A whirlwind of activity has overtaken the Los Angeles Clippers and their fans over the past five weeks. Holy FSM! Has it really only been five weeks since TMZ released the audio of Donald Sterling's conversation with his assistant/lover/betrayer V. Stiviano? Indeed. That story broke on the evening of April 25, five weeks ago today.
At the time, Clips Nation editor and world-class curmudgeon John Raffo was certain it was the end of the franchise. Thirty five days later, it may be the best thing that ever happened to the Clippers.
Pending a pro forma approval from the NBA Board of Governors, the Los Angeles Clippers are being sold to Steve Ballmer, the recently retired Microsoft CEO, for the stuning price of two Billion dollars.
After suffering through 33 years of the worst owner in American professional sports, the Clippers now have the richest owner in American professional sports. Money doesn't guarantee anything -- but it's fairly safe to say that Ballmer is going to be a better owner than Donald Sterling.
For starters, he's not Donald Sterling -- and that is a huge advantage right there. Over and above that, even as a corporate executive, Ballmer's real gift was enthusiasm. He was often referred to as the Chief Executive Cheerleader at the software giant -- all those high fives and fist pumps that seemed a bit out of place at employee meetings in Redmond will fit right in on the sidelines at STAPLES Center.
Ballmer also belongs to a new generation of NBA owners, joining Joe Lacob, Mark Cuban and Vivek Ranadive in the under 60 crowd. Fifty-eight may not seem all that young to the citizens of Clips Nation reading in their dorm rooms, but Ballmer is an entire college student younger than the 80 year old Sterling. Oh, and how do you think the guy who made $20B in the software industry is going to feel about investing in advanced statistical analysis and tools? Yeah, that's correct.
It seems reasonable to assume that Ballmer is going to be willing to spend money to win -- you don't pay $2B for a franchise and then start counting pennies. Of course James Dolan and many others have proven time and again that spending is no guarantee of success -- but it sure as hell doesn't hurt. In the new NBA of a more punitive luxury tax, we don't really know much about which owners are going to keep spending. Only Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorev (net worth $12B) has shown a willingness to go deep into new tax territory. Even Mark Cuban of the Mavericks (net worth, a measly $2.5B) is showing restraint now, although that has as much to do with the circumstances of the team as it does with the new CBA.
The simple fact of the matter is that in the entire history of the Clippers' organization, they had never paid the luxury tax until this season. Given the nature of the repeater tax, they might be wise to try to stay below the tax line this coming season -- but after that it'll be time to start cashing in some of those MS stock options.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Clippers CAN'T spend Ballmer's Billions -- yet. There are myriad "exceptions" that allow teams to exceed the salary cap and the luxury tax threshold, which is why a team like the Nets is so far into tax country. However, the most powerful are the Bird exceptions -- and the Clippers don't have any Bird free agents to re-sign this off-season (unless they want to give a really big raise to Ryan Hollins). That leaves them with the MLE and the BAE to use -- exceptions that are fairly limited and that they were going to use whether Sterling or Dick Parsons or Ballmer were controlling the purse strings.
It's next summer when we'll find out why kind of owner Steve Ballmer is going to be, and DeAndre Jordan, who was the primary beneficiary of the coaching upgrade from Vinny Del Negro to Doc Rivers figures to the first to profit from the ownership change. The Clippers may not even be able to get into the luxury tax again this season given the increase in the salary cap -- but with Bird rights to re-sign Jordan not to mention the possibility of early Bird rights for both Glen Davis and Darren Collison, the Clippers could leave the luxury tax line far in their rear view mirror in July of 2015.
The reality of a Donald Sterling owned Clippers team was that Jordan would not have been back in 2015-16 -- with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul already signed to maximum contracts, the Clippers were not going to be able to afford the league's best rebounder on an appropriate deal. We don't yet know how much he'll be willing to spend, but the odds that the Clippers core can remain together for the foreseeable future just got a whole lot better.