The Sports GM
Bill Simmons wants to run the Wolves. Why not?
The Sports Guy is on the campaign to become The Sports GM. Yes, it’s absolutely far-fetched to consider a sports writer/author/podcaster for an NBA executive position, captaining an multi-million dollar franchise’s future. But then again, isn’t Bill Simmons’ story already pretty unbelievable?
Who’s to say Simmons can’t do the job in Minny better than some GMs in the L right now? He’s not asking for anything (literally) but a chance. Why not give it to him?
SLAM: How familiar are you with this franchise? Aside from the Joe Smith fiasco, where do you think things went wrong and what would you have done differently?
Bill Simmons: I’d like to think that I have a feel for the ebbs and flows of every NBA franchise. I’m a junkie and that’s what junkies do—we follow this shit way too closely. But I definitely paid a little more attention than usual to ‘Sota once McHale took over. He was one of my favorite Celtics and I wanted him to succeed. And you know what? He wasn’t bad coming out of the gate. Everyone forgets what a ballsy pick KG was at the time, and it’s not his fault that Marbury turned out to be a jealous a-hole. That should have been a Malone/Stockton-type situation and the franchise never really recovered from Marbury bailing or from the Smith penalty. It always seemed like they were playing catch-up after that.
I’d say the biggest problem was McHale’s lack of understanding about how the cap worked. He overpaid everybody. Hell, even the Smith contract… imagine if that had just gone through? That’s a top-five worst contract in NBA history! My take: KG is such a competitive/likable guy that McHale was always looking for a quick fix to keep the team humming along, so that’s what led to the horrendous Szezcerbiak/Hudson contracts, the Olowokandi gamble, and then the damaging Jaric trade. He gave away potential lottery picks in trades to pick up Jaric and Ricky Davis/Mark Blount. That’s just indefensible. You don’t give away semi-protected No. 1’s for non-impact guys under any circumstances. It makes me sad how it turned out.
(On the other hand, he built the 2008 world champion Boston Celtics! I don’t know why I am complaining. Thanks again, Kev.)
SLAM: How far do you think this team is from success?
BS: Closer than you think. Depends on the next guy’s plan and Jefferson’s ability to return from the ACL. But I love the foundation of Jefferson, Love, Brewer, Foye, a top-five pick in 2009 and loads of cap space. Sam Presti just showed with the Zombie Sonics that you can work with a hand like that. You can contend if Jefferson and Love are your No. 1 and No. 3 guys, but you have to find a creator to be a solid No. 2—a perimeter guy who can create shots for himself and others. That’s what they need the most. I have some ideas on how to rectify this, but I’m not sharing them out of sheer spite because it looks like the TWolves won’t even consider my candidacy despite the fact that thousands and thousands of fans e-mailed their team president about me this week. Did thousands of fans e-mail them urging them to hire David Kahn or Rex Chapman? NOOOOO!
Here’s a classic example of why NBA teams are dumb: Even if they bring me in for an interview, at the very least, that becomes a national story. So they’d be spending like two grand on business class plane fare and a hotel for me, then two hours of their time going through the charade of interviewing me (assuming they had no interest). Isn’t that two grand well spent? This goes back to what I’m talking about: You have a struggling small market franchise that has no foothold at all in its region, and they won’t even considering spending two grand to get their fans talking?
Fans are pretty easy to manipulate—we like wondering about shit, arguing about shit, and so on. It really don’t take that much. Being a basketball fan goes well beyond wins and losses; it’s about the experience of following your team on a daily basis. Why do you think the NBA Draft gets so much attention and publicity? And this goes back to one of the things I’d bring to the table: An understanding of how fans think, how to keep them invested in the team, and how to make them feel like they’re part of what’s happening. Do the Timberwolves fans feel that way right now? I will bet my life savings that they don’t.
SLAM: Obviously you have no on the job experience, but you do have an extensive base of knowledge from following the NBA. Specifically, what mistakes did you learn most from and what have you gleaned from successful teams?
BS: Man, that answer could be 2500 paragraphs. It’s certainly been a main theme of my NBA columns these past few years. Four issues we’ve seen time and time again: 1.) a lack of respect for salary cap constraints; 2.) a complete ignorance of character, chemistry and the blueprints of other teams who have succeeded; 3.) a failure to heed the lessons of history (this is kinda what my book is about, at least a little); and 4.) a fear of trusting a long-term plan in lieu of just going for a quick fix (AKA, a lack of patience).
The underlying problem is that a lot of these guys will do anything to keep their jobs. Otis Smith’s signing of Rashard Lewis is a great example—he overpaid by $60 million and outbid the next guy by $40 million, but ultimately, he didn’t care. He got the guy he wanted and turned Orlando into a fringe contender. By the time that Lewis contract kills them (Years 5 and 6), Smith will either be gone or on his way out. But he bought himself a few years. And that’s what seems to be the recurring theme with these guys—they make decisions based on what will buy them a few years. That’s why so many GM’s jumped on the Darko/Tschkivilli/Yi types, because nobody wanted to be the guy who passed on the next Nowitzki. If you draft an unpolished “gem,” you’re buying yourself a few years and if it works out you’re a genius. We see this crap all the time.
Another huge mistake: teams overpaying non-foundation guys and/or paying max money to guys who aren’t max players. The Spurs and Celtics have already shown us how to build a contender: Find three blue-chippers (not just talented guys but character guys), then surround them with role players who fit around those guys. It’s not rocket science. So if that’s the case, why would spend $50 million on Corey Maggette? Why spend $70 million on Luol Deng? Why spend $84 million on Elton Brand? Why spend $48 million on Andres Nocioni? Why spend $33 million on Beno Udrih? Why spend $55 million on Chris Kaman? Why spend $58 million on Gerald Wallace? Why trade for $44 million over two years of Jermaine O’Neal’s dead body? THOSE are the contracts that kill teams.
I’d rather go the other way, bottom out like the Zombie Sonics did and build around cap space and draft picks. Look at what Presti did last season: Because he smartly kept some cap flexibility and didn’t just shoot his wad like everyone else, it allowed him to steal Nenad Krstic for a very fair price midseason, then swipe Thabo Sefolosha from the Bulls for a bad pick in a bad draft. Those guys could absolutely be the 7th and 8th men on a contender. Combined, both of those guys made something like $6.5 million last year and they could both be flipped in a bigger trade. Would you rather have that combo, or would you rather tie up your cap by splurging $25-33 million on Udrih, Desagana Diop, Matt Carroll, Francisco Garcia, Andray Blatche and all the other mediocre guys that were overpaid. No-brainer, right? Well, why was Presti the only one who thought of this game plan ahead of time? BECAUSE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THESE GMs AREN’T THAT SMART!!!!! THEY PANIC!!!!!!!!!
I would never overpay a guy who wasn’t a top-three foundation guy. I just wouldn’t. For instance, say I got the TWolves job. I really like Randy Foye. I think he could be one of the top-six guys on a championship team but not one of the top-three. Do I want to pay someone like that $55 million over five years? Of course not. If I overpay him, then I don’t have enough money left over to pay my top-three, which means he’d have to be one of my top-three… which means I’m not winning a title. I don’t understand why teams don’t think that way. For instance, Washington locked up their next three years with Arenas, Butler and Jamison… how can you win a title if those are your best three guys? They couldn’t even get out of the second round with them!!! Now you’re locking them up for another four years???? So short-sighted.
SLAM: You’ve fostered relationships with various NBA players and front office members as a writer, but do you think they would take you seriously as a GM?
BS: I don’t know and I don’t care. They would take me seriously if I did a good job and I think I would. Look at what Daryl Morey has done with the Rockets. He never played college basketball, made his bones outside the NBA, worked for only one NBA team … and when he got hired by Houston, the old boys network of GMs and basketball lifers trashed the hiring. Within two years, he built a title contender with the most roster flexibility in the League and he’s having the last laugh on everyone. Why? Because he’s super-smart, he has a ton of common sense, and he’s not afraid to take chances (see: Artest, Ron). In a job that has a 85-90 percent failure rate, is it really wrong to take a chance with someone who’s different than the guys who keep failing and failing?
I believe the NBA GM position needs to be re-invented just like Mark Cuban re-invented the concept of an owner in the beginning of this decade. With small-market teams, unless you’re lucky enough to stumble into LeBron or Durant, it’s going to be nearly impossible to win the title and compete economically with everyone else. So in that case, shouldn’t you be looking for a GM who can also symbolize something beyond just “picking players?” Isn’t the GM really the face of the franchise? Isn’t the GM someone who should be constantly thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas? Right? RIGHT?????
That’s what I don’t get. I already made this case in my interview with Michael Rand, and I don’t want to just repeat the point, but small market teams need to connect with their fans and keep hustling and figuring out ways to make headlines and drive local interest in their team. Who’s better for that purpose than me? A sports columnist turned GM? Name me one move the TWolves could make this summer that would generate more local and national headlines than hiring me, short of scheduling sex orgies for fans after home games or something. You can’t. Their job is to sell basketball to the city of Minnesota—a city that, by the way, has turned on the team and barely supports it—and build interest in the team nationally, which can only be done by taking chances that nobody else is taking. It’s a job for a smart person who also loves basketball. That’s what people don’t seem to understand. Playing in the NBA for six years or working your way up the ladder in an organization doesn’t mean that you are qualified to run a team. Yet, that’s how these teams think.
SLAM: What would be your thought process as to who you’d surround yourself with, established pros or going off the grid?
BS: I’d have an aging assistant GM who has held the job a few times before, wouldn’t undermine me and knows everyone in the League. (He’d also have to be the one who makes the calls to people I’ve ripped, right?) Beyond that, I’m going off the grid. I have a few ideas on that that I would rather not share. The most important hire would be my coach. From everyone I have talked to, it’s clear again and again that your coach has to be on the same page with EVERYTHING. I don’t want to spend a million a year on innovative statistical research and then have them ignore it. That would piss me off. And I know it happens all the time.
I’d also make sure that, if we had a young player or two on the team with potential, that we hired a former player(s) specifically to work with those guys. Do you realize what an impact Clifford Ray had on Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby Davis these past few years? Do you realize that the Clippers DID NOT HIRE A COACH TO WORK WITH DEANDRE JORDAN last year? How dumb is that??????? Here’s an unpolished gem who was in high school two years before, now he’s your backup center, and he really does have some talent… and you won’t effing spend 200K to hire Robert Parish, Moses Malone or whomever to work with the guy after practice every day? This is how you run your business? Jordan did not get better from Game 1 to Game 82. Believe me, I was there. That’s a complete breach of your relationship with your fans in my opinion—you have basically told them, “We don’t give a shit about you.” And they don’t.
SLAM: What don’t you know that you’d have to learn immediately to be an effective GM?
BS: I already know a lot about the job because I know a few GMs pretty well. They all say the same thing: So much of the job is about NOT being a GM. It’s about putting out fires between players and coaches, buttering up sponsors and season ticket holders, figuring out ways to keep your fans happy, and so on. I like that stuff. I think I’d have a real advantage there because I know how fans think, and I know what’s pissed me off as a fan in the past. I’d want to make the fans happy and I’d want them to think, even if we sucked because of bad luck for one year, “At least we have that guy, he’s looking out for us… wait, is he drunk right now?”
SLAM: There’s been significant talk of an upcoming lockout. How would that affect your initial rebuilding/development plans?
BS: You can’t think about it. If it happens, it happens. The one thing I would say is that you don’t want to panic when that lockout gets lifted. Remember all the bad contracts after the strike ended in 1999? Holy shit! That was a spending apocalypse.
SLAM: As you’ve noted, you have job security as a writer that enables you an approach to the job other GM’s can’t afford to take. But as you’ve noted, as a writer this would also be a tremendous opportunity even if it were a colossal failure. Also, a professional sports franchise taking such a risk—especially if it turned out to be successful—could turn the industry on its ear. So what is your primary motivation; the attention, revolutionizing the NBA or actually improving this basketball team? (I understand that in doing the latter, you achieve the former, but I still had to ask…)
BS: I love basketball and I am competitive as hell. That’s really it. I just spent the last 12 years of my life continuing to push the envelope and take chances. Every time somebody told me I couldn’t do something, it made me want to do it more. I think I’ve had a really interesting career and I haven’t failed once. Shit, I forgot about my cartoon. OK, I failed once. But I built an audience with a successful online sports column before anyone else, and I built a national audience as a mainstream sports columnist before anyone else, and I built an audience with a sports podcast well before anyone else. Those are three pretty good “well before anyone elses” right? It’s not like I’ve been working at an arcade the past 12 years. And as I told Michael Rand earlier this week, I just spent two years of my life writing a 700-page NBA book trying to figure out everything that ever happened in the NBA, which players and teams mattered more than we thought (or less than we thought), how we got here, and if there’s a secret to winning that we can learn from everything that already happened. I promise you that nobody has ever put more thought into what dynamics make an NBA team succeed or fail.
SLAM: Finally, you’re an idea man. How are you going to get us LeBron James?
BS: The same way that Scientologists roped in Tom Cruise and John Travolta: Blackmail! He will be mine! I have a whole plan for this and it involves 10 Rohypnol pills, a bottle of Grey Goose, Maria Sharapova, Worldwide Wes and a Soloflex machine.
Just kidding. But I do want the TWolves fans to understand something: They are NOT far away. I have a whole plan that would get them into the playoffs in 2010 while maintaining a long-term vision and protecting cap space. I swear. It would work too. If I don’t get hired, that secret will die with me. You will have to live with that for the rest of your lives, TWolves fans. So keep hounding your front office. And remember my campaign slogan: “SIMMONS IN ‘09: AT LEAST THE BOOK WILL BE GOOD.”