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Thoughts From A Wild Couple of Days, Part I
The NBA world was so quiet for so long that I was starting to wonder if we wouldn’t have any more news until preseason (just about a week away! Let’s goooo!).
But then, in rapid succession, came a whole eruption of stories, for good and for ill:
A) Phoenix owner Robert Sarver will put up the Suns and Mercury for sale despite defiant language up to this point
B) Knee surgeries for the Celtics’ Robert Williams and Bulls’ Lonzo Ball
C) MCL sprain for the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to cause him to miss several weeks
D) Bojan Bogdanovich traded to Detroit for peanuts
E) And last but certainly not least, Celtics coach Ime Udoka will be suspended for a year after a relationship with a coworker
That’s a lot of news! I started trying to write about it all and realized I was getting too wordy again, so I’ve broken it up into two parts. We’ll cover Sarver and the injuries today, and the trade and Udoka next time. Hopefully, the still-developing Udoka story will have more clarity by then.
A) Sarver to sell team
The sequence of events:
About a year ago, a bombshell report from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes dropped, detailing oodles of bizarre, inappropriate, gross, racist, misogynistic, and all-around bad behavior from Phoenix majority owner Robert Sarver.
Sarver has long been known as a cheapskate and a lout, but the report went into excruciating detail and prompted a year-long investigation by the NBA into the allegations. Sarver viciously pushed back against Holmes and issued denials of everything.
Then, just a few days ago, NBA commissioner Adam Silver held a disastrous press conference detailing the report’s findings. Sarver was found to have plausibly committed the vast majority of the acts described in the report, as well as several new instances. The NBA suspended the owner for a year and fined him $10 million, with Silver saying in no uncertain terms that it was harder for the league to punish owners and that they are allowed a different standard than employees. It went over poorly with fans, media, sponsors, and players alike, with LeBron James and Chris Paul, among others, calling for stronger punishments, and sponsor PayPal threatening to pull its money.
The formerly bulletproof Silver’s conference was so bad that a not-insignificant number of people have suggested it might have been a purposeful fumble to increase public outrage and force Sarver to sell the team.
True or not, that was the outcome, and Sarver announced yesterday (in an extremely non-apologetic statement) that he would be looking to sell the Suns and Mercury.
Lots of smart people have written lots of smart words on this topic, so I won’t go too long. But a few points:
1) This outcome will make many owners very, very nervous. Although Sarver was an egregious example, plenty of other owners know they’ve behaved similarly, or at least supervised such behavior, in the past. There’s a reason there was reportedly no appetite to force Sarver out themselves. Expect some wagon-circling among that group going forward to protect their interests.
2) Sarver is going to get PAID. He owns ~35% of the Suns and Mercury. The Suns alone were valued at ~$1.8B (up from $400 million when Sarver and fellow investors purchased the team in 2004), so he’ll be OK. Save your tears.
3) It’s not all bad for the owners. One of the reasons they were so excited that Donald Sterling was forced to sell the Clippers after he was recorded saying racist epithets (not forced by the league, mind you; his wife had him declared mentally incapable and then sold the team out from under him without his consent) is that they knew Steve Ballmer, with Microsoft money, was waiting in the wings. Ballmer purchased the Clips for a then-record $2 billion. Since then, he’s routinely been one of the heaviest luxury taxpayers (over $100 million just this year!).
You know who gets the luxury tax payments? Other owners! So just by replacing a cheap owner with a richer, more profligate one, many owners were lining their own pockets. And the Suns are already being linked to Jeff Bezos, Bob Iger, and other bazillionaires who may be significantly more able and willing to spend than Sarver ever was.
4) The Sarver story will likely have more twists and turns to come, and at the end of the day, his departure is a positive for the league — but the process was ugly. The league got the outcome it wanted, eventually, but proved it might not have the teeth to adjudicate as easily as outsiders will want. When the next owner scandal erupts — and it will — it’ll be interesting to see if the NBA and its owners learned anything. I’m skeptical.
5) From a basketball perspective, a new owner would almost certainly overhaul Phoenix’s entire front office approach. It remains to be seen if general manager James Jones and other high-ranking Suns officials who defended Sarver would keep their jobs, but even beyond that, massive changes may be in store. The Suns’ success these last few seasons has come despite one of the most poorly-funded and understaffed front offices in the league.
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz mentions in a damning interview with Jones this summer that the Suns have a paltry 14 employees in basketball operations. The Clippers, by way of comparison, employ 14 scouts. I don’t know precisely how many basketball operations folks every team has, but I would be surprised if the Suns don’t have among the fewest. Jones swears that the issue wasn’t financial but also said that the Suns have “finite resources.”
Whatever the problem, a new owner would almost certainly come in and upgrade a staff in desperate need of more bodies and money. For a Suns team that’s still really good even as Chris Paul ages, that could be the difference between maintaining success and falling back into mediocrity.
B) Robert Williams and Lonzo Ball surgeries
This is a bummer. Boston’s Robert Williams, arguably the best defensive player for the Celtics during the playoffs and a massive part of their success, was forced to have a clean-up surgery after rushing back from a previous meniscus surgery in March. His timeline is 4-6 weeks.
I feel for Williams here. He says the team told him he wouldn’t do more damage by playing through discomfort, but it’s hard not to look at this newest surgery and wonder how truthful the team’s doctors were. We’ve seen this play from Boston before with Isaiah Thomas and even Kevin McHale well before that. Players will push to play in high-leverage situations, but any medical staff must balance short-term wants vs. long-term needs.
Every medical case is unique, and it’s possible this would’ve happened anyway. But much of William’s effectiveness is due to his incredible springiness and reflexes, as Miami Heat fans remember in vivid nightmares. He had a checkered injury history even before this; I hope he can bounce back with full effectiveness.
Lonzo’s injury is similarly worrisome. We just talked about how murky his situation is, and it can’t be a good sign he needed to go under the knife yet again. His incredible fit on the Bulls is a key driver of their success; an extended absence substantially lowers their ceiling. There’s not much to analyze here. It sucks, and I hope he can return to form soon to save a team that I think has a chance to make noise.
C) Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's injury
This was more unexpected than the Williams/Ball news. Both those players were dealing with pre-existing issues, and further surgeries always seemed possible. SGA was supposedly in good health after the Thunder shut him down at the end of last season to avoid injury (and tank into more ping-pong balls).
But now, he has a Grade 2 MCL sprain. In typical Thunder fashion, we don’t know much about it. Still, according to InStreetClothes, the average return time from this injury is roughly six weeks, which would put him in jeopardy of missing the start of the season.
Shai is developing a concerning health history of his own. He’s played barely over half of the available games for the last two seasons. A master of the dribble-drive with a staccato style that’s all his own, Shai’s one of my favorite players to watch, and his absence leaves the team nearly bereft of starting-caliber talent.
He’s already great, a top-30 player in my book, and still getting better, but on a team that has done nothing to surround him with actual talent, it’s hard to judge how good he can be when put into a position to succeed. Right now, success might be as simple as staying on the court.