Inside Golden State's Owners Box: Talking With Joe Lacob and Peter Guber
SAN FRANCISCO -- There's really no getting around that dateline.
The new owners of the team from Oakland did almost all of their media relations work this week in the fancier city by the Bay, an unmistakable sign that they won't be adhering to any borders or boundaries in this endeavor that has officially begun. Venture capitalist Joe Lacob and entertainment entrepreneur Peter Guber made that clear even before their record purchase of $450 million was final, somehow managing to force coach Don Nelson out before the team was theirs and approving deals like the one for David Lee before the NBA's Board of Governor's had even approved their own inclusion into this elite club.
They have no time for such institutional obstacles, especially if they distract from what is a singular and sophisticated, yet simplistic, focus on the goal at hand: revive a franchise that is among the league's most dreadful with savvy use of their self-described "deep pockets," thereby rewarding a fan base that has been inexplicably loyal despite enjoying one playoff appearance in 15 years under former owner Chris Cohan.
Yet ironically enough, they are distracted on this Tuesday afternoon inside a $10,000-a-night St. Regis suite. No one can blame them, as two straight days of making the media rounds would leave most folks punchy.
Lacob, the top money man whose recent tenure as minority owner of the Boston Celtics gives him the basketball pedigree among the pair, responds to e-mails on his phone and discusses the Lee injury situation in one room, squeezing the less public parts of his new job in while one camera crew leaves and this reporter enters. Guber, the Hollywood producer with more than 50 Academy Award nominations on his storied resume and whose bio accurately describes him as "a force in the entertainment industry for more than 30 years," makes an actual phone call, showcasing that Boston accent that Lacob (a fellow Bostonian who doesn't sound like it) will later chide him for still having.
They put the phones away and meet at the table that likely cost more than an average family's monthly mortgage. They sit on opposite sides -- call it anti-symbolism -- and explain for nearly 40 minutes why their partnership is worthy of all the promise it has sparked.
They discuss what it means to be an owner, especially the outspoken and involved sort that has the NBA convinced that they -- Lacob, specifically -- will be the next coming of Mark Cuban. They opine about the entertainment experience and how Guber can use his background to enhance it. They reveal the story behind Don Nelson's ousting, one that resulted in a "slap on the wrist" of sorts from the NBA. They shed light on the inner-workings of their new club, from whether Monta Ellis is still on the trading block to whether Stephen Curry is untouchable to the status of their relationship with incumbent general manager Larry Riley.
They're official now, this self-described "Abbott and Costello" duo that wants to make the most of this underutilized market. Yet when it comes to adding another championship banner to the 1974-75 version that hangs in the rafters at Oracle Arena, they're not joking around.
(Disclaimer: My rambling questions have been edited, if only because Lacob and Guber's ramblings are of far more interest. And even some of their ramblings were pared down because, well, this pair can ramble.)
FanHouse: So, you guys sick of each other yet?
Lacob: Listen, I think the truth is -- and I really mean this sincerely -- Peter and I, and Abbott and Costello have said this before, there's just some good interplay. I really like it. (Laughs).
FanHouse: You guys are accomplished men, but you haven't been owners of this magnitude before. So give me your views on what it means to play that role and how you approach it.
Lacob: This is sort of like being a public figure. It's a private company, but everyone has a right to talk and they're involved in it and it's their team, to some extent. So I think we know what we're getting into. I think we've both been trained for this type of thing -- although I never trained for a human bite before. (Laughs, in regards to Lee).
I think we're prepared for it as much as we can be. I think that, frankly, we kind of enjoy it. I think it's part of the job, and if you don't want to do it and be involved with the exposure or whatever, then you really shouldn't do this. You should invest in something else.
FanHouse: It does seem like fans often forget what it means to buy the team. On the one hand, owners get accused of meddling (in basketball affairs) because they might not know the game. Then again, when you pay $450 million for something ...
Guber: Why do (the fans) forget that? What part of "they own it" don't they understand? (Laughs). Can you imagine if you bought their house, you bought their yard, you bought their pool, and all of it, and all of a sudden you're sitting out there and they say, "You know, you decorated that house terrible, how could you do that?"
(Extended banter about the evils of planning commissions ...)
Lacob: I'll be very clear. I consider myself a fan. I think of it in the same way that a fan thinks about it. I try to think about what's fair, what do I want to hear, and what do I expect from these guys. I know, interestingly, the business stuff seems to be interesting to the reporters, but I wonder if that's all that interesting to the fans, the intricacies of all these detailed questions about what you're going to do about this or that. I think what people really care about is, "Is this an interesting team to watch? What are they going to do to improve the team? What's the chemistry like in that locker room?" I understand questions like that. To me, those are the most interesting things, and I think reporters sometimes get a little bored with all the basic stuff and want to get into all the business stuff.
The Plan for the Future -- and What Went Wrong?
FanHouse: Well, one significant question is that notion that you need a Kevin Garnett-type trade to really turn this team around. Joe, you have sounded as if the Celtics and what they did (en route to winning the 2008 championship) are your blueprint. And not to say you said it was easy, but is it possibly a bit more complicated to pull that off than you have made it sound?
Lacob: Well, we're going to find out. I don't know that it's easy. I've been involved in one thing with Boston, where I was actually involved. By the way, we were last (in the NBA the season before). We were really bad. And in Boston, (the fans) don't show up (when you're bad). People think, "The Celtics, oh, they have great history and whatever," but actually they're pretty tough, the fans. Here (with the Warriors), it's 16 years of ... (pauses) let's be honest (regarding Cohan's era), and the fans are still there, so to me as a semi-business guy, semi-basketball guy, this is extremely exciting, the fact that people love their basketball here and love this team even though it hasn't been that successful.
I don't think it's an easy thing to do. I think (Celtics general manager) Danny Ainge struggled for several years there to try to figure out a way -- how do you make the roster move to turn this thing around? Obviously you have to do a good job drafting, and the Warriors have historically -- with a few exceptions -- squandered those opportunities. They just had bad scouting, bad decision-making, bad luck. We can all contemplate. We're going to try to do a better job at that. We're going to spend a lot of time on that. Certainly, we need to be thinking every day, all the time, about those 30 rosters (and what trade possibilities can come from them) -- it's like a closed game here.
You know what I love about this, is that you can go on those sites like Real GM and people, that's what they do. They spend their whole waking hours doing this Real GM, trade scenarios, trade machine, and they're all very accurate.
Guber: The wisdom of the crowd.
Lacob: Yeah. So I pay attention to the blogs, actually. I don't like reading the negative stuff, but I listen to ideas that people have because you never know when you're going to have insight. And so I pay attention to a lot of those things.
You're only going to make a few moves, right? Basketball isn't like baseball and football where there are so many different moves required to make a successful team. Here it's a few moves really, honestly. And then when you lock people up with contracts long-term you've limited your options too, so you've got to be cognizant of that.
I think you have to have a philosophy of how you want to build the team, of how you can be successful. What kind of coach is that? What kind of players do we have today? Is this somewhere where we can go from here to get to there? And part of it has got to be looking at history and saying, "What has worked?" We're looking at all of that, and I'd like to think that we're actually in a very, very good situation here in that, coming in, we have a couple of nice pieces, young pieces. We're lucky. We walked into this David Lee trade -- and we had to approve it -- but the David Lee trade ... is a great piece that certainly fits into the philosophy that I have. We needed that type of guy, in the locker room and on the court. We can build around those pieces.
FanHouse: Joe, you've talked about how much you study the players in the league. But in the case of a guy like David Lee, how did you have such a pulse on him and who he was going in that you'd be so excited about approving the deal?
Lacob: You've got to remember that I've been dealing with the Celtics for six years with Danny Ainge and we'd talk about it. Just like we're doing now, I've been doing for six years but with them, so I'm probably a little more insightful perhaps than your average fan. And I've been listening to a guy who I think is a pretty darned good GM in Danny Ainge, who I trust his opinion. I'm not saying he's right about everything, but I think we had a good handle on the other teams, the other personalities.
I also follow guys from the time they're in high school, read all the stories. My kids -- I was lucky that my kids played AAU and got to play against some of these guys actually that are in their early 20s and being drafted and so on. (And the undrafted, like Harvard's Jeremy Lin, who grew up in the Bay Area town of Palo Alto, played with Lacob's son and was later signed by the Warriors in the summer.)
It's just really like anything else, just following all of this and having a sense. David Lee, everyone knows, is a guy who improved every year he has been in the NBA, for five years. Coming out of high school, he was a McDonald's All-American. And I don't know if you know this Peter, but he was the highest-rated guy that didn't go directly in the NBA and went to college (at Florida). ... He has improved every year, and he played four years in college. These are important things to me.
Have you talked to David Lee? Have you met him? This is a stud. He wants to win. He has never been on a winning team in the pros, five terrible years. He wants to win so badly. You just feel that, you sense that. Some guys don't feel that way. It's just a paycheck. He's not that way. I could talk about basketball all day ...
The Fan Experience, and Guber's Hollywood Background
FanHouse: There's another side to it, though, with the entertainment aspect. And Peter, you're pretty well-known in that regard. Can you talk about how you see the NBA experience and whether you plan to add any Hollywood-style juice to that part of the product.
Guber: Joe is a brilliant tactician. He's strategic, and he's tactical at the same time -- he can do both, there's a big picture and he can focus on the pieces that make the big picture work. That's a very unique skill. And I think putting those pieces together on the floor for success is what has to be done. That's job No. 1, for sure, and that covers up a thousand other things. You win, and you can cover up a thousand other things.
At the same time, you have to think about what the business is. The business is entertainment. It's sports, but it's entertainment sports. That's what it is. And it competes for leisure time activity and leisure time dollars just like everything else. Do I go to this basketball game, do I go to this football game, do I watch this thing on television, do I play this video game? (Fans have) a certain amount consumable income that they can spend and a certain amount of time and a certain amount of what I call rooting interest, and they have to divide that.
This (sports) is a unique communal experience. When we look at the metrics or the analytics of this, you'll find -- and I'm making this number up -- 2.3 people go to 9.6 games per year, drive 5.1 miles, wait 10.9 minutes and stay there 82 percent of the time. It's just what it is, all right? And you're competing with everything else. So what you have to compete for is the product on the floor -- winning, which is crucial -- and that fan experience.
How do you engage that fan? Where do you engage them? How do you engage them and their interest to commit in going to the game? To commit to listening on the radio? To commit to following it on the Internet, to being interactive on the Internet about their opinion? When somebody has an opinion, they're no longer a passenger, they're a participant. They metabolize the experience completely differently.
So you look at all those things, and ask yourself: what is it like to walk into the arena? What is it like to park the car (or, truthfully, as it was pronounced with his Boston accent: pawk the caw)? The idear (yes, idear) of having difficulty to pawk the caw is really a challenge. If you're having trouble pawking the caw, you know what they're doing? You could guess this for a month and you'd never guess. ... You know what they're thinking about? How the f**k am I going to leave here at the end of the game? They're having trouble pawking the car, and they're thinking, "I'd better leave in the 7th inning or early in the fourth quarter because otherwise I'm trapped getting out of here."
I know you don't think that, but what does that do to your business? It means one less thirst-quenching opportunity, one less chance for merchandising. Their fan experience -- nobody wants to go to the whole game and (hear), "You missed the (end)? They came back from 32 points and you didn't see the last four minutes? What are you, crazy?"
So you're thinking about a fan experience, holistically. At the core center of it is everything he's talking about, and that's the most important thing. But it's not the only important thing. So you have to believe that you're going to be successful and bring those things to it at the same time. It's not one ball in the air, it's five balls in the air.
Lacob: I'm still thinking about "pawking the caw." (Laughs)
FanHouse: Last night (Monday), you guys grabbed the mic at the arena and had a chance to talk to your new fans for the first time. What was that like for you, considering what it took to land the team?
Lacob: I was touched, certainly. It was a very nice moment. I thought the fans were very classy to do that (they gave a standing ovation). I have to say, though, that I don't sit around and reflect on these things too much. It's an exciting moment, I love it, now let's go and move on. (Claps) We're ready for the next things. I'm sort of one of these guys where when something bad or something good happens, it's like, "OK, it was crappy, what do I do to fix it? OK, it was good, let's do some more of that."
Guber: It's so true. A story I didn't think of until just now. So I'm sitting in the audience, and all these years, and one of the pictures is up for 'Best Picture,' and (the announcer) said, "The winner is,' and it was my picture. And I glance at my watch, just glanced at my watch, for some reason, just glanced at it for a second, then I ran up to the stage, (gave a quick speech) and I sat down. And it was 15 seconds. And I thought, "Did I work four years for those 15 seconds? Is that what I did? I couldn't have worked four years for those 15 seconds."
So my point is, that I've really been inoculated to that. I've realized that, "OK, it's not going to happen," and then there's another expression that can happen -- "Boo!" I was in a theater when they said, "Where's the producer, I want to kill him!" There was a hunt for me. They were hunting for me, and I was ducking down. I've been there, and I know that you've got to be very humble about this experience.
The "Tricky" Process of Replacing a Coach Before Owning the Team
FanHouse: On the more specific front, I wanted to ask about the process that led up to Coach Nelson's departure. Aside from just making the decision itself, how tricky was the process as far as having a say when you didn't technically own the team yet and knowing enough about (current coach and former Nelson assistant) Keith (Smart) to feel comfortable making that move?
Lacob: It was tricky. It was tricky. We knew what had to be done. We knew what had to be done, (but) the problem was we didn't own the team. And the NBA, of course, was like, "Wait until you own the team, and deal with it later." (said, in all seriousness, in a mock NBA voice) And we're like, "The season will have already started. It's going to be very difficult, and you know we're paying a lot of money and investing a lot of our lives and committing here, so we want to get (off to) a good start."
So we had a very difficult situation that I don't really envy anyone else being in from a timing standpoint, and we had to figure out a way to (do it) -- and the management team was on board to do this, we were on board to do this. The NBA doesn't really care, (they were) just sort of like, "Don't do what you're not allowed to do." They didn't want to set a precedent. And so we had to deal with the seller (Cohan), who really didn't care to do it one way or the other, so it was a difficult, tricky process. We had to get very involved, and sort of force the issue. There's an expression, "Slap on the wrist." (Laughs) We got a slap on the wrist a little bit from the NBA, but it had to be done.
FanHouse: Were you slapped on the wrist in a formalized sense or in a phone-call type sense? (For the record, a league spokesman had no knowledge of any formal reprimand from the NBA.)
Lacob: The NBA basically was like, "You don't even own the team, and you're not supposed to be doing these things." Well, I actually didn't. We just influenced it. (Laughs) It was a complicated process and timing. We really felt it had to be done, and I think we've been proven, validated if you will. We're off to a great start here, and I don't think it would have happened otherwise. It was not easy, but we did it.
FanHouse: Was there a scenario in which Nellie would have kept his job if he handled the situation differently or did you guys have your minds made up coming in?
Lacob: You know, we have great respect for him. He's an old Boston Celtic. He is a legend. He was innovative as a coach, for sure. I just think that in this situation -- you know, everything is situationally dependent -- and in this situation, with new ownership, with a new trajectory, a new path, with the players that were there and the relationships that existed, his age and his desire to kind of ... (pauses). He's got to go up a mountain here. There's a lot of work to do. I just think it was a pretty clear decision. Could he have been successful? Maybe, but it's not a chance that we felt comfortable taking.
FanHouse: So your minds were made up coming in.
Lacob: I would say (there was) a definite directional heading, and then I had conversations with him in August, and ...
[Guber interjects ...]
Guber: I think he had his mind made up a little bit, too. I think that's a fair statement.
Lacob: Yes, I think that's true. I spoke with him, I can't recall if it was two or three times. It's just one of those things that when you've worked building a lot of companies, or changing a lot of management, you know when you talk to someone whether it's the right thing. And given the situation, it just clearly wasn't the right thing.
FanHouse: On to another one of your integral people: you guys have given Larry (Riley) quite a bit of credit for the David Lee deal and seem to be happy with the job he is doing. Where do things stand with that relationship and its future?
Lacob: Look, Larry Riley, I think, has done a good job. He has not been at the helm that long (May 2009), (and) we need to have some time to work with him over time and see how we work together. I think the initial relationship has gone well. I think you would have to conclude, everyone would have to conclude, that he has done a good job. He's the guy that actually has the primary responsibility for how we are today -- and we're 7-4 (at the time). We have a good locker room. And we have a coach who seems to be communicating with his players. Things can change. It's very early. But I think Larry has done a good job and I think, right now, he has our support certainly.
The Urge to Make an Immediate Splash and the Importance of Patience
FanHouse: To backtrack and discuss the potential for a big move on your part, where is your patience level when it comes to looking out for a blockbuster deal? I would think that when you get what, in a sense, is a new toy, you would be tempted to make a splash sooner rather than later.
Guber: Let me just effuse you of one word: we don't consider this a toy in any stretch of the imagination. It's really not (a toy) at all. That's not giving true value to the people that built this, the league, the players, people before this. This is a serious business. We have fun, but this is a serious business.
Lacob: I would agree with that. That's very well said. So your question again was?
FanHouse: Whether it's a toy or serious business, you want success sooner rather than later. How patient will you be?
Lacob: You've got to have patience. We are, I think, generally impatient. We want to succeed sooner rather than later, and I also happen to believe that in basketball you can turn things around -- if you get lucky, if you're smart, a combination of things -- you can turn it around pretty fast. There's only a couple of players (in the league) who really make a difference. The Celtics went from last to first. I think it can happen, but the worst thing in the world probably would be is to, as they say, shoot your wad too early and just make a move to make a move. I think that we want to be disciplined in our analysis, but be smart enough that we recognize the right opportunity that fits for the situation. We have to be proactive. We have to go for it, and I think Peter and I are very oriented that way. We will go for it, but at the right time.
Everyone has a view of what the right moves are to make. No one is going to agree with us all the time, and that's fine. But we get to make the call. It's our decision to make and it's going to be our mistakes and it's going to be our success.
Guber: And we will make mistakes and we will have success. Hopefully we'll have more of the latter (but) surely we'll have some of the former no matter what we do. One of the things that Joe talks about that influenced me and my view of what's going to happen and how I see the world is that when you look at the chemistry of a team, not just individual players, you have to think about -- in any business, any creative business, and sports are a creative business -- you're thinking of the chemistry between the players. You get a great player, and if he doesn't fit into the chemistry of what the team is, it doesn't fit into the playbook the way the team is, the nature of what the strengths and weaknesses of what the team is, you're not going to help yourself just by making a move. You've got to make the right move.
You can see it just happened in the NBA this year. Just because you put three guys together, arguably maybe the three best guys in the league, you don't automatically win all (82) games. I thought what Dwyane Wade said when they lost the first game to Boston, and he says, "That's out of the way, no one thinks we're going to do 81-0 anymore." Because the reality is, there is that magic, that undisclosed, undefined element that happens in the chemistry. ... This team architecture, this chemistry thing that Peter is referring to, it's very, very important.
The Transformation of Monta Ellis
FanHouse: I wanted to ask you about Monta Ellis too. When I sat down with him (in early September) for a story, he blew me away with how he talked about life and maturing and going in a better direction. Has that, combined with how he has played so far this season, changed how you look at him and how willing you are to include him in a possible deal?
Lacob: When you just said this, and I'm serious about this too, I was just getting goose bumps. What you just said really impacts me. I've gotten to know Monta over a short period of time, better than almost any player except for David (Lee), and he's not what I expected either. He has always been one of my favorite players. He is obviously an immense talent. He's one of the fastest players in the NBA. He's so fun to watch when he's on. But you know, he was immature.
You can make an argument that he's a black hole type of player -- there's been that element in the past and there are other players who are like that. (But) he has been an incredible surprise. Whatever the reason being, maybe it's his own maturity, maybe it's getting married, maybe having a child, maybe it's David in the locker room, maybe it's he and (second-year point guard) Steph (Curry) finally connecting in the offseason, maybe it's getting rid of some bad eggs in there (the locker room), maybe it's new ownership. Whatever it is -- and maybe it's a combination of all those things -- this guy is unbelievable.
He has matured so quickly and changed. He is a team player out there. He is a great scorer, but he doesn't force it all the time. He's looking for the other guys, trying to get a lot of assists some nights when he doesn't have his shot. He has bought into a team atmosphere, team play. This is the most important story. I don't think anyone is writing this story to the level they should at this point. It's something very magical happening here. When a guy like that, with that kind of talent, buys into the team thing, it's huge.
FanHouse: That sounds like he's a big part of your future. But there's obviously the business side of it, too, the fact that he has $44 million over four years left on his deal.
Lacob: He's an integral part of the future -- no question about it. And by the way, I forgot to mention Keith Smart. Here's a coach who obviously knows how to handle him. There are a lot of factors there, and it's a very, very important thing that's happening. (But) one of the things, the danger for me going forward, and I'm sure for Peter and all of us, is that you tend to grow attached to these guys. And this is a danger, because we have to, in the end, we have to be objective. If we can improve our team, it may really hurt but we have to make the right decisions to improve our team. That's going to be a tough thing to do over the years. I know I felt it in Boston, but it's a lot more personal here now. That's going to be tough. But right now, that guy is a very integral guy to this team. Steph Curry and David Lee, and there are others also as well, but I think we've got something that we can really build around.
Is Stephen Curry Untouchable?
FanHouse: Is Steph as untouchable as has been reported?
Lacob: He is pretty untouchable. But like I just said, we're always going to have to look -- whether it be this year, next year, five years from now, whenever -- to look at how we can get better. We are committed, this man over here and I, we are committed to bringing a winning team here, a consistently winning team. And I don't mean getting to the playoffs. That's a nice first step, and we need to do that first. But we want to win, and so we're going to have to look at these things over time and constantly be reassessing.
Guber: Either that, or we're going to have to move to the East instead of the West. We'll be the Bangor, Maine Warriors.
Lacob: And by the way, the only guy who's untouchable here is Peter Guber.
Guber: And Elliot Ness.
E-mail Sam Amick at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.