How the Golden State Warriors Grifted Their Fans Silicon Valley-Style
Like most hot startups, the NBA team ran hot, sold out, and then crapped the bed.
For the last half-decade, the Golden State Warriors have been nearly unstoppable. Their lethal core players, dynamic sweet-shooting guard Steph Curry, do-it-all utility man Draymond Green, and dead-eyed shooting wing Klay Thompson went to five straight NBA Finals, won an NBA Record 73 regular season games, and transformed the Warriors’ organization from one that was an NBA laughingstock, a cult product with the weird, lumpen rosters to match, to an organization that could convince all-world scorer Kevin Durant to join the team in free agency and make them fundamentally unbeatable at full strength.
None of this happened by accident. A group led by venture capitalist Joe Lacob bought the team for $450 million in 2010, and Lacob, in contrast to his predecessor, invested time and energy and money into the team and made a lot of dramatic, sometimes controversial changes to the team’s basketball operations staff and roster. After the team traded fun-time gunner/miserable defender Monta Ellis for stout defensive presence and “Pizzagate” guy Andrew Bogut, Lacob was viciously booed by the crowd at Oakland’s Oracle Arena during Chris Mullin’s jersey retirement ceremony.
But, and it pains me to say this as a person who hates giving credit to billionaires, it all ended up working out for the best in the end. Curry’s extraordinary talent, the team’s iron-grip analytic, three-point gunning approach not only managed to net the team three championships, it also managed to increase the team’s value—and Lacob’s investment—nearly tenfold, now sitting at a Forbes-estimated $3.5 billion.
But all parties come to an end, and the Warriors’ peak lit on fire maybe a little sooner than expected. The squad’s 2019 Finals loss to a gritty Toronto Raptors squad was nothing short of an unseemly collapse, with Durant tearing an Achilles tendon in game five and Thompson incurring an ACL tear in game six. Durant’s injury has been shrouded in questions about whether the team did their due diligence in protecting his body by letting him play (Durant, for his part, has absolved the team of responsibility). Durant proceeded to leave the team to rehab in Brooklyn, a blow to their status as perpetual title contenders, but with the team having signed All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell and retained Thompson, still looked like a competitive squad coming into the year. Alas...
Curry broke his hand when hefty Australian Aron Baynes fell on it, Russell sprained his thumb, and the team’s back-end players, mostly fringe guys like big man-stiff Willie Cauley-Stein, “The Big Dog” Glenn Robinson’s son, journeyman Glenn Robinson III, and 23-year-old rookie Eric Paschall, have struggled to keep up, leading the Dubs to a league-worst 3-13 start.
But even in their present failure, the Warriors have found themselves lucky. You see, in 2012, riding high on an improving squad, Lacob and his Warriors partners decided that they were sick of playing in Oakland’s Oracle Arena, and, being obscenely rich people, decided that they absolutely had to move the team’s operations across the Bay to San Francisco.
The resulting stadium, the Chase Center, is, in no uncertain terms, an act of shameless wealth and excess, the story of new West Coast-wealth in building form. There are three sets of luxury suite options, one of which features a curated fine-dining experience and butler service, a wine cellar and “In Arena Wine Program” spearheaded by Lacob’s wife, the largest in-arena video screen in the NBA, because who isn’t looking to go to the game and look at a big TV the whole time, and a sprawling, spaceship-esque exterior with a mullet-looking modernist roof resting right over a massive Chase logo. The stadium is located at, get this, 73 Warrior Way, a nod to the team’s ultimately doomed 2015-16 campaign, where they won a whopping 73 games and then proceeded to get absolutely pantsed by LeBron James while surrendering a 3-1 series lead.
Oh, did I mention that this monstrosity, and the shopping center and restaurants surrounding it, got built on an abandoned industrial zone in the Mission Bay neighborhood, the kind that used to provide people with decent jobs right up until capital deemed all American manufacturing worthless?And that this monstrosity and the parking it requires to operate is taking up valuable real estate in the tightest housing market in the country, in an area ownership bought for an undisclosed sum? The nicest thing you could say about this obscenity is that it is, technically, privately financed, but considering the infrastructural and city-management needs of a goddamn stadium in a city where real estate is worth its weight in gold, even that registers as cold comfort.
The Warriors’ first game in Chase Center was a hilarious shit-show loss to the Clippers that featured the team’s moneyed clientele streaming out of the lower bowl at soonest convenience when the game really started to go south, a far cry from the die-hard Oracle crowds who stayed and cheered for some of the most hideous basketball you could ever imagine. Is watching these sloppy rich hogs desecrate a once-proud tradition in a billion-dollar monument to the excesses of the capital class depressing, even embarrassing? Yes, of course it is.
But it’s also just...so poetic; such an expressive way for the best team of the 2010s to fall out of grace and into the pit with the rest of the NBA’s hordes. Because Lacob and his team have managed to replicate the moves of all the great venture capitalists of the last ten years: he acquired something, made it omnipresent and valuable-seeming, leveraged that omnipresence into a concrete asset, and then proceeded to shit the bed right when they got the golden parachute of their dreams.
Adam Neumann founded a juiced-up boutique real estate development firm that didn’t even bother to actually acquire real estate (leases are easier, and besides, they have the extra benefit of juicing the price of commercial real estate prices), drove up his company’s value by bewitching every venture capitalist he ran into with a kind of slimy, impenetrable charisma. Sure, it totally bombed out when the company’s IPO laid their monumental unprofitability out for the whole world to see, but Neumann didn’t really care because he managed to get almost two billion dollars on his way out the door. Travis Kalanick has used brute force and a complete disregard for the law to push Uber into every market in America, totally annihilating whole industries and habitually underpaying workers his company doesn’t even recognize as actual workers, mutating the transit industry into a massive fire that investors keep throwing money into, hoping that, sooner or later, shoddy technology will allow them to jettison drivers altogether and become a pure money-printing factory. Elizabeth Holmes was dangerously close to pulling it off mostly by talking with a fake deep voice, and was only felled because the technology Theranos was peddling was not real and was so clearly a grift that a child could have seen through it.
In this way, Lacob’s crap team resembles the companies and endeavors of everyone in the venture capital class at present. They juice the product, sell themselves like they’re geniuses, make the half-cocked idea they had so important and so indispensable that everyone just accepts that they need to funnel money into the product, get the hideous Chase Center of their dreams, and then just float on the fart clouds of success, drifting along into whatever new thing will make life worse for everyone else.
Now, the Warriors will probably get out of this fine, sooner or later. The NBA is a highly-regulated economy if it’s anything, injuries heal, and a team this bad will acquire some excellent draft picks for near- and- long-term rebuilding. I don’t have any concrete reason to belive Lacob has designs on becoming James Dolan now that he operates an obscene arena in a city that’s filthy with money.
But: he could. He could abandon good practices altogether and fire Bob Meyers, the GM who built the team the second Meyers asked for a raise, trade every player making good money to shed as much salary as possible, fire Steve Kerr, gut the training staff, buy a worse team plane, do everything in his power to shave every last dollar he can off the squad, and he would still be sitting on a money-printing arena and a local TV deal that could easily double in value. Jerry Reinsdorf won six titles with Jordan, crested the wave, got everything he wanted from the era, and then proceeded to operate the Bulls like a cheap bastard for the next twenty years, a private-equity scam if I’ve ever heard of one.
Lacob has written the first part of his story over the last decade—one where resources and knowhow, risk-taking and a complete disregard for the living needs of anyone poorer than you are parlayed into a money machine that keeps you in silk slippers for the next two hundred years. The thing that always seems to come next, lately, is a trail of failure, malfeasance, and destruction. Maybe Willie Cauley-Stein is the first step on the Warriors strolling down the street of Reinsdorf-style collapse for the next twenty years. But I suppose we’ll see.