The Billionaire’s Folly

Robert Pera might be dissatisfied with what the Grizzlies accomplished this year, but he's not going to get where he wants to go by recklessly cleaning house. (USA TODAY Sports)

Robert Pera might be dissatisfied with what the Grizzlies accomplished this year, but he's not going to get where he wants to go by recklessly cleaning house. (USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA regular season was marred by an abundance of teams that were either built to fail or accidentally fell into abject putridity, and now the emerging story of this not-quite-offseason period is a number of pretty good teams are unhappy with where they stand. The Warriors sacked Mark Jackson to bring in Steve Kerr. Kevin McHale is going to stay on in Houston, but he’s hanging by a thread. Until the Pacers found salvation in the form of a fishing trip, Frank Vogel’s job didn’t look safe. All these franchises are in a better place than, say, the Sacramento Kings, but their fans and in some cases their ownership are dissatisfied with anything less than a convincing title run.

The Memphis Grizzlies have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, and this year they survived the brutal Western Conference despite missing Marc Gasol for nearly two months. They took Oklahoma City to seven games in the first round, and might have pulled off the upset if Zach Randolph hadn’t missed the decisive game with a bogus suspension. A reasonable person couldn’t have asked for much more from the Grizz.

Which leads me to this question: Is majority owner Robert Pera a reasonable person? Because on Tuesday he got rid of CEO Jason Levien and assistant GM Stu Lash. There are rumors vice president John Hollinger could be gone next, and according to the Minnesota Star Tribune’s Jerry Zgoda, the Timberwolves have received permission from Memphis to interview coach Dave Joerger, which almost certainly means his days are numbered with the Grizzlies. According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, Pera nearly fired Joerger early in the season, when the Grizzlies weren’t responding well to Joerger’s new offense, which is why he may be on his way out now.

Regardless of what happens with Joerger, the front office maneuvers are already a jarring upheaval for a team that performed up to expectations. Yahoo’s Marc Spears recently tweeted that Pera and Levien “have been at odds for over a year,” so perhaps that explains why Levien is out, but Lash’s dismissal appears to be more of a tactical move, which is why Hollinger — who was essentially hired by Levien — and Joerger’s job statuses are up in the air. USA TODAY’s Sam Amick reported that Pera conducted his own player exit interviews when the season ended, which is unusual and bold, indicative of an owner who is exceedingly hands-on and might not be thrilled with his front office as currently constituted, since those interviews are usually handled by a GM or president.

Pera could be correct to shake things up — a team’s on-court competence sometimes obscures institutional rot — but there’s not a well-regarded owner in the NBA who has a reputation for meddling. On the contrary, James Dolan is a laughingstock because of his penchant for it, and Joe Lacob has been catching some side-eye for being a little too involved in the Warriors’ day-to-day operations. Herb Kohl essentially refused to let his Bucks bottom out these past few seasons, and it almost cost Milwaukee its franchise. Mark Cuban sits behind the Mavs’ bench most nights, but he delegates more than you would think. (It obviously helps that Rick Carlisle is his coach.) All the league’s most stable organizations have one thing in common: their owners know to leave most of the work to basketball people.

Because no one becomes a billionaire through owning a basketball team — unless they sell it — each NBA owner comes into the league from some other sector: banking, venture capitalism, real estate, etc. (Pera made his considerable fortune in the tech industry, for instance.) It’s understandable that no one wants to be dumb money, but there is a difference between being an engaged investor and Jerry Jonesian delusion, where you don’t put enough trust in the people you pay to be experts about the sport.

Pera, no matter how bright he might be, is not a basketball guy. Instead of spending his life in and around the game, he worked for Apple, then helped build a massive wireless equipment company. John Hollinger, on the other hand, was watching League Pass every night, getting to know coaches and executives and crafting statistical models. This doesn’t mean Hollinger is good at his job, but it means whatever basketball opinions he has are informed ones.

Owners are entitled to more or less do whatever they want with their franchises, but that doesn’t mean their actions are always advisable. The Grizzlies have been, to all outward appearances, a soundly run team over the past five years or so. They’ve been remarkably successful despite not having a Kevin Durant or Chris Paul-level superstar. Because of that, it’s hard to see why their braintrust would need to be drastically reconfigured. This sudden remodeling project, which smacks of an impatient and unrealistic owner trying to draw blood from a stone, is bound to get NBA fans in Memphis talking. I wonder if any of them will utter the words, “Don’t worry, Robert Pera knows best.”