Owners Gone Wild - Sterling and Cuban Go Off on Their Teams

On Monday March 2nd, the NBA scoreboard included these two results:

The Mavericks are clinging to the eighth seed in the Western Conference (and within 2 games of home court advantage in the first round, it should be noted) while the Clippers are within 2 games of the worst record in the NBA.  The Mavs lost to a team with 14 wins at the time.  The win over the Clippers was San Antonio's 40th. 

Despite the difference in station and opponent, the owners of the respective losing teams picked that moment to get angry at their teams.  Although their methods were different, the overall message was almost identical, according to reports.

Owner Donald Sterling, frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of effort, went on a tirade in the locker room afterward.  According to team sources, Sterling offered a blanket denunciation of the players and strongly backed Coach and General Manager Mike Dunleavy. The owner said he would be willing to trade all the players and said he was putting their future in Dunleavy's hands.

If each player can't take the personal initiative to make every game important and play like it, I don't see them being here next season. The ball won't always bounce the way we want it to, but every player can control their level of effort. If it's not important enough to them to lay it out every game the rest of the season, they won't be back. I don't care what their contract is. I would rather turn over the roster 100 percent than subject fans to another game like last night.

Shape up, or ship out.  I will trade every one of you, you will not be back, if you don't make a better effort.  These are reasonable expectations from a team owner, and certainly these are two underachieving teams.

But that's where the similarities end. 

Let me make it clear up front that I am not a huge fan of Mark Cuban.  He's passionate and engaged, and he is willing to spend his money to make his team better, and those are good things.  But his antics wear thin for me (like actually talking on court trash to a player), and I find him arrogant in the extreme.  However, he is infinitely superior as an owner to Donald Sterling.  Sterling has all of the arrogance, with none of the positives. 

Cuban is a constant, active presence around the Mavericks.  He has a relationship with the players, he is incredibly visible to the fans, he is transaparent - if anything, too transparent.  He blogs for FSM's sake.  As such, it's not unusual that he spoke about the team after a loss, only that he passionately conveyed his disappointment. 

Sterling is also a presence.  A dark specter, a sepulchral cloud that hangs over the franchise.  He is rarely interviewed, and is perceived to take little or no interest in the team beyond the money it costs him.  60 games in, he has yet to be quoted discussing the Clippers this season.  He answered a couple of questions regarding the Elgin Baylor lawsuit in February, and that's the sum total of what we've heard from Donald Sterling this season.  Until now.  (Don't get me started on what we heard from him last year.)

It's also worth noting the difference in the way these messages were conveyed.  Mark Cuban sat down with the Dallas basketball reporters and gave them direct quotes.  Donald Sterling showed up in the locker room (the first time that has happened in six seasons, according to MDsr) and went on a "profanity-laced tirade" according to one account.  I suppose you could make an argument that behind closed doors was the better way to proceed as opposed to calling out the team in the press.  But that ignores the reality and the history of the situations.  Cuban is well known to his players and interacts with them frequently.  For all we know, he said all of this to the players in the Ford Center after the game and the players had enough respect for him to keep it to themselves.  But he was willing to go on record as well, and he has earned that right as an involved owner.  

To the Clippers, Sterling is just the guy who signs the checks.  Given the turnover on this roster, it's entirely possible that the first time some of these players heard Donald Sterling's voice was as he was dropping F-bombs on them.  Think Alex Acker or Fred Jones have had lunch with the boss?  If I've established a rapport with you, and then I justifiably criticize you, it may motivate you to improve.  If I've completely ignored you for six months and then I show up and yell and scream, it will have the opposite effect.  As a team source said, "After that the guys don't even want to play for him."  What a surprise.

In Cuban's case, sitting down and talking to reporters was a calculated tactic to try to get his team's attention.  He wants their effort to improve, and he's sincere when he says that they won't be back if it doesn't.  He's willing to back that up.

In Sterling's case, he got pissed off and became hysterical.  I suppose it's an improvement over complete apathy.  But is he even willing to do something about it other than berate the players he has until now been ignoring?  Would he buy out Baron Davis, and pay him $50M to go play somewhere else?  Are you kidding?  Want to send a message that you're serious Mr. Sterling?  Waive Ricky Davis today.  He has a player option for one more season which he is certain to exercise, but he clearly doesn't figure into any sort of long term plans, not to mention that he's been completely terrible.  Waive him.  Why not?  Back up the message that jobs are not safe.  What do you have to lose?  He's only due to make $2.5M next season, so what do you have to l... - oh, yeah, that's right.  You have $2.5M to lose.  Not that the dude is helping the team - but you're not going to leave money on the table.

(By the way, waiving Ricky would actually be a bad idea.  The right plan would be to hang onto him in case his contract can be useful in a trade.  But you get my point.)

Of course with guaranteed contracts, Sterling has zero leverage here.  In fact, he has likely slit his own throat with his behavior.  "Let me get this straight.  If I don't give more effort, you'll trade me to another team and you won't be my owner any more?  Really?  Sweet.  Just so I know, exactly what types of behavior would you interpret as not exhibiting effort, so I can be sure to hit them all.  How about if I go back to the locker room after one quarter with a 'migraine?  How about if I let the opposing team's power forward run three fourths of the court by himself for a dunk after a jump ball?  How about if I leave a red hot shooter wide open - twice?  Would any of those things punch my ticket?  Because I'll do whatever it takes Mr. Sterling!"

The timing of the outburst makes sense, coming as it did shortly after a tense meeting between club president Andy Roeser and long time season ticket holders.  It's worth noting that Cuban has in the past praised Sterling's ownership approach - he's always been willing to take a hard line on cost control, even at the expense of winning games, and his teams have been profitable for many years because of that.  In the current economic climate, when the NBA recently secured up to $200M in financing, Sterling's Clippers are not among the dozen of so franchises in need of cash.  Unlike many NBA owners who are leveraged to the hilt and facing major cash flow issues, Sterling and the Clippers have absolutely zero debt.  None.  BUT, whereas season ticket sales were down some last summer, and overall attendance has dropped 7%, the real bad news has yet to arrive.  Season ticket renewals last season occurred before the worst of the economic news - not to mention that the addition of Baron Davis and Marcus Camby seemed to partially mitigate the loss of Elton Brand and Corey Maggette.  The combination of another dismal season, little or no reason to expect improvement (the "someday we'll be healthy" sales pitch is getting threadbare) and a deep, deep recession no doubt presage a renewals disaster.

But if the timing is logical, the few details of the tirade that have been made public certainly are not.  The accounts of the Roeser meeting had the season ticket holders absolutely begging the club president to fire Dunleavy.  So Sterling goes into the locker room and backs the coach/GM 100%?  That seems weird.  Then again, in one account of Sterling's tirade he told Dunleavy to "Shut up" when he tried to interject on Al Thornton's behalf.  So it sounds to me like Sterling was completely out of control, and I wouldn't expect him to abide by (or even remember) any of the specifics of what he said.  Too bad none of the players had their iPhones rolling - I'd love to see that YouTube.

The upshot of all of this is that Donald Sterling has once again solidified his position as the worst owner in pro sports.  Some old rivals for the title have made the mistake of having some success, like when Bill Bidwell's Arizona Cardinals almost won the Super Bowl.  And some new threats have emerged, like Chris Cohen of the Warriors, with his bizarre and misguided threat to void his franchise player's contract.  Whether it was the fact that he felt Cohen nipping at his heels in the bad owner derby, or if he's just that bad and doesn't need any other reason, Sterling is once again the king - and it's not even close.

We try to ignore it and to pretend that the franchise can overcome it.  Rookies and restricted free agents have no choice other than to stay with the Clippers if they want to be paid to play basketball.  Other free agents will take the money if they have no better offers.  And hey, it's LA - the weather is nice, the clubs are cool.  But the simple fact of the matter is that Sterling's well-earned reputation is a massive disadvantage for the franchise.  Obviously, if he's simply not willing to spend money, that's one problem.  Add in the PERCEPTION that he's not willing to spend money and it compounds.  Free agents, given two similar contract offers, will choose any team other than the Clippers on the assumption that somewhere down the line Donald Sterling is likely to screw them.  Actually swearing at the players the one and only time you take an interest in them - that's just the proof-y icing on the bad owner cake.

Let's not pretend that Donald Sterling's ownership didn't play a role in Elton Brand's decision this summer.  (Bear in mind, I don't disagree with Elton's decision to leave the Clippers, but rather with the way he handled it.)  And let's not pretend that guys like Steve Novak and Fred Jones, who have played well on minimum contracts this season and are impending free agents, won't jump at another opportunity - any other opportunity - as long as it is reasonably comparable to a Clippers contract offer.

And then there's the question of morale.  Al Thornton is on a rookie contract.  He is making a fixed amount, predetermined in the collective bargaining agreement for a 14th round draft pick in 2007.  The Clippers have a team option for 10-11, and then he'll be a restricted free agent after that - meaning that if the Clippers want to keep him, all they have to do is match any other team's offer and Al will be contractually obligated to play for the Clippers if he wants to be in the NBA.  He is, for all intents and purposes, a indentured servant (an incredibly well-payed indentured servant, we should all be so lucky) of the LA Clippers.  He's here if the Clippers want him here for many, many years.  It's almost entirely the franchise's decision.  But how is he going to play for this franchise?  If Al respects Donald Sterling, then maybe he wants to improve when Sterling swears at him and calls him "the most selfish basketball player he has ever seen."  But if Al doesn't respect the man, he cashes the checks and starts counting the days until he is out of Clipper jail, a la Ron Harper.  Which do you think is more likely?  And how does Eric Gordon feel, watching that happen?

We sometimes get upset at the overly simplistic "It's the Clippers" approach to the coverage of our (unnaturally, undeservedly) beloved team.  When Sterling is quiet long enough that we can almost forget about what a bad, bad human being he is, we think "Hey, why can't the Clippers succeed some day?"  And then he opens his mouth and we know the answer.  As long as Donald Sterling is the owner, I fear that "It's the Clippers" will be a valid explanation for everything.

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