Warriors' Joe Lacob on success, his mistakes, Mark Jackson and more
Once upon a time, before he attended Stanford business school or became a partner in a venture capital firm, Joe Lacob dreamt of being a sport radio host. He even went so far, after purchasing the Golden State Warriors for $450 million with Peter Guber in 2010, as to suggest his own weekly show on a local San Francisco station, but the Warriors media relations staff talked him out of it. Too risky, they said. Too much can go wrong.
Still, even now, at 59 years old, Lacob has trouble holding back when he gets going. That’s what happened back in early December, at a venture capital luncheon in Menlo Park. The VC acolytes asked about last season—the dysfunction and turmoil and the unexpected firing of Mark Jackson after a shorthanded playoff loss to the Clippers—and Lacob did something public figures should never do when it comes to turmoil and dysfunction and unexpected firings: He told the truth. Or at least his truth. Said Lacob of Jackson’s firing: “You can't have 200 people in the organization not like you.” Within days, video posted on Twitter.
These days, in part because of his propensity to make news when he opens his mouth, Lacob says he is trying to stay out of the spotlight. When I watched him address a group of venture capitalists before a Warriors game last month, for a longform feature on the rise of the Warriors franchise that you can read here, Lacob made a point to steer clear of topics he knew could get him in trouble, and spoke of his learning curve with the media.
Afterward, we headed to an empty room and Lacob sat down for a half-hour interview. He was candid, very confident (as you’ll see) and surprisingly personable. In public events, Lacob can at times come off as abrasive, a product of his ambition and self-assurance, traits that have served him well with the Warriors. In five years, he’s turned around a floundering franchise by chasing elite hires, most notably Jerry West, Mark Jackson, Rick Welts and Steve Kerr. He’s spent money in order to make money, and his vision of moving the team to San Francisco is on track. Recently, Forbes valued the Warriors at $1.3 billion, or nearly triple the purchase price. When I asked Lacob about this, he waved it off, saying the only number that matters is wins. But of course that’s not true. Men like Lacob keep score all the time, throughout every day. When Lacob plays in his twice-weekly, 7 AM pickup game at Stanford, no doubt he keeps a running tally of his stats in his head (Lacob is a self-described three-point gunner...we’ll get to that later).
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In our interview, Lacob alternated between speaking on and off the record. He addressed the future of Draymond Green (as much as he can within the NBA rules), the luxury tax, the worst day of his life and the key to apologies.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation – with a focus on topics not addressed in my longer story. They are edited for clarity and brevity.
On the track record of the Warriors’ front office over the last few years:
“I pinch myself. We’ve been on a roll with every decision we’ve made [and] when you have a roll, you’ve got to keep throwing the dice. …But it’s a little more even than that. You’re thinking mainly basketball. But I look at this job as three components: basketball, the business and our future business, which is San Francisco. If you think we’re on a hot streak on one, you have to understand we’ve done the same thing on the other two.”
On his future with the Warriors:
“This is a longtime thing for me. This is my second career. I’ve got my son involved and will probably get another son involved…I have a very long-term view.”
On his biggest mistake on both the business side and the basketball side:
(Upon hearing the question, Lacob blows out audibly, then pauses for thirty second or so)
“Honestly, I'm not a guy who looks backward. If I make a mistake, I like to learn from mistakes….you don’t understand success until you experience failure. You need to learn from mistakes. I’m sure we’ve had some, not a lot though.
"On the business side, my attitude when I came in was, we weren’t going to do anything for the first six months. Everyone said, fire this guy, fire that guy, and I’d been a season-ticket holder here for 20 years and had my own opinions. We decided, and I decided, that we weren’t going to do anything for six months. Because we bought in November.
"In retrospect, I kind of wasted six months. Because I did exactly what I thought I would do. I can’t really say it was a mistake, but I probably didn’t need to wait six months.
"I like to make my own decisions, based on my experience with someone. So if you work with me and everyone tells me you’re a jerk, I try not to judge you. I like to judge you on what you do while I’m here. So I could have moved faster probably, and I didn’t. And as a result of that, I was very nervous going into the second season. We fired all these people and I didn’t know who was going to open the doors, who was going to run the place. I was scared, really scared. Fortunately, we had a lockout.”
On his biggest basketball mistake:
“On the basketball side, hmmm…If other people answered this question, I know what they’d say. We should have amnestied someone early on and then when we did amnesty—we did this small Charlie Bell thing…but you know, I don’t really believe that and I know people would disagree with me. I felt like we did what at the time we felt we should do. We were trying to get DeAndre Jordan, which everyone knows. He was worth it, look how well he’s done. I'm guessing in retrospect, other people would say we should have saved the amnesty for a bigger moment. I’m not sure I really agree with that. You can’t look back. At the time it was the right thing to do…What people fail to realize is that every decision has an impact on what you do later. Maybe you don’t do something and a year later you’re able to do something different.”
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On whether they will go into the luxury tax in the coming year:
“Bob [Myers] keeps saying I must have the only owner in the NBA who says, ‘Stop worrying about the luxury tax.’ Even today I said, ‘I don’t care about the luxury tax.’ I don’t want to make decisions based on the luxury tax. We want to get better. Our job is to get better. Secondarily, we’ll worry about the money.”
So you’ll go into the tax?
“Absolutely. Right now, we have no choice, unless we were to go make some massive deal. Look, we’ve done well, our fans expect us to at this point do that if we need to do it and we certainly have every intention of doing it.”
On re-signing Draymond Green:
“I have to be careful, because the NBA has a rule now, can’t make claims like, ‘Don’t go after Draymond.’ All I will say is if you know us, we’re really trying to build around our draft. We really have been very good at a few drafts. And our core of young players is what we need to build around. We’re very fortunate. We have what everybody wants now. Steph, 26, Klay, 24, Draymond, 25, Harrison, 22. Four key great young talents that are really at the core of what we’re doing, obviously supplemented by the Boguts and Lees and the guys who are a little older.
"It would take a lot to not sign our core players. Does that answer your question?”
On whether he still talks to Mark Jackson:
“Are we buddies? I wouldn’t say that (Lacob laughs). I talked to him when he was at the game here, recently, and had a good conversation. The funny thing about Mark is, I really like Mark, and everyone perceives that somehow we didn’t get along. That’s just not true. Don’t think we ever had a cross word. So he’s a good guy. We wish him well. He did a really good job for us. At the time, he was absolutely the right guy to hire. He did what we needed. Just like when I came in as the new owner, I needed to be out front, be the face of the franchise —not something I wanted to do by the way, but someone had to do that.”
On when he decided to pull back publicly:
“The last year or so, I guess. I’m still not a shrinking violet. I think it’s important with our fan base for ownership to be transparent and to be visible. If we do well, we should be visible and if we don’t’ do well, we should be visible. I’m willing to take the heat, I understand that’s part of the process. And sometimes I do need to take the heat, as opposed to Bob or Steve. I certainly don’t need to be what I was four years ago or three or two years, as far as how exposed.”
On the value of an owner like Mark Cuban being out there:
“Look, Mark Cuban is a brand. You have to understand what Mark is doing. He’s a personal brand. Has his TV show. Has his own reason for what he’s doing. I respect him for that, that’s what he wants to do and be. But, on the other hand, I think he gets away with stuff no one else can get away with.”
On dealing with the media:
“The hardest thing I’ve had to do in five years here and learn is the media. It ain’t what it was even 10 years ago. Everybody has a voice, everybody is the media. The first year I made some big mistakes. [In regards to local columnist] Tim Kawakami early on, and now I’ve managed to get that all on the right side. But at least once a year I know I’m going to say something and it will be used against me.”
On the comment about Jackson at the VC lunch:
“I momentarily forgot my cardinal rule, which is whenever something comes out these lips, I’ve got to assume it’s public. But you have to understand, I’ve spent 30 years in that industry, a lot of those people are friends. A lot of it was about VC, and transition from VC to sports and how did you do that, and what are the similarities. It was in the context of all that unfortunately. Everything I said was fine, but I went too far on a couple statements.
"I had to apologize but the truth was, I went too far. It’s my mistake. The best thing I’ve learned, from early on: even if you don’t think you made a mistake by doing something, just say you made a mistake.”
On the night he was booed at the Chris Mullin jersey retirement:
“That was the hardest moment I’ve ever gone through in my life. I thought we were doing a great job, getting out there, trying to retire a guy’s number, paid for all of it but….I shouldn’t have been the last guy. In retrospect, having said that, that was a very difficult moment. On TV, in front of all those people. It felt like 20,000 people booing and I don’t feel like we did anything wrong and whether it’s circumstance or whatever, it happened.
"I was up all night. I went on KNBR next day. I didn’t honestly totally believe what I was saying, but I said, ‘Hey I would have booed too.’ Because, honestly, there was no winning.”
On the type of pickup player he is:
A fuller scouting report:
"A high school player. Everyone who plays with me would say the same thing: shoots threes. Which is what I do, I basically shoot threes. However I can get one to be honest. I play with a bunch of guys that are mixed age, from 20s to 50s. I’m on the old end of the spectrum now but I still can run all day and I can shoot threes and every now and then get a drive to the basket because people don’t expect it. Everyone knows their role in this game: they know Joe's going to shoot threes if he gets it. They have the same moves they’ve been doing their whole lives.
"I think that at my age, I’m pretty proud that I can play with guys in the 20s, 30s, 40s and I can play.
"The only thing that hurts is when we play games at our practice facility, with some of our coaching staff, that I don’t seem to do too well in, because that dang NBA three-point line is a whole lot different. I used to play on the college court.
"But I do like to shoot those threes.”