Editor's note: This article appeared before Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals.
LOS ANGELES -- As we wind toward the end of a thoroughly captivating NBA Finals, I'm reminded of something that was said to me at the beginning.
Prior to Game 1, I asked commissioner David Stern about the cycle of the same teams appearing in the Finals over and over again, and whether that was a concern to the league. As I noted in the Daily Dime (see item No. 2), five teams have won 27 of the past 31 championships.
Stern's response was interesting because it focused almost entirely on owners. He pointed to the Lakers' success under Dr. Jerry Buss as an example for other owners to follow, and the same for Boston under the consortium led by Wyc Grousbeck.
And the more I think about it, the more sense Stern's response makes.
We spend most of our energy focusing on players, coaches and general managers. But all good management starts at the top, and these Finals are a good example. Strong leadership from ownership in both L.A. and Boston is a big reason these teams have won five of the six conference championships in the past three seasons.
Similarly, make a list of the league's most respected owners -- Buss, Grousbeck, San Antonio's Peter Holt, Miami's Micky Arison, Dallas' Mark Cuban, Houston's Leslie Alexander, Utah's late Larry Miller -- and you'll find their teams have monopolized the top of the standings and trophy ceremonies in recent years.
Good ownership is a subtle advantage. An owner is never the one hitting a big shot, making a crucial substitution or even executing a trade. But he's the one setting the tone for the entire organization, both by making intelligent hires in the front office and by approving (or rejecting) personnel and payroll options. And while the general manager is primarily responsible for trades and such, no GM is an entity unto himself. Virtually every important deal by every team is made only after getting ownership's approval, and occasionally trade discussions are initiated by owners.
You can see the importance of ownership with both the Lakers and Celtics. Both have taken on large payrolls in pursuit of the title, but that hasn't stopped them from being strategic rather than spending wantonly. L.A., for instance, has cut unneeded salaries in recent years (Chris Mihm, Vladimir Radmanovic) and took a stand in salary negotiations with both Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza last summer.
Similarly, Buss has installed quality personnel in his front office, from Jerry West to his hand-picked successor Mitch Kupchak, and shelled out the ducats to bring back Phil Jackson when it seemed the franchise was going sideways in the middle of the decade.
For its part, Boston's ownership stuck with the strategy implemented by Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers even when it was hugely unpopular to do so, and provided financial backing to the Celtics' daring all-in strategy in 2008 when they struck deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. And while they're paying luxury tax, they're similar to L.A. in avoiding profligate mistakes that would have worsened their books -- most notably, passing on re-signing James Posey when his price got too steep because of his role on the 2008 title-winning team.
The Clips continue to be the NBA's punchline under Donald Sterling.
Dig a little deeper, and you'll realize ownership is the reason so many teams have yet to get to the league's promised land. A dozen teams haven't been to the Finals even once in the past 30 years, and of those you could only say two or three of them were well run.
Let's put this another way: If this were just by random chance, there's only a 12.6 percent chance that any team would go three decades without winning a 15-team conference at least once. The odds of 12 teams meeting such a fate are less than one in a million.
So I think we can rule out bad luck.
For instance, do you think it's an accident or some kind of fluke that the Los Angeles Clippers have yet to represent the Western Conference in an NBA Finals? Of course not. Considering the buffoonery of owner Donald Sterling, it's been practically inevitable. The Clippers haven't won a conference title in three decades in L.A., and if they get three more decades under Sterling, they probably still won't win one because every important decision goes back to The Donald.
Other ownership groups haven't exactly redeemed themselves, either: Think of James Dolan's reign of lunacy in New York, the meddling ways of Michael Heisley in Memphis, or the ongoing Glen Taylor fiasco in Minnesota and the results are plainly evident.
In other words, it isn't just bad luck that's resulted in five teams hoarding nearly all the championships. While any franchise can luck into Michael Jordan in the lottery, Stern correctly noted in response to my question that a franchise still has to build systems and supporting casts to rise to the top, and even chided this summer's free agents to look for that and stare closely at Dwyane Wade's championship ring.
We're at a very interesting crossroads with respect to ownership, one that could augur in new eras of glory (or horror) for a big chunk of the league's franchises. New Jersey, Washington and Charlotte have changed owners in recent months, while New Orleans, Detroit and Golden State appear poised to do the same. That's fully one-fifth of the league that could be in new hands soon.
And for the most part, the new owners appear to get it. New Jersey's Mikhail Prokhorov seems prepared to invest in making the Nets a financial powerhouse, which would be a far cry from their recent tightwad ways under Bruce Ratner. And as a decision-maker, one Russian should be a far sight better than the Secaucus Seven.
Similarly, new Wizards owner Ted Leonsis seems bent on following the Oklahoma City model and patiently building a winner in the nation's capital, unlike the treadmill strategy that produced years of mediocrity in D.C.
Charlotte owner Michael Jordan and prospective Hornets owner Gary Chouest haven't been as open about their objectives, but each could hardly be worse than the men they replaced -- former Bobcats owner Robert Johnson operated his club like a glorified minor league team, while George Shinn's squad in New Orleans was similarly under-resourced.
But the mother lode of them all is the Warriors. Saddled with the incompetent regime of Chris Cohan, they've made the playoffs just once in the past two decades. The Warriors still draw huge crowds, however, and under the right management could easily ascend to a perch as one of the league's flagship franchises.
It all comes from the top, though. So while we're spending the next few weeks frothing at the mouth over the draft and the free agent sweepstakes, remember the lesson that Grousbeck and Buss are teaching us once again in these Finals: In the NBA, as in almost any endeavor, success (or failure) starts at the top.