Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
The New York Knicks finished last season with a 32-50 record, marking the third straight year that the signature team in the NBA's biggest market failed to make the playoffs. On the opposite coast, the Los Angeles Lakers were even worse, finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference with their worst record in franchise history (17-65). Things haven't improved much for either team this season, even with L.A. landing Luke Walton as coach. Just last month, the Lakers suffered their worst loss in franchise history. On top of the on-court woes, the people in charge of the Knicks and Lakers organizations seem to specialize in providing us glaringly public examples of off-the-court discord.
And yet, despite all this misery, the Knicks and the Lakers are the two most valuable teams in the NBA today, according to the annual ranking Forbes published this week, each worth at least $3 billion.
It's been years now since an NBA team's on-court performance translated to the boardroom. In a normal free market, a crappy product combined with tone-deaf public relations would lead to failure. But NBA teams in major markets are largely impervious to their owners' mistakes, at least on the balance sheets; their franchises can't fail, no matter what the people in charge do.
The average value of an NBA team has increased by 3.5 times over the last half-decade, with the average value of a team now at $1.36 billion. It's only going to increase with the nine-year, $24 billion television deal with Turner and ESPN kicking in this season. Because of that TV windfall, owning an NBA team has morphed from a "psychic benefit" to a profitable enterprise—one where you might also get to hobnob with Jay and Bey in the front row. The owners in New York and Los Angeles have been so terrible, they're showing it might actually be impossible to lose money owning an NBA team in a big city.
They've got a built-in handicap: a large metropolitan area with visiting tourists means there will always be people willing to fork over big money for a ticket, and the local television contracts offer big bucks smaller markets don't get to see (there's revenue sharing, but it's not large enough to offset the disparity). The Nets—who saw their early experiment in Brooklyn with aging, former Celtics champions go bust—rank No. 7 on Forbes' list, worth an estimated $1.8 billion despite finishing 11 games back of that desultory Knicks team last season.
James Dolan's Knicks are simply the most extreme example of this. The first year after Dolan took over, in 1999, the Knicks became the first team to make the NBA Finals as an eight-seed. But then Dolan hired Isiah Thomas in 2003 as President of Basketball Operations, and they haven't advanced to the conference finals since. Zeke's tenure is known primarily for the series of horrible deals for a cavalcade of past-their-prime former stars and the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him and the organization by former executive Anucha Browne Sanders. As part of the $11 million settlement Browne Sanders won, Dolan himself had to shell out $3 million from his own pocketbook after firing her for complaining about Thomas. And here's the kicker: Dolan still has Thomas on the payroll, as he is now running the WNBA's New York Liberty.
With this history of incompetence, you don't need to rack your brain wondering how the Knicks could follow up a 17-win season in 2014-15 with 32 wins last year. At the same time, however, the team also made $376 million in revenue. Forbes says that operating profits could double with the league's new television deal kicking in this season—just in time to offset a new, powerful strain of Knicks fuck-ups.
Overpaid President of Basketball Ops and King of Obfuscated Tweets Phil Jackson traded for Derrick Rose right before he was set to stand trial in a civil case for an alleged gang rape (he was found not liable). After the season began, Rose went missing without a word to anyone on the Knicks. Franchise player Carmelo Anthony wondered whether the Knicks even wanted him, and Jackson, the sage philosopher that he is, decided to make it even murkier for his star. This was after Phil used some unfortunate "diction" when talking about LeBron James' business partners, self-sabotaging New York's free-agency prospects in the process. Plus, despite Jackson's best efforts to drive his star out of New York, 'Melo—who has a no-trade clause thanks to Phil—ain't going anywhere.
We haven't even brought up the disgusting way Dolan and the Knicks treated Charles friggin' Oakley this past week—the living embodiment of the 90s-era Knicks that current fans venerate almost as much as those magical '70 and '73 teams.
The Lakers aren't as messed up, but they have finished either last or second to last in the West the last three seasons (and look destined to make it a fourth). Los Angeles last won a playoff game on May 18, 2012. Despite a horrible recent history of their own—and a product that was basically Come Watch Old-Ass Kobe Chuck Some Shit Up—the Lakers made $333 million in revenue last year.
Their two-sibling approach to ownership, stemming from the departed Jerry Buss' passive backroom misogyny, isn't doing them any favors, either. For years, the backwards-hat-sporting Jim Buss Jr. was a bit of a joke among the more obsessive NBA fans, while his sister Jeanie Buss was the true brains behind a still-splendid purple and gold business operation. But Jennie didn't handle the hiring of Magic Johnson very well, either, embarrassing her brother in the process. Sibling rivalry isn't new, of course, but when it's at the top level it trickles down and creates rifts among Lakers executives while helping to keep L.A.'s on-court showings stunted in a post-Kobe Bryant world.
Even with all the on- and off-court troubles from ownership on down, the Knicks and Lakers both grew by at least 10 percent last season, according to Forbes. They are not only successful—these two burning landfills are the most successful.
The Buss children and Dolan would have to do something truly beyond the pale to warrant a financial backlash. Knicks fans thought Oakley might be it, but there's little evidence to suggest it'll actually affect business at MSG.
At least fans—or really anyone with unclogged ears—can continue to boycott the performances of J.D. and the Straight Shot.