Joe Lacob is what you call a believer, a tried-and-true Silicon Valley apostle. As a venture capitalist, he likes to bet big on risky, sometimes unknown, entities, uncertain of the outcome but confident in his canny approach to success. During the dotcom days, as a partner at the investment firm Kleiner Perkins, he fattened his portfolio with a carousel of interests: medical technologies, energy companies, websites like AutoTrader.
In 2010, when he led a group of investors that bought the Golden State Warriors for $450 million (they outbid Oracle CEO Larry Ellison), Lacob found himself in a strangely familiar predicament: a big bet without a guaranteed payout. The Warriors were a famously subpar squad, but there was potential. Abandoning the conventional moves of an NBA front office executive, Lacob approached it with a VC mindset, adopting a business methodology not typically embraced by league owners: He treated the Warriors like a tech startup. He embraced free-flowing communication, became a more adaptable leader, and relied heavily on guidance from advisers. All ideas were up for debate. Lacob prefers to surround himself with expertise and exploit it, the New York Times Magazinenoted of his management style. It took time, but his instincts eventually paid off. In 2015, nearly half a century after their last NBA championship, the Warriors regained the title.
The great, great venture capitalists who built company after company, thats not an accident, Lacob said in that same Times Magazine story. And none of this is an accident, either. Ousting a LeBron Jamesled Cleveland Cavaliers that season wasnt a 40-year-long destiny realized, not really, it was the result of smart, careful engineering. Thats the story, anyway. By his own metrics, Lacob cracked the code; hed constructed the ultimate franchisea machine outfitted with all-star talent. At times, watching the Warriors was like watching a great opera unfold: masters at work, all high-arching three-point shots and quicksilver passes. The story was that the Warriors, a once-chronically lackluster ball club, were now the most innovative squadthat theyd completely disrupted the league. To hear Lacob tell it, his team was light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how were going to go about things. Light-years!
Not long after the Times Magazine published its profile of Lacobwhich was rightfully mocked by NBA fanboys on Twitter; the story brazenly ignores how integral players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are to the teams successLacob gave a speech during a Stanford Directors College summit. When the topic of small ballthe Warriors go-to style of offensearose, Lacob again spun his narrative of innovation. I think its important to know that whenever everyone else starts doing things, its time to start doing whats next, he said. Were on to the next ideaHow can we iterate to evolve to get an advantage? I can assure you were very forward-thinking in that regard.
Its not all bluster, of course. For a time, the Warriors were a kind of NBA unicornwinning three NBA finals in five consecutive appearances, racking up a historic 73 regular-season wins in 201516 (the previous record, 72 wins, was held by the 1996 Michael Jordanled Chicago Bulls), establishing one of the most formidable dynasties in the modern NBA. Steph Curry is now among the games most transcendent players. Still, the course correction wasnt a direct result of Lacobs design. Not exactly.
What is true of the NBA has always been true of the NBA: The tempo of the league is mostly dictated by its megastarsmore than the NFL and just a notch ahead of Major League Baseball, pro basketball is a player-first business. The Kawhi Leonards, Kyrie Irvings, and Russell Westbrooks do more to sway the movement of the game than executives like Lacob. LeBron James, possibly more than any player past or present, has the kind of power that allows him to adjust the rhythms of the league with the snap of a finger, Thanos-style. This was true for the Showtime-era Lakers with Magic Johnson, it held up for Jordans Bulls squad during their fairy-tale run of titles in the ’90s; its how Kobe and Shaq built a dynasty in the aughts and why the Celtics and Heat, teams that perfected the Big Three model, were able to nab championships with relative ease.