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 Los Angeles.
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 Los Angeles 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 to the tune of FIVE first-round picks.
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.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.