Owners Versus Players

A non-stats post today.  Henry Abbott at True Hoop has a post today about Memphis Grizzlies’ owner Michael Heisley and how he has a certain lack of knowledge of basketball business.  The particular point is how the interview makes it plain that owners may not be as smart as they’re typically given credit for whereas players, when they make a mistake, are typically viewed as idiots.

I think this is sort of interesting, but it depends a bit on what Henry is thinking about.  If we’re talking about owners versus players all the time, I have to disagree, a lot.  Owners, for the most part, are successful businessmen.  They have managed to acquire hundreds of millions of dollars, and likely more; they have enough money that they can invest in an NBA team and then argue that it’s a losing proposition without it being obviously false.  So obviously these are smart, successful people who make good decisions.  NBA players, on the other hand, are extremely talented at throwing a ball through a hoop.  Many of them spent little time at college, if any, and may not have had to try in any kind of educational manner since grade school.  So even if they aren’t “dumb”, they (again, for the most part) aren’t well-educated.  There are lots of stories about how many players are broke when they retire; they obviously do not make good decisions.  And when they make mistakes, it tends to be criminal, like getting arrested for drugs or gun possession, or personal, like getting a messy divorce or trying to pay for the five kids they have.  When owners make a mistake, it tends to be overpaying for a crummy free agent or drafting the wrong guy, or threatening to move their team to a new city.  I don’t mean to paint a big negative stereotype of NBA players, or pro athletes in general, because many are very likable and do good things like charity work, and not all of them make these mistakes.  But broadly speaking, I think it’s hard to argue that NBA players are better decision makers than owners in the game of life.

Alternatively, maybe Henry was talking about basketball decisions only.  In that case it’s hard to argue; half of the sports stats work out there exists to show that NBA executives make bad decisions by poorly evaluating players.  That being said, I don’t know if owners are the people to pick on.  The Grizzlies’ website lists at least 5 other people in the organization who would have input or make decisions about who to sign, who to draft, etc.  Notably, Memphis used to have Jerry West and now they have Chris Wallace; there are also scouting people, the head coach, and presumably other people around the organization who crunch numbers for the salary cap and whatnot.  This is true for every team; even the Mavs have people besides Mark Cuban.  And this is how it should be; owners are businessmen, not basketball people.  So they delegate.  Maybe Heisley has the final call because it’s his money, or because he wants to do more than rubber stamp the paperwork, but he is not the only guy involved.  So how much does it really matter if he hasn’t read the CBA?

Players are not exempt from bad decision making.  There are decisions on the court, which get picked apart fairly often.  There is knowledge about the game; a few NFL players (mostly Donovan McNabb) got busted a couple years ago for not knowing that games could end in a tie.  But players, at least superstars, also get input (at least nominally; maybe it’s ignored) into basketball decisions.  Some players get labeled “coach-killers”; LeBron not meeting with Tom Izzo this summer was big news.  Why should we think that players know enough to make choices about who should coach?  Beyond potentially being bad decision makers, don’t they have a big conflict of interest?  Most players would want the coach who will give them more minutes and shots, or install a system that fits their style.  I don’t see that players should be assumed to be as good or smart as owners, even regarding the sport.

So overall I don’t see why we should assume owners and players are on the same level in terms of their smarts or decision making ability.  Even if less educated, I’m sure many players are intelligent.  And some are indeed educated and good decision makers; Henry mentions Shane Battier, who by all accounts is very sharp.  But for every Shane Battier there’s an Eddie Griffin (not to say bad things about the dead); for every Steve Nash there’s a Latrell Sprewell.  And again, you simply don’t get to be a billionaire and buy an NBA team if you make bad decisions (with the possible exception of possible Russian mobsters).  So while Heisley, and other NBA owners, might be woefully under-prepared to make the nitty-gritty decisions about their team, I don’t think we should start throwing them under the bus for not being smarter than the players.

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3 Responses to Owners Versus Players

  1. reservoirgod says:

    Alex:

    I think your assumptions about owners could be very flawed. Most wealth in this country is inherited – especially the kind of wealth it takes to be an NBA owner. Giving owners credit for being successful business magnates when they inherited their wealth is like giving players credit for their athleticism when all they did was luck into some genes. I would also hesitate to say they’re better educated. While most players coming into the NBA lately were drafted w/out a college degree, many players also get their degree while in the league (e.g. remember Vince Carter flying from graduation to a playoff game). Many owners, however, may not be as well-educated as the public may think. The Knicks owner bounced around a few colleges before graduating from SUNY New Paltz. And I can believe rich kids were coddled thru school as much as (if not more than) any athlete. Just because the owners inherited so much wealth it couldn’t all be stolen or mismanaged doesn’t mean they don’t lose just as much money as players over the course of their lifetimes. Even if they don’t, they can afford better people to manage it for them. Finally – owners get in trouble, too. Donald Sterling of the Clippers is a prime example & the Knicks owner is a recovering alcoholic & drug addict. Just some skepticism for the skeptic.

    • Alex says:

      That’s fair. I did think it was a shame that so many sports people trashed Vince Carter’s decision when so often they complain about the lack of importance of education for pro athletes. And it’s certainly true that many owners got a head start in the money department from their families. But, my impression at least is that many of them have improved those businesses, or at least kept them running well; well enough to be able to afford buying an NBA team, for example. And that’s no small feat. My feelings could all be one big availability bias; there are many more players than owners and we almost always hear about their mistakes, but maybe not as often about the owners.

  2. nerdnumbers says:

    Mitch Hedburg had a great quote: “That’s like if I worked hard all my life to become a really good chef, they’d say, ‘OK, you’re a chef. Can you farm?’”

    Owners and players do a lot of things related to making a good basketball team, but not the exact parts. David Berri points out often that GMs are not asked if they understand statistical methods for interpreting data. Similarly players may know how to play the game but may not know what aspects of their skills win games. I think the NBAs problem stems a lot from the fact that it has a lot of Chefs that they ask to farm 🙂

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