|Ted Leonsis' heart seems to be in the right place. (Getty Images)|
There are two distinct reasons fans turn on a franchise, and they represent two different levels of fan damage.
The first reason is that a team is bad. No surprise, right? Having more than three years of sub-.500 play is going to make the natives restless. Sure, we'll talk about fandom as some sort of glorious and noble pursuit built around a personal connnection. Sometimes we'll even associate family values with what we identify in a team. But really, you want to see the colloquial laundry come out with more points than the other team. So if you consistently fail to do that, fans are either going to tune out or become angry, or both.
The Wizards are in this spot. They're bad. They've been bad. They're going to be bad. John Wall cannot save them, especially since this roster was specifically constructed to save Wall and bring him up to the ability his potential teased. It's not that Wall's a bad player. He's not. He's a good player. But he's not going to turn this ship around. You can't turn the ship around when the bow is embedded in the cliff.
But there's a key point here, which is that Ted Leonsis and his new brand of ownership have failed the fans, but only because they made the wrong decisions, not because they took the wrong approach.
Leonsis took over as Wizards owner and promised a whole new team. A strong, committed approach to winning. he opened his door to media and fans, and blogged about the team. He even responded to local blogs and maintains an open dialogue with them. He committed to a rebuilding phase, the most difficult thing for an owner to do. He invested in young talent and gave his blessing to go through the hard times to try and get to the good.
But he invested in the wrong players, took the wrong approach, and in the name of everything holy, stuck Flip Saunders with the exact wrong team. It was a disaster, and not in the acceptably disastrous rebuilding way.
So they pulled the plug. They decided to throw the fans a bone. They brought in veteran players like Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. They aren't stars, but the thought was they would at least know enough about execution to not be terrible. Money was spent to make the team better.
Both of these approaches were not flawed in their concept.
They were flawed in their execution.
They brought in players who didn't have good instincts, like Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Jordan Crawford. Those players aren't bad guys and their careers are young. We even see them becoming good players in places like Philadelphia and Denver. Crawford hasn't even been as Jordan Crawford-y as usual this year. It was just a bad combination.
And the veteran talent just wasn't good enough. Nene's injuries have certainly hurt their cause, but why do you think Denver ditched him so soon after signing a contract? There's a question of being able to play through injury, which is not about toughness or pain threshold. It's just a physical issue. Meanwhile, Ariza and Okafor provide defense, but we always seem to forget: they're bad offensive players. Just bad. And Ariza has a lot of hero tendencies in him if left unchecked.
But the key here is not to harp on how bad the Wizards are; that's self-evident. They were in a very winnable game against the Hawks on Tuesday and yet there was very little doubt they would find a way to lose. That's who they are. But Leonsis' approval of moves was not misguided and, better yet, it wasn't based on apathy. He's not collecting whatever money the Wizards can pull under the new CBA (but to be sure, Leonsis was a part of the lockout to ensure profitability; it doesn't take a genius to notice the comparisons between Leonsis' handle of the NHL's Capitals and Wizards to figure out his role in the lockout).
Leonsis does the things you want an owner to do. He trusts the process, he invests the money, and most of all, he cares about winning and the fans. He just hasn't been very good at it. (Mostly because he keeps going back to the well with a decison-making structure that has consistently proven it couldn't find its way out of a cardboard box without lighting it on fire, but that's neither here nor there. Also, it's hard to blame him since firing people is pretty much the worst feeling in business, ever.)
Now, compare that with the second reason fans turn on a franchise: when they clearly recognize that ownership has neither the interest in nor intention to correcting the franchise's approach.
The Sacramento Kings are the most outstanding example of this currently. Let's think about if we switched ownership of the Kings with nearly any franchise in a similar econcomic market. Spurs owner Peter Holt is not going to stay the course with how this has gone. The Thunder's Clay Bennett isn't going to put good money after bad, just because it means saving some dough. And while the team very rarely gets credit for its approach, Herb Kohl, owner of the Bucks, would be making changes.
But the Maloofs keep on keeping on, and at this point it really feels like the team is poisoning the fan waters to clear the way for a departure to Seattle, or Anaheim, or Virginia Beach, or whatever place will spit them the arena welfare they want. (Think about that: The Maloofs don't just want to move, they want to get paid to move, before they move.)
And if you're a fan, how do you not disconnect? How do you not spit vitriol? Especially when you can very easily envision a scenario where the Kings bottom out, slip out in the night to a new city, then magically get new management and watch as DeMarcus Cousins figures out his maturity issues alongside a better, more mature roster?
It goes back to Donald Sterling, and how he managed the Clippers pre-Blake Griffin. To Sterling's credit, he's put the money out for players, and even made a series of wise hires for executive management (even letting Neil Olshey walk hasn't bit him; the man is Midas right now). But for the, oh, I don't know, 30 years prior when the Clippers were a collosal nightmare, Sterling was disinterested in making the right decisions. Owners can skate.
And this goes to what I continue to believe will be the greatest challenge for Adam Silver as incoming commissioner. David Stern entered the league when it needed ownership of any kind. Guys that were just willing to not fold was an objective, and if they were, any ownership at all was the key. But we've seen a change recently. There is a new brand of ownership out there that will take the right approach to owning a team, even if the decisions aren't right.
There will always be bad franchises, because that's how this competition thing works. But it's up to the league office to make sure that good, healthy franchises don't fall into the hands of owners who aren't committed to making the league as strong as it can be, and who don't involve themselves with making the right choices.
The league office makes it plain; it works for the owners. But the NBA as an entity, for those franchises to succeed, needs ownership that isn't rotten from the inside, out.
The Maloofs were good owners when they took over. But once they started down the path they have, once this situation became untenable, the league had a responsibility to exert political and internal pressure to resolve it. Yes, they own the franchise, and can hold onto it no matter what if they so desire. But it is an NBA franchise, and the league does hold power in a great many ways. In the future, it has to use it.
The league will always have bad owners. But it needs more Ted Leonsis-types, because at least the concept is right; the execution is just wrong. Leonsis is going to figure out a formula that works to make the Wizards competitive, eventually. You can fix execution.
You can't fix intent.