The Golden State of Joe Lacob

In the second season of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” there’s a line from the odious CEO of Hooli, Gavin Belson, that captures the progressive, faux-enlightened attitude of many in the startup world:

“But we in this Valley all know that failures just like this one are really stepping stones. What those in dying business sectors call failure, we in tech know to be pre-greatness.”

His statement is then complemented with this PowerPoint image:

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It’s ridiculous but, given the show’s oft-noted attention to detail, probably emblematic of the kind of bluster that defines the riskless view of results from Northern California–in which a single success proves a visionary’s genius, and failure is merely indicative of fearlessness. Passivity and meekness are problematic traits for individuals in the industry, perhaps second in undesirability only to humility.

Which brings us to the very visible co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, Joe Lacob.

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This April, The New York Times published a now-infamous piece on the Warriors and Lacob, titled “What Happened When Venture Capitalists Took Over the Golden State Warriors?” Lacob, who took over the Warriors in 2010 with Peter Guber, comes off as you’d expect the self-made man who owns the best team in the NBA to come off, his quotes ranging from boastful to delusional to onanistic. He claimed that the Warriors organization is “light-years” ahead of its competitors; he bragged that he is one of the ten best blackjack players in the world; he claimed that, with regards to the Warriors’ success in the past two years, “none of it is an accident.”

Golden State has itself become increasingly odious in 2016–what with the perceived and sometimes real arrogance that accompanies its play, with Draymond Green fancying himself the on-court Vasco de Gama of his opponents’ vas deferens, and with the recent acquisition of Kevin Durant making their top five as strong as any in NBA history–but a lot of the ire sent in their direction can be traced back to that interview. As Warriors fans can attest, it was inevitable. To say that Lacob was unnecessarily an asshat presupposes that there are times during which Lacob is not an asshat: a man who claims to be a historically great blackjack player has a Martin Shkreli-like lack of awareness. As soon as Lacob came to the national forefront (which itself was inevitable–this is a man who had to speak last at Rick Barry’s jersey retirement, instead of, y’know, Rick Barry), the Warriors would be despised.

The Silicon Valley clip is relevant now, given Golden State’s recent failure to finish off the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. In Lacob’s worldview, I’m sure the loss shows that the Warriors have merely succeeded in figuring out what they need to do next: add a singular talent like Kevin Durant to an already star-studded core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. (That the strategy less resembles bold marketplace #disruption from an unheralded franchise than the NBA equivalent of relying on tax breaks for the wealthy–Durant came to the Warriors because of their past success–is perhaps fitting for Lacob, who cuts a living in private equity.)

Soon, their 2016 collapse will be nothing more than a TEDx talk in nascent form: whatever rebuilding the Warriors take on this offseason can be held up in business schools and $150-per-head luncheons as a way to “overcome adversity in the workplace” and “adapt to a changing industry.” Hell, the fact that the Warriors selected a center in this year’s draft is already being pimped by Lacob as a paradigm shift away from smallball, rather than a reflection of Steve Kerr having to trot out Anderson Goddamn Varejao in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Because that admission would mean Lacob admitting that the prior roster construction was, um, suboptimal.

A quick concession: Lacob has made some wise moves as owner. He was able to excise head coach Mark Jackson at the right time, who imbued his stars with self-belief if not a functioning offensive system; his replacement, Steve Kerr, has been historically great in his first two seasons. He has solicited Jerry West’s advice, most notably in sandbagging a Klay Thompson-Kevin Love swap two summers ago that would have cost the Warriors a championship. His visibility courtside and his transparency with fans (personally answering email inquiries, entertaining tete-a-tetes with local reporter Tim Kawakami) are refreshing if self-serving. The new color scheme (a rudimentary #branding101 tactic) is a major improvement over the navy/orange scheme that dominated the Adonal Foyle era.

But the “years ahead” claim is hard to mesh with the fact that the first free agent signing of the Warriors under Lacob was David Lee–the same David Lee whose absence was necessary to let the actually competent Draymond Green blossom into an All-Star, the same David Lee whose bloated contract was traded for nothing this offseason (two trades eventually landed Jason Thompson, who was bought out). Or that, rather than amnestying Andris Biedrins’ albatross contract in late 2011, the front office amnestied Charlie Bell’s (a water bill, by comparison) in order to deliver an unsuccessful offer sheet to DeAndre Jordan. In 2012, Bob Myers took over as GM and had a good draft, but Golden State still passed on Andre Drummond once and Draymond Green twice (before nabbing him with the team’s final pick). In 2013? The Warriors drafted Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic. Today, they’re merely time zones ahead, playing in Europe.

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Really, so far the key to the Warriors’ success–and my apologies, because this is blisteringly obvious to anyone whose balding head isn’t barnacled inside their own ass–is Wardell Stephen Curry II, who, it should be noted, was drafted in 2009, a year before Lacob took over the team. Ankle injuries and inconsistent play persisted in his first three years in the league, and before the 2012 season, he signed a four-year, $44 million extension. By the time Curry finished with an All-Star caliber year, it was a bargain; now, after back-to-back MVP campaigns, it’s reached Lufthansa levels of theft.

Lacob, essentially, backed into getting one of the two best players in the league for a little more annually than Brendan Haywood. (Yes, he hilariously made $10.5M this year, even though he didn’t play.) Which is all well and good, except for the part where Lacob claims it’s “no accident.” Steph Curry’s nightly play and growth is miraculous, while the owner nods smugly with every made three-pointer. If Curry is that pilot who landed a plane safely in the Hudson River, then Lacob is the head of the FAA saying that “it was standard operating procedure.”

What will be interesting is the plan beyond this season–specifically, what happens in the 2017 offseason, when Curry and Durant become unrestricted free agents. Put simply, it’s easy to win when you pay the greatest shooter of all-time like Wilson Chandler. The salary cap’s continuing explosion should help the Warriors resign the duo without gutting the team’s core, but the roster construction will shift–Andre Iguodala, for example, could be a major casualty. The team will exhaust the pool of minimum-contract veterans to fill out the bench. (Varejao, unfortunately, has already been resigned.) The margins will get decidedly thinner.

It’ll be uncertain, intriguing, and difficult. For Warriors fans, everything from the Curry signing onward has felt like a wild ride at a casino–say, a hot streak at a blackjack table. It’s quite fun, but the luck will run out at some point–spectacularly. Because that’s how blackjack works for everyone, Joe Lacob included.

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Lucas Hubbard is based in Durham, NC and is one of the state’s best scratch-off players. You should follow him on Twitter.

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