BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 07/11/2019

Thiel: Ballmer is the boss all ’bout that action

Never shy, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer upended the NBA again, this time acquiring two big stars for a title run. Perhaps thinking about Paul Allen, he doesn’t want to wait.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, making a loud point at a Geekwire event, is all about the coming NBA season. / Geekwire

On the one hand, no one should be surprised that Steve Ballmer upended the NBA last week. He already did it once in 2014, when he paid $2 billion to buy the Los Angeles Clippers, a then-unimaginable sum in pro basketball, even for an industry pickled with Foghorn Leghorn personalities steeped in cash as well as the art of bombast.

On the other hand, if you’re a Seattle sports fan, feel free to be melancholy.

Ballmer in 2013 wanted to upend the NBA from his adopted hometown of Seattle. But when NBA owners, under heavy pressure from Commissioner David Stern, voted against relocating the Kings from Sacramento, Ballmer, who bid up the offer for the Kings to $625 million, would split from Seattle arena partner Chris Hansen.

In 2014, he bought the No. 2 NBA team in LA.

Now he likely has the No. 1 team in the NBA.

“We’re just stacking it up,” Ballmer said. “We’re stacking it up with Jerry (West), stacking up with Lawrence (Frank), stacking it up with Doc (Rivers), stacking it up with a new arena.

“We’re headhunting in a place where this team has not been before.”

That’s what he told the Los Angeles Times —  in December, seven months before last week’s acquisition of two of the league’s top 10 players, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, put pinwheels in the eye sockets of NBA followers worldwide.

Already employed by Ballmer were West, who might be as successful as a sports executive as he was a player; Frank, the well-regarded president of basketball operations, and Rivers, one of the game’s best coaches, who on May 31 said of Leonard, “He is the most like Jordan that we’ve seen.”

The remark cost him $50,000 because it violated the league’s anti-tampering rule. But since Ballmer, who had an estimated net worth of $20 billion when he retired from Microsoft in 2013, is now said to be worth $51 billion, the guess is he has Rivers covered on the fine.

Consider the flattery just part of the investment in Finals MVP Leonard, 28, a SoCal native who Wednesday was reported to have agreed to a three-year deal worth $103.1 million. He will make $32.7 million in his first year, $34.4 million in his second year and $36.1 million in a third year in which he can opt out.

The deal is shorter than the initial report of four years, and the opt-out was a surprise. Then again, when one works for the richest owner in sports by a factor of two — the empire of the late Trail Blazers/Seahawks owner, Paul Allen, is said to be worth about $25 billion —  in a location next door to Hollywood, it is difficult to see Leonard moving on.

The foregoing details are presented as an explainer for Ballmer’s phrase, “stacking it up.”

In five years of ownership, Ballmer has transformed the franchise, which under the bigoted helm of Donald Sterling was one of the greatest laughingstocks in pro sports, into a powerhouse that eclipses even the LA Lakers with LeBron James and newly acquired Anthony Davis.

Bookmaker William Hill cast the Clippers as the 3-1 favorites to win the title next season, with the Lakers second at 10/3. When the teams meet next season at Staples Center, Ballmer may be the only one able to afford tickets.

“If, when we all leave this, we’ve done something grand, with this organization, it would be the best story ever,” Rivers said. “It’s a key selling point for free agents. You can make your history here.”

That remark was also made in December, before Leonard and George arrived. Clearly Ballmer means to win immediately. He chose to go the other direction from the trendy NBA strategy of tanking.

“Our fans can and should expect more than that,” he said this week. “That also should be attractive to players. You come here, you know we play to win every year, every year, every year.”

That will not be the case with Oklahoma City, which now has lost George after seeing All-Stars Kevin Durant and James Harden go away. Speculation grows that the Thunder will trade their last superstar, Russell Westbrook, and basically start over with youngsters.

As much glee as Sonics fans are having over the hoops dismantling in OKC, Ballmer — as is the case with every guy I know worth $51 billion — overpaid. The Clippers basically gave their draft future to the Thunder.

Here’s the draft assets owned by the Thunder, as compiled by USA Today:

2020

  • Nuggets’ first rounder (top 10 protected)
  • Own first rounder (1-20 protected)
  • Own second rounder (top 55 protected)

2021

  • Own first rounder
  • Heat’s first rounder (unprotected)
  • Own second rounder

2022

  • Own first rounder (top 14 protected)
  • Clippers’ first rounder (unprotected)
  • Own second rounder (could be owed to 76ers)

2023

  • The better first rounder between Thunder and Clippers
  • Heat’s first rounder (lottery protected)
  • Own second rounder (could be owed to 76ers)

2024

  • Own first rounder
  • Clippers first rounder (unprotected)
  • Grizzlies second rounder
  • Own second rounder

2025

  • The better first rounder between Thunder and Clippers
  • Own second rounder

2026

  • Own first rounder
  • Clippers first rounder
  • Own second rounder

That is heavy ordnance for GM Sam Presti, who’s been proven shrewd at getting players to the prairie, just not keeping them there. It’s hard to trade one’s way out of Tornado Alley.

But after five years of building, this is Ballmer’s time in the NBA. If somehow he had managed to get the Kings to Seattle and spiff up the Key, it’s hard to know whether he could have replicated what he has done in LA. But it would have been highly entertaining to watch him swashbuckle alongside Jerry West.

As we know, there are no guarantees.

Two years after that transcendent moment in 1986 when Microsoft shares went public and forever changed Seattle, Allen indulged his passion for basketball and bought the Portland Trail Blazers, but only because owner Barry Ackerley told him the Sonics were not for sale. When the Sonics did come up for sale in 2006, Ballmer couldn’t quit his day job.

For all of Allen’s wealth, influence and hoops passion over 30 years, he did not live to see the Blazers win a championship.

Ballmer, it seems, is aware. He’s stacking it up.

 


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YourThoughts

  • WestCoastBias79

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. As a displaced Seattleite living in Los Angeles, the Clippers are about number seven in the sports pecking order behind UCLA hoops. This city’s pro sports teams are the Lakers, Dodgers and USC (I know), then a huge gap to maybe the Kings or Rams. Even at lob city peak when they were actually entertaining, they were an afterthought. During the playoffs, they were giving the Warriors a series, and everyone here was talking about who the Lakers were going to get to team with Lebron. The Kawhi signing has just made Lakers fans mad, I don’t know any Clippers fans. You go into Staples, and there’s no doubt whose house it is, there’s statues of Lakers greats surrounding it, and about a forty foot painting of Shaq going at Arvydas Sabonis when you ride the escalators up to club level. They actually cover all the Lakers banners now for Clippers games, but then you just see no banners. You go to Clippers games when you can’t get Lakers tickets. The Lakers have been trash for half a decade, the Clippers good, and that hasn’t budged.

    Ballmer wants his own house for obvious reasons, and he could afford it because public money aint happening here, but MSG who owns the Forum will fight tooth and nail against his preferred site in Inglewood to protect their investment when they converted it into a concert venue (plus Laker fans would go apoplectic if they tore it down for the Clippers). I don’t know where else he’d go. Even if they have their own place, as the Chargers have proven, winning doesn’t necessarily make Angelenos care. Heck, the Rams were in the friggin’ Super Bowl and during the lead up to the game you’d be hard pressed to know.

    TL;DR, he needs to move the Clips to Seattle. LA is a weird sports town. He can take the hit.

    • art thiel

      As a longtime LA visitor, I agree with your description of the sports landscape. But I don’t necessarily agree that the Clippers can’t advance fast. LA is the ultimate front-runner town. A championship makes them cool and trendy. They’ll never match the Lakers tradition, but once Ballmer engages kids with egames, gambling and VR headsets, they will be cool and trendy with the right demo.

      Ballmer is the most visionary NBA owner, even if he wasn’t seen that way at Microsoft.

    • Husky73

      WestCoast…..Where do the Angels, Chargers, Ducks, Galaxy, FC LA, Long Beach State, Cal Poly Pomona et al fit in? The number of sports teams in SoCal is dizzying.

      • art thiel

        Raising the flag for Cal Poly Pomona? Don’t see that a lot.

    • Husky73

      The Lakers owned LA for a long time. It is now (and again) Dodgertown.

      • art thiel

        Last Dodger WS win: 1988. Not good enough for LA.

        • Husky73

          True…BUT, six consecutive NL West championships and two straight NL pennants top anything else in LA at the moment. Three SF Giants World Series championships this decade does chafe.

    • Kirkland

      I’ve heard Ballmer say in effect that the Clippers are worth more as a supporting player in huge-market L.A. than as a bigger fish in 14th-biggest market Seattle, so moving them up here made no business sense. That said, I always thought the Clips should’ve been in Anaheim instead of Los Angeles proper; they’d have their own sizable population base to draw fans from, while still being in the same TV market as L.A.

      • art thiel

        I think Ballmer is right about market sizes. Anaheim has been decent as a stand-alone market for the Angels and Kings, but I think Ballmer’s plans for an arena in Inglewood next to the new NFL stadium is the better business move. It’s still LA, not Orange County.

    • PokeyPuff

      wow great comment. I would add that LA seems to still prize the Raiders even tho they’re long gone. I see LA Raiders gear all over town, and in various permutations. I’m always puzzled too that the Rams have such little interest there.

      • art thiel

        As I wrote in these comments, LA is the most front-running city of all. If you’re going to get people to put down their movie scripts and watch, gotta be a champion. Ask Pete Carroll.

        • WestCoastBias79

          USC had a pretty rich history before Pete, and a ton of Alum. A counterpoint to LA being a front-running city is the Rams. Lakers fans are pretty loyal and it’s generational, just like Raiders fans who are still Raiders fans even though they’re a dumpster fire and haven’t played here in like 25 years. I don’t see the Clippers ever resonating here in a way that would satisfy a guy like Ballmer. They’ll always be second banana to the Lakers, and a billionaire software guy from Seattle will always be less interesting to the locals than the Buss family drama, Magic, Shaq, the burgeoning Kobe media empire, the future Lebron media empire, and every sports show here that has a showtime Laker on it throwing shade at the Clippers.

          • art thiel

            A reminder: The Rams haven’t won a championship in LA yet. Therefore, they aren’t cool.

            An LAC title won’t mean they’re on the Lakers level in LA because of the absence of history. But it’s the best they can do until they win two, then three . . .

  • jafabian

    Very much a Steve Ballmer move and I don’t blame him. The biggest competition for the Clippers from a business perspective is the Lakers and despite being a team in transition they’re making moves. The Clippers needs to keep pace with them at the very least and their GM, Michael Winger, used to be Sam Presti’s assistant so he knows how to deal at least. He probably can make up for the lack of draft picks with some shrewd undrafted pick ups or trade for picks. I’d love to see the Clippers succeed after getting out from under Donald Sterling. He’d take a lot of grief for sure.

    Sadly, the Clippers successful direction under Ballmer could have happened here if certain parties worked with him and Chris Hansen. And Phil Jackson probably would have had better results here than he did in NYC. Remember Jackson was interested in joining their group.

    • art thiel

      The Clips see an opening with the Buss/Pelinka regime hurting the Lakers.

      Ballmer was willing to give money in 2007-8 to upgrade the Key, but he didn’t retire from Microsoft until 2013. Hard to say how the franchise would have operated.

      • jafabian

        The Lakers are a mess right now and Jerry West is either shaking his head or chuckling over that. The Buss/Perlinka team chased away Magic and though I’m not sold on Magic being in charge he deserved better treatment from them. That fiasco only proved that the focus there is on everything except winning basketball. IMO they shouldn’t have gone after Lebron right when they started a youth movement.

        • art thiel

          Magic is not a sports executive. He’s interested in being Magic.

  • Chuck Henry

    It’s great for the league that the Clippers got Leonard and George, I figured there’s no way Kwahi would have wanted to play on a team being run roughshod over by Lebron. He likely want to beat Lebron since he’s such an intense competitor. I don’t think he’s big on drama. Clearly Kwahi doesn’t need Lebron to win a championship. Good ownership is pretty important, and Ballmer listens to his basketball people, many of who played actual basketball. Now the Western Conference is just plain crazy. I wish we had NBA here, it’s a lot of fun to watch in person. The Lakers are going to be good mind you, so Ballmer has helped create what should be a brutal rivalry for a few years.

    • art thiel

      LAL vs. LAC will leave the rest of the NBA DOA.