Intangibles win! Back in 2015, Irina Pavlova, then president of ONEXIM Sports and Entertainment —Mikhail Prokhorov’s holding company— said this about what she learned from the job...
“All that stuff I slept through in business school — culture, building relationships — that is the important stuff,” she told Grantland’s Louisa Thomas, talking about her time at Stanford, where she earned an MBA.
The Nets experience —which included hiring the next GM and the opening of a new training facility (on the same day in February 2016!)— taught her a valuable lesson. So when Sportico, the new sports business site, recently asked her to pen a guest column, she was ready. There weren’t a lot of new details in it but that in a way was the point. The Nets culture is now so established that it’s not news. But Pavlova hit on just what makes up that culture from a business as well as a basketball side, those “intangibles.”
And those intangibles are based, she wrote, on one truth: “players are just people,”
“The mistake some teams make is treating them like bodies attached to contracts, tradeable assets, rather than as human beings. Moods, injuries, personal issues appear in a totally different light if you see the imperfect human at the root.”
She detailed what she learned about how that works. It’s not kumbaya. It’s the execution of well thought out plans. Sometimes, it’s putting tangible things a team has at its disposal in the service of the intangible.
She writes, for example, about the value of the practice facility in Sunset Park, which is renowned as one of the best, if not the best in the NBA. It cost $52 million to build, then millions more to outfit to the performance team’s specifications.
“I think Google was one of the first companies to recognize that a great office environment makes people happier and more productive,” she wrote. “At its core, it’s really no different for NBA players. They spend the bulk of their time at the practice facility and prefer it to be comfortable (natural light really helps!) and convenient. If you spend several hours sitting in traffic on game days, even if you’re in a back of a limo, it kills your soul, eats into your NBA nap-time, saps you of energy and takes away from the time you could be spending on… just about anything else.
“How do you put a price on that? I was amazed by the amount of ridicule the Nets received when their new training center—a gorgeous, 70,000-square-foot facility in a repurposed warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—opened in 2016. The ‘experts’ claimed that no free agent would ever care where they practiced. That’s only if you think of FAs as robots. If you think of them as people, it makes perfect sense that they would. And they did.”
Similarly, the Nets under Marks revamped the family room. It cost a million dollars to renovate a 1,000 square foot storage space into a place where the families of players and coaches could gather on game days.
“One of Marks’s first initiatives at the Nets was completely re-hauling the family room and the services provided there. It may seem of marginal importance, but making it easier for families to support their husbands and dads did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.”
Similarly, when it came time to re-imagine players lounges at Barclays Center and HSS Training Center, the Nets brought in an interior designer (and a friend of Pavlova) B.A. Torrey, to make sure the lounges were put together with the dimensions of NBA players in mind. There were oversized lounge chairs and sofas, a prototype of which was stress-tested by then-Net Brook Lopez!
More recently, the Nets and the Hospital for Special Surgery opened a new medical facility inside the building that houses both the Nets training facility and the team’s business offices. If a player gets injured in a practice or workout, no longer will he have to be transported from Brooklyn to HSS on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, accompanied by a coach. Instead, he walks one flight down the stairs into a fully staffed, fully equipped medical facility.
Of course, as Pavlova notes, it’s not all bricks-and-mortar, dollars-and-cents. It’s thinking outside of the box, getting personal, being innovative.
“Moods, injuries, personal issues appear in a totally different light if you see the imperfect human at the root,” she noted. [Gregg] Popovich is famous for genuinely caring about his players and engaging them on a personal level. The key word here is ‘genuinely.’ Players have a highly sensitive BS detector and can tell the difference. Which coach do you think they’ll go the extra mile for?”
The Nets medical staff, which was always seen as among the best-in-class, has been enhanced by a new priority on sports psychology. The Nets hired a Team Performance Psychologist to work with players on underlying issues that may be affecting their play. Dr. Paul Groenewal, whose website notes he “specializes in the treatment and coaching of elite athletes,” doesn’t just wait for players to make an appointment. He can often be found at the HSS Training Center, ready to talk to whoever needs his services. Nets players have spoken positively about having him around.
And yes, Pavlova argues, it works. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and yes, Steve Nash, have all recognized the culture by signing on with the Nets.
“Your culture defines your reputation,” she wrote. “Let’s face it: Players talk and have no reason to lie to one another about their experiences on teams. It was the Nets’ reputation that made Brooklyn the destination of choice for the two superstars. Without the culture the organization had created, there wouldn’t be pictures of KD and Kyrie posing on the roof of the practice facility against a Manhattan skyline.”
On the other side of those transactions, Pavlova notes, the culture gives the bosses the confidence to take chances, making changes.
“When your job is to assemble the best team possible, you can’t operate based on fear that a superstar might not ‘fit in.’ You go for the best talent available and double your efforts to make sure that they do. Is that a guarantee that it will work out? Of course not. But I don’t think you’d be doing your job if you didn’t try.”
Pavlova doesn’t mention it, but having an owner who jumps out in front of the pack on Black Lives Matter and COVID is yet another intangible. Nets players know Joe and Clara Wu Tsai’s track record on both.
Of course it is a business and employees leave or get fired all the time. In the NBA, players get traded or waived. Reports were that Jeremy Lin and Allen Crabbe weren’t happy with the circumstances of their departure. Kenny Atkinson’s departure may have been played as mutual, but there had to be a lot of bad blood.
And cultures do change. The Nets are now very much about satisfying their superstars. There were reports early in in the head coaching search that Marks would consult a range of Nets players before he hired a head coach. Yet Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie all said they found out about Nash the same morning we all did.
Still, the Nets did something right. It took just three years and four months to go from the hiring of Marks to the Clean Sweep, from February 2016 to June 2019. As Pavlova notes, “most accounts destined to [have the Nets] languish in NBA purgatory for another decade.”
So here’s to the intangibles!
Draft Sleeper of the Week - Desmond Bane
When we saw The Ringer link the Nets to Desmond Bane in their mock draft last week, we scratched our heads. We didn’t know a thing about Bane, a 6’6” 3-and-D player out of TCU. Then, the closer we looked, we thought, sure, of course. Bane may be just what the Nets would like at No. 19 (assuming they hold on to their pick which will cost them $2.4 million in salary, not to mention luxury taxes, next season.)
Bane is 22, a four-year player at the Forth Worth school. His physical gifts are not what’s going to get him into the NBA. He’s not particularly athletic and his wingspan, 6’5”, is less than his height, a rare thing. What sets him apart is his shooting ... and maturity, both physically and mentally. He is a sniper and a leader.
The Ringer thumbnail sketch of Bane calls him a “High-IQ guard who plays hard. He already has a veteran skill set and projects favorably as a rotation player.” comparing him to Macolm Brogdon. That works.
How good of a shooter? Over his four years at TCU, his shooting line was 50/43/80 percent. He never shot less than 38 percent from three (in his freshman year), never higher than 46.1, remarkably consistent. Last year, he hit 92 three’s in 32 games on his way to a 16.6 ppg scoring averaged.
The Ringer listed his positives other than shooting
- Comfortable shooting off the dribble. He won’t be an iso threat in the pros, but can attack a mismatch or pull-up to punish a scrambling defense.
- Excels at pick-and-roll decision-making, playing with pace and delivering accurate passes all over the court.
- Solid finisher who can use either hand around the rim. He has touch, which is vital since he lacks hops.
- Decisive player who reads the floor at a high level. He cuts and relocates well and facilitates effectively and intentionally.
- Excellent defensive fundamentals.
And his negatives focusing on a lack of NBA athleticism.
- He needs to tighten his handle to create space against athletic defenders. Though he improved in that area at TCU, he still has room to grow.
- Lack of burst or a quick first step, plus his short arms, could limit both his at-rim finishing ability and his defensive impact.
- Defensive versatility is questionable on paper because of his physical and athletic profile.
NBA.com’s Draft prospect page is filled with positive adjectives, like “powerfully built,” “scrappy, competitive,” “energetic,” “scrappy,” “chiseled” and “rock-solid” player who “doesn’t take a play off.”
Here’s some highlights...
He’s been all over the mocks. The Ringer had him at 19 lately, ESPN at 41, NBADraft.net undrafted! Is he unorthodox? Sure, but who knows how the Nets are thinking about this year’s draft. On one hand, it’s the first draft since the Clean Sweep. Last year, the Nets dumped two first rounders, at Nos. 17 and 27, in June to save cap space for free agency which began 10 days later. On the other hand, the draft isn’t very good and the Nets will be in the luxury tax. So maybe they’d like a prospect who can give them minutes right away. Reminder: Brogdon who sported similar numbers at Virginia, was taken at No. 36 ... and won Rookie of the Year.
Joe and Clara Wu Tsai honored
The venerable Asia Society last week honored its annual list of “Asia Game Changers.” saying Joe and Clara Wu Tsai provided “a critical life-saving role at the height of the country’s coronavirus crisis with compassion and generosity.”
Here’s the official citation...
Joe and Clara Tsai may not be household names in America, but the couple have long been groundbreaking leaders in the worlds of philanthropy and business. In 2016, the Tsais made a substantial gift to Yale University, Joe Tsai’s alma mater, to establish a new center on innovative thinking, one that placed diversity at the core of its mission. In 2018, they also made a gift to Clara’s alma mater in supporting the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University to advance the interdisciplinary and discovery about the human brain.
And in 2020 the duo’s generosity played a critical life-saving role at the height of the country’s coronavirus crisis. As COVID-19 tightened its grip on New York, and the severe shortage of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the U.S. became apparent, the Tsais swept into action. American hospitals desperately needed PPE manufactured in China to protect their front-line workers. Who better to help? As co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, sourcing from China was in Joe Tsai’s DNA. Through their eponymous foundation, the Tsais donated millions of masks, goggles, and ventilators to hospitals and nursing homes in New York, then the epicenter of the virus.
“As soon as the pandemic reached crisis proportions, we really wanted to help,” Clara Wu Tsai said. “The frontline workers are the heroes of this and their health and safety are really the most important.” Later, the Tsais spent millions more to bring PPE to San Diego and Detroit. Joe Tsai, owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the WNBA’s New York Liberty, also pledged to pay employees at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where the teams play their games, their normal event rates while the city was in lockdown. Barclays Center also worked with food banks to use the venue to distribute meals to thousands of needy residents in the Brooklyn community.
“In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Joe and Clara Tsai were one of the first professional sports team owners to speak out publicly on social justice with the following words:
“‘We stand up and speak up against all forms of racism — overt or subconscious — especially against the Black community. We want to say enough is enough.’”
Congratulations and as Governors Cuomo and Murphy and President Trump have already said, thank you.
Steve Nash’s Foundation
Preceding Steve Nash into New York was his foundation, the Steve Nash Foundation, which is “dedicated to assisting underserved children in their health, personal development, education and enjoyment of life.”
The foundation is a New York registered charity “with Brooklyn at its heart,” according to new addition to its website. It is also international in scope, helping children in British Columbia, the Canadian province where he grew up, and Paraguay, where the foundation is trying to correct a long-standing infant mortality rate that’s four times that of the United States.
Nash has also helped out Educare, a national network of early learning centers combining the best of Early Head Start, Head Start, childcare, preschool and family support to help low-income children; REACH which helps older children understand science to optimize their own psychological and physical well-being; and Lets Talk Dads to help new fathers learn about brain science, as well as how to be what he describes as “our children’s personal neuro-developer.”
Its big fund-raising event, of course, is the annual “Showdown” in Manhattan’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park featuring world class soccer players and NBA stars. Over the years, a number of players from the Nets have participated, including Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jared Dudley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kyrie Irving, Jeremy Lin, Mason Plumlee, D’Angelo Russell, Iman Shumpert and Sasha Vujacic. Last year, the Nets supplied the water bottles, no doubt a presaging of his hire.
The “Showdown” of course had to postponed this year but the foundation hopes to bring it back next summer.
Similarly, it holds an annual open-to-the-public soccer tournament, the Steve Nash Charity Shield, at Brooklyn’s Socceroof. The hope is that it will return as well when health conditions permit.
Could we see some collaboration between the Nash Foundation and that of his co-owners? Maybe. Both have a deep interest in neuroscience. Who knew?
Back in Brooklyn
The Nets last home game before the “hiatus” was March 8, now more than six months ago. There’s no way to know when the next home game will take place at Barclays Center but whenever we get back, the scene around the arena is going to look very different. Pacific Park, formerly Atlantic Yards, is moving along and as we noted in a tweet, two high rise apartment towers, one 26 stories and another 50 stories have been rising in “back” of Barclays.
If you haven't been to @barclayscenter since March (raises hand), here's latest images of two high-rises going up in "back." In first, building on left has topped out; one on right will be 50 stories, as high as crane. Same building in second image. H/T @AYReport pic.twitter.com/rxcgF9gmfV— NetsDaily (@NetsDaily) September 18, 2020
Where’s Barclays Center? In the picture on the left, if you look reallly close, you will see a sliver of green peaking among the towers lower center. That’s the arena’s green roof. In the one on the right, the roof can be seen on the left. There will be a lot more building nearby. Of the 16 towers, six are completed or under construction.
As a guide, here’s what Atlantic Avenue will look like next summer. A good time and place for a parade, we’d say...
No matter how bad the Nets 2013 trade with the Celtics looks in retrospect, it may have soon have a challenger in the 2019 trade between the Thunder and Clippers that brought Paul George of L.A.
The Nets gave up three first round picks, none protected, in 2014, 2016 and 2018 plus a swap of picks in 2017. The Nets also got a second rounder in 2017. In a delicious irony, the Celtics sent the Nets 2018 pick to the Cavaliers in return for Kyrie Irving.
The George trade has the potential to be worse for two reasons...
—The Nets didn’t give up much in terms of players. They sent out Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans and Kris Josephs. All but Humphrey were out of the league in two years. Hump lasted till October 2017. The Clippers gave up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s 22 and a potential All-Star, and Danilo Gallinari, who’s 32 but averaged 18.7 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 40.5 percent from three.
—The scale of the draft pick haul by the Thunder looks be to twice as big as what the Nets sent Boston. OKC’s haul includes the Clippers’ unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026, along with 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (lottery protected) first-round selections via the Miami Heat plus the option to swap picks with the Thunder in 2023 and 2025, That’s five firsts plus two swaps.
Of course, George is only 30, six years younger than Paul Pierce and seven years younger than Kevin Garnett when they joined Brooklyn. He may have had a bad “bubble” but he is a six-time All-Star, making the All-NBA first team only a year ago. And he lured Kawhi Leonard to L.A. There was no such added attraction in the Nets deal.
The Clippers of course are also now in cap hell just as the Nets were. The Clips owe George more than $73 million over the next two seasons, the second of which George can opt out of. (Leonard is owed $70 million ... same situation.)
Steve Ballmer, the Clippers owner, is unlikely to suffer much financially. He is easily the richest owner in the NBA at $72.5 billion but he is also about to build a new arena in Inglewood to showcase his team. We’ve down that road too. Best wishes, Steve.