Joe Lacob is what you call a believer, a tried-and-true Silicon Valley apostle. As a venture capitalist, he likes to bet big on risky, sometimes unknown entities, uncertain of the outcome but confident in his canny approach to success. During the dot-com days, as a partner at the investment firm Kleiner Perkins, he fattened his portfolio with a carousel of interests: medical technologies, energy companies, websites like AutoTrader.
In 2010, when he led a group of investors that bought the Golden State Warriors for $450 million (they outbid Oracle CEO Larry Ellison), Lacob found himself in a strangely familiar predicament: a big bet without a guaranteed payout. The Warriors were a famously subpar squad, but there was potential. Abandoning the conventional moves of a NBA front office executive, Lacob approached it with a VC mindset, adopting a business methodology not typically embraced by league owners: He treated the Warriors like a tech startup. He embraced free-flowing communication, became a more adaptable leader, and relied heavily on guidance from advisers. All ideas were up for debate. Lacob “prefers to surround himself with expertise and exploit it,” the New York Times Magazine noted of his management style. It took time, but his instincts eventually paid off. In 2015, almost half a century after their last title run, the Warriors won their first championship.
“The great, great venture capitalists who built company after company, that’s not an accident,” Lacob said in that same Times Magazine story. “And none of this is an accident, either.” Ousting a LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers that season wasn’t a 40-year-long destiny realized, not really, it was the result of smart, careful engineering. That’s the story, anyway. By his own metrics, Lacob cracked the code; he’d constructed the ultimate franchise—a machine outfitted with all-star talent. At times, watching the Warriors was like watching a great opera unfold: masters at work, all high-arching three-point shots and quicksilver passes. The story was that the Warriors, a once-chronically lackluster ball club, were now the most innovative squad—that they’d completely disrupted the league. To hear Lacob tell it, his team was “light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.” Light years!
Not long after the Times Magazine published its profile of Lacob—which was rightfully mocked by NBA fanboys on Twitter; the story brazenly ignores how integral players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are to the team’s success—Lacob gave a speech during a Stanford Directors’ College summit. When the topic of “small ball”—the Warriors go-to style of offense— arose, Lacob again spun his narrative of innovation. “I think it’s important to know that whenever everyone else starts doing things, it’s time to start doing what’s next,” he said. “We’re on to the next idea—How can we iterate to evolve to get an advantage? I can assure you we’re very forward-thinking in that regard.”
It’s not all bluster, of course. For a time, the Warriors were a kind of NBA unicorn—winning three championships in five years, racking up a historic 73 regular-season wins in 2015-16 (the previous record, 72 wins, was held by the 1996 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls), establishing one of the most formidable dynasties in the modern NBA. Steph Curry is now among the game’s most transcendent players. Still, the course correction wasn’t a direct result of Lacob’s design. Not exactly.
What is true of the NBA has always been true of the NBA: The tempo of the league is mostly dictated by its megastars—more than the NFL and just a notch ahead of major league baseball, pro ball is a player-first business. The Kawhi Leonards, Kyrie Irvings, and Russell Westbrooks do more to sway the movement of the game than executives like Lacob. LeBron James, possibly more than any player past or present, has the kind of power that allows him to adjust the rhythms of the league with the snap of a finger, Thanos-style. This was true for the Showtime-era Lakers with Magic Johnson, it held up for Jordan’s Bulls squad during their fairytale title run in the ’90s; it’s how Kobe and Shaq built a dynasty in the aughts and why the Celtics and Heat, teams that perfected the Big Three model, were able to nab championships with relative ease.
Still, I admit that it’s impossible to unsee some of the parallels; the Warriors do operate like a fast-moving startup. Early on, when Lacob and his partners hired Jerry West, a hall-of-famer known for his exceptional basketball IQ and managerial prowess, it was considered “not just a VC move but a typical Kleiner move.” The signs were everywhere, but the team’s success was not the work of Valley magic, its answer lay where it always had: with the players. The synergy Curry, Thompson, Green and Kevin Durant—along with additional firepower from Andre Iguodola and Shaun Livingston— were able to facilitate manifested as the real proof of the team’s brilliance.
The Warriors current season is the best proof of this. As we approach the halfway mark, the Warriors are the worst team in Western Conference, and the second worst in the league. They’re likely to miss the playoffs. With Durant having decamped to the Brooklyn Nets (he was a decisive factor as the finals MVP for the Warriors’ back-to-back title runs in 2017 and 2018), and Curry and Thompson plagued by injuries, Lacob’s theory should, technically, still apply: for four years, the Warriors innovated and perfected a style of play that favored speed, high-octane scoring, and players in nontraditional positions. This kind of play was ideal for star shooters like Curry, who has an assassin-precise virtuosity when it comes to three-pointers. But what happens when you remove him from the equation? What happens when Thompson is indefinitely sidelined by a knee injury? Does the equation still hold or does the algorithm need to be recalibrated? Had the success of the team always been in the hands of certain players or was their success the result of some Valley guru working his magic? Almost one-third of NBA teams are owned by Silicon Valley insiders, but even their influence has its limits. The game will move as it has for decades: on the backs, sweat, and drive of its players—not in the open-plan offices of wonky owners.
Of course, one season derailed by injuries doesn’t mean Lacob’s experiment bombed entirely. What it does tell us is that the myth of immunity, when it comes to superteams, is just that, a myth. A team that once had total reign over the Western Conference, that looked as if they might be invincible for light years, now sits comfortably in last place. The Warriors will most likely rebound, but the league is ever in flux; it’s rapidly changing as star players like Leonard abandon championship teams for new starts in other markets—I’m not a betting man but not even Lacob’s “always iterate” mentality, a concept that only works when a team has time and star players committed to staying put and rebuilding, can stave off those kind of currents.
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