The Warriors and the Myth of the Silicon Valley-Driven Team

The Warriors and the Myth of the Silicon Valley-Driven Team

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 unkno

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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 Magazine noted 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, that’s not an accident,” Lacob said in that same Times Magazine story. “And none of this is an accident, either.” Ousting a LeBron James–led Cleveland Cavaliers that season wasn’t a 40-year-long destiny realized, not really, it was the result of smart, careful engineering. That’s the story, anyway. By his own metrics, Lacob cracked the code; he’d constructed the ultimate franchise—a 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 squad—that they’d 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 we’re going to go about things.” Light-years!

Not long after the Times Magazine published its profile of Lacob—which was rightfully mocked by NBA fanboys on Twitter; the story brazenly ignores how integral players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are to the team’s success—Lacob gave a speech during a Stanford Directors’ College summit. When the topic of “small ball”—the Warriors go-to style of offense—arose, Lacob again spun his narrative of innovation. “I think it’s important to know that whenever everyone else starts doing things, it’s time to start doing what’s next,” he said. “We’re on to the next idea—How can we iterate to evolve to get an advantage? I can assure you we’re very forward-thinking in that regard.”

It’s not all bluster, of course. For a time, the Warriors were a kind of NBA unicorn—winning three NBA finals in five consecutive appearances, racking up a historic 73 regular-season wins in 2015–16 (the previous record, 72 wins, was held by the 1996 Michael Jordan–led Chicago Bulls), establishing one of the most formidable dynasties in the modern NBA. Steph Curry is now among the game’s most transcendent players. Still, the course correction wasn’t a direct result of Lacob’s 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 megastars—more 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 Jordan’s Bulls squad during their fairy-tale run of titles in the ’90s; it’s 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.

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