achieve simple goals. Those two entities are separated by several things, but one of the biggest problems you’ll find in flawed management and poor leadership is a detachment of work, where the supposed front-figure isn’t the one spearheading the betterment of the organization.

Essentially, this:

Add stubbornness, vanity and expected prestige into the mix, and you’re left with James Dolan of the New York Knicks. One of the most infamous owners in the NBA, Dolan has built a flawed culture, robbed of loyalty and standing on the shaky pillars of a quick fix. For well over a decade, the Knicks have needed to invest time and resources into a complete rebuild to regain solid ground in the league, but have instead invested in several failed attempts at turning the franchise around as quickly as possible for the sake of relevancy.

We don’t need to re-visit the Isiah Thomas era, but let’s just agree that handing over $60 million to Jared Jeffries and Jerome James, while panic-trading for a 15.9 PER Steve Francis isn’t going to make you a contender anytime soon. If anything, the Thomas era was the first sign of severe impatience from Dolan. Whatever big name he could latch onto was acquired, often at ridiculous costs, with the expectation of an immediate return without factoring in fit, personality or other traits that true leaders understand to be essential for success.

The current attempt started in 2011, with the Knicks trading for Carmelo Anthony, a deal in which New York gave up an insane amount of value, leaving Anthony with virtually no one outside of Amar’e Stoudemire to play with. The hiring of Phil Jackson three years later, and the trade for Derrick Rose last year, culminated in a just-concluded 31-51 season, with the Knicks not having made the playoffs since Jackson’s hire. If history is any indication, Dolan is about to turn the Knicks into a sad, cheap knock off of the Fast and Furious franchise, raising the stakes with every installment, except without reaping the benefits from it actually working.

The fact that these attempts have all backfired suggests Dolan simply doesn’t learn from his mistakes. Having now wasted six straight years chasing the immediate, there’s no telling how the Knicks might have looked had they decided to re-build through the draft and strong character guys. Kristaps Porzingis is admittedly a huge step in the right direction, and this year represents another chance for the Knicks to land another impactful youngster, with the team currently projecting to pick seventh in a strong draft.

But here’s the problem. While it’s obvious to everyone that using that pick is overwhelmingly necessary, every Knicks fan will tell you there’s a small fear in the back of their head that Dolan might consider moving the pick for something asinine, especially if he deems it perfect to move up their timeline. The sheer lack of trust in leadership in New York is another symptom of incompetent management. That’s not to say fans can’t distrust decisions made by strong organizations, but there’s a baseline of fundamental trust that overrides the initial distrust of a decision. Case in point, the Jaylen Brown pick in last year’s draft by Boston. A fairly strong number of Celtics fans were hesitant to Brown (some still are) but the trust they have in Danny Ainge offered the benefit of doubt.

That same fear is also present in Sacramento, a team on such unstable ground the fan base have long given up trying to understand the current plan, if there’s even one in place. The trading of DeMarcus Cousins could potentially fetch them the 10th pick in the draft this year, but such return, even if you add in Buddy Hield, should be unacceptable for one of the league’s best centers. But that’s not where the concern ends.

“Am told that fixation was a key driver in deal.”

In whatever business you’re in, fixation is a dangerous word because it suggests emotional attachment to an idea or principle that may not be accurate. Having an owner who makes decisions off fixations and gut-feelings, much like the drafting of Nik Stauskas was, means unpredictability. Unpredictability means a lack of consistency. Lack of consistency means a shaky foundation. In what world would a young player be able to develop properly under such circumstances? It makes the outlook of the 10th pick even worse, simply because the foundation in place to develop that player isn’t optimized, increasing the likelihood of that player not realizing his potential.

Ranadivé has done a lot of weird things since buying the team in 2013. He hires coaches and general managers on a whim, fires them when they predictably – hey, something predictable! – fail to deliver his flawed visions, and his “NBA 3.0” idea doesn’t compare favorably to the ideas that any five-year old could get when asked how to improve the league. While on the surface his suggestions may be harmless, that’s not how they are being perceived. Having an owner suggesting 4-on-5 basketball affects everyone in the organization because such ludicrous ideas come from a person with power, thus suggesting the people around him aren’t any better. They are, but perception isn’t always logical.

Based on recent history, members of Sacramento’s front office, current and future, will look over their shoulder much like a second round rookie getting his first NBA minutes, which establishes a nervous culture that includes second-guessing and overthinking. Ranadivé has done little to change this, putting forth no effort to build a foundation of stability, which leaves current front office members with a dumbbell over their heads waiting to drop whenever they make a mistake. Poor management not only limits the potential of the organization, it also diminishes the growth of talented employees with leadership abilities, who themselves could become high-quality leaders.

With Cousins gone, it’s undoubtedly the hope of Ranadivé that things will run more smoothly. What remains to be seen is whether or not he understands that his workload now has to increase, given that he no longer has a superstar to lean on. The Kings are going to be horrible for a while,which means more work. Much like children with dyslexia have to put in more hours of work to reach the same level as their peers, poor organizations have to catch up to the rest of the league’s teams that understand how to properly operate an NBA franchise. During that time, the margin for error also decreases significantly. Utter ignorant ideas in public, or fire someone recently hired to an important position, and it’s all back to square one.

Of course, there’s also a thing as playing it too safe, which Gar Forman and John Paxson (GarPax) have done for years in Chicago; to the point that the fan base has turned on them somewhat aggressively. Unlike Ranadivé, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has a hands-off approach and rarely speaks to the media. He’s empowered GarPax, leaving the day-to-day operations to them almost entirely, with only his son Michael overseeing things. While that sense of loyalty is to be commended, it presents a problem when those in charge of the day-to-day dealings perhaps shouldn’t be employed.

The Bulls, once major draft players with a solid hit-ratio, have not had a home run pick since 2011, when they essentially lucked into Jimmy Butler at 30th. Their free agent targets have been veterans on the wrong side of 30, and the team is notorious for bringing in players whose names are considerably bigger than their games, at least partially for ticket revenue. While that has proven to earn them great amounts of money each season, the product has suffered. Reinsdorf seems perfectly content chasing the eighth seed and avoids a full rebuild like the plague due to some post-Michael Jordan years that were less kind to the team.

Adding insult to injury, these Bulls aren’t strong advocates of advanced metrics and data. Last summer, knowing the entire league was on board the analytics train, the Bulls signed non-shooters Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, both big names, to pair with Butler, a streaky shooter himself. The signings came on the heels of Forman telling the media that the Bulls were looking to get younger and more athletic. That comment drew a lot of attention, not because they did the opposite, but because Bulls fans expected them to do the opposite. Why? Because the Bulls, Forman especially, are notoriously non-transparent.

The Bulls remain the sole club in the NBA that Adrian Wojnarowski doesn’t know who drafts several minutes before, as they’re extremely closed off. That’d be fine if their decisions weren’t almost embarrassingly simplistic: Draft older senior rookies from great programs, hype them up as accomplished players, then see them spend just as much time developing as a freshman would. The formula has a low hit-rate, the incoming players have less potential than the guys coming in that are three years their junior, and yet, the Bulls are so set in their ways they’re pulling the rug out from under their own feet.

That determination to do things traditionally has quickly turned the Bulls into the dinosaurs of the NBA. Paxson was hired as GM in 2003, which was a completely different era, and promoted to team president in 2009 with Forman taking over GM duties. That, too, was quite some time ago, and neither have adapted well to the current waves sweeping the NBA, despite the adapt-or-die nature of the league.

Chicago’s traditional values aren’t restricted to just old-school tendencies. They even have a special relationship with Iowa State University, where they prefer to tab talent, based on personal relationships built by Forman, who worked with the school from 1994-1998. Forman even bought the house of current head coach, Fred Hoiberg, who used to coach Iowa State.

Nepotism is a strong word, but one that’s fitting with both ownership and management, which suggests they aren’t always keeping an open mind. Said nepotism is so firmly in place that GarPax’s jobs are both safe. Trading away what in totality amounted to six picks for what became Cameron Payne didn’t change that, so why would anything else?

These three franchises are each run in a manner that limits their own long-term prospects. Without being too morbid, each are slowly digging their own grave by not accepting certain truths that are entirely obvious. Dolan doesn’t recognize his own tendency of disruptiveness, Ranadivé fails to understand the benefits of stability and Reinsdorf is oblivious to the fact that his hires are no longer productive. When owners refuse to adapt to a dynamic league led by think-tanks and progressive thought, it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves at the bottom of the pit, clawing for survival.


More from Morten Stig Jensen

About The Author

Danish hillbilly, and proud father, who's been around the web a few times. Owned and operated the largest basketball-site in Denmark, was an NBA on-air color analyst for a brief time, now a frequent podcaster. Academy Profession Degree in Multimedia Design and Communication from the Copenhagen School of Design & Technology, currently studying Media Production & Management at the Danish School of Media & Journalism.

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