NBA season honors: What stood out, what to watch
■ Best comeback: The Golden State Warriors are the NBA’s most improved team not just on the floor, but on the business side and in the community. Under the astute hand of President and COO Rick Welts, the Warriors are relevant again in the Bay Area. The team was a success on the court with its 47-35 record in the tough Western Conference, and Welts drew on his experience to improve the business side. His emphasis on a strong sales culture resulted in the team registering its second-highest attendance in franchise history. The club is seeing a 90 percent renewal and has added more than 1,200 new season-ticket accounts. Welts also invested in staff by bringing in Chip Bowers from the Magic as the team’s new CMO. The team’s local ratings are up nearly 100 percent and the loud, energetic atmosphere at Oracle Arena has become one of the most talked-about experiences in sports. The team’s success comes at a critical time for Welts and owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber as they work to build a new arena in downtown San Francisco.
■ Biggest question: Can Jeanie Buss return the Los Angeles Lakers to the sustained excellence of her late father? And does she want to? Can she and her brother Jim Buss coexist (or tolerate each other) enough to continue the successful legacy, or is the divide so wide it will irreparably damage the franchise? It certainly struck me when one of the more connected members to the Lakers’ culture, Magic Johnson, said on ESPN, “If Jeanie Buss takes control, the Lakers will be back.” Now, will she?
■ Biggest mystery: The Indiana Pacers are a competitive playoff team playing in a fantastic facility backed by committed ownership in a basketball-rich market. And yet, the team feels disrespected in its home market. While the end-of-the-year numbers show that attendance was up nearly 8 percent over last year and sponsorship sales were up 20 percent, there’s still a vibe of soft fan support despite its 49-32 record that put the team atop the Eastern Conference Central Division. The front office is trying to appeal to fans; the team installed a massive new scoreboard this year as it looks for ways to improve the experience at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse while creating an array of ticket packages. But on more than one occasion, Pacers players bemoaned the lack of local fan support and were critical of the overt support for their opposition.
■ Biggest turnaround: The Brooklyn Nets. Questions remain if this is a long-term solution, but the early numbers are impressive. Since moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn and into the Barclays Center, the rebranded Nets are a revived franchise in all areas of the business. The team went 26-15 in its new home, made the playoffs, saw its gate increase by some 250 percent, according to insiders, and rebranded its marks in what has become a cultural hit in the borough. The move also planted the seeds for an intense rivalry with the Knicks. I’ll keep a close eye on year two and the seat inventory and see if Jay-Z’s departure makes any difference. But for now, can anyone really say this team would be better off if it stayed on the west side of the Hudson?
■ Biggest wrong-way turnaround: Just five years ago, the Phoenix Suns were nominated at the inaugural Sports Business Awards for Sports Team of the Year. That seems so, so long ago now, as Robert Sarver has made a team that was seen as progressive and innovative as anything but. And as Bill Simmons recently tweeted, “If you made a list of owners that Stern + Silver would love to get rid of, Sarver would be the first.”
■ Biggest disappointment: The Lakers would again be an easy one here. But last year I wrote on more than one occasion about the new spirit of the Philadelphia 76ers, who were the league’s darling franchise. The team revitalized the NBA in a big market, made the playoffs and beat the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the postseason before losing in seven games to longtime rival Boston. The 76ers had the wind at their back, as the team boosted business and visibility under a new ownership group led by CEO Adam Aron. What a difference a year makes, as the team is starting all over again. Nothing highlights the futility like its bold trade for Andrew Bynum, as the team rebuilt its roster around the injured center, and it’s been a disaster. Now, it’s unclear if he will play again, the team must make a decision on whether to sign him, and it owes Miami and Orlando future first-round draft picks. You want more? The team is searching for a new head coach after Doug Collins resigned, possibly a new general manager with Tony DiLeo under fire, and it’s certainly searching for (another) new identity after seeing its relevance plummet in Philadelphia. It’s hard to see how this team can get better, and that makes it a very tough job for their sales office in selling “hope” for the future.
■ Biggest business surprise: A year ago, there was real support for the league to be the first of the big four to sign a leaguewide jersey advertising deal, which was estimated to bring $100 million-plus of new revenue into the league on an annual basis. But the momentum has come to a halt as teams can’t agree on how to structure the deal or how to divide the significant revenue. There remains a strong desire for the deal given all the pressure teams face to grow revenue. But it’s surprising that after bringing in mock-up designs into owners meetings last year and reaching a philosophical agreement to sell the patch, individual team agendas have knocked any deal back for at least another year, if not longer. At one time I felt this would be the first major move of the Commissioner Silver era; now I’m not even sure he wants it to be among the first elements of his administration.
■ Biggest stories to watch: The future of the Sacramento Kings and the Seattle market. Another is the Toronto Raptors. New boss Tim Leiweke will not sit idly as he faces a massive task in just making the Raptors relevant in their market, let alone the rest of the NBA. Finally, what becomes of Jason Collins and the role he plays in the league.
■ Team MVP: Clay Bennett: He likely isn’t going to win any awards in Seattle, but as owner and team chairman, he’s proved to be an effective leader, trusted at the highest league levels, with a fair, unpretentious air to him.
■ Team Most Improved: Jim Dolan: The executive shuffling continues at MSG, but Dolan is in year two of a three-year transformation of the arena that continues to win high marks, and his Knicks are still playing while he’s not in the headlines. He has taken his share of criticism as the worst owner in the league, but now that his team is teed up to be good for the next three years, it’s easy to see him as the most improved from the low bar he established.
■ NBA MVP: Adam Silver: The seamless transition to the trusted and talented Silver in replacing David Stern as NBA commissioner continues. It’s a fitting reward given Silver’s vast experience and skill.
■ Player To Be Named Later: Who will be Silver’s deputy commissioner? Joel Litvin? Scott O’Neil? Or does Silver decide on a different tack and restructure his office without a deputy?
■ Sixth Man Award: Chris Granger, NBA executive vice president of team marketing and business operations. Granger rolled out the new NBATickets.com portal designed to not only centralize the selling of all tickets, but also to seize more control of the secondary market. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the system, reviews have been mostly positive. In the mix on almost every business move, Granger helped lead NBA teams to record per game gate revenue this year, and the well-liked executive has drawn consistent praise for his ability to lead teams into using more analytical sales strategies.
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.