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.