Generally when we evaluate GMs, there is a concrete body of work to evaluate. In the case of Jeff Bower, there is really only the 2005-06 season to review. A review of Bower’s rise to GM, does reveal how one might rise up the ladder to an executive position on an NBA team. Bower started his career in the early 1980s as an assistant coach at Penn State (1983-1986) and then over as an assistant at Marist (1986-1995). The Hornets hired Bower as a scout in 1995, a position he held until they needed him to fill in as an assistant coach when Dave Cowens resigned in the middle of the 1998-99 season.
Bower spent the next few years bouncing back-and-froth between assistant coach and the front office as assistant GM. Long-time GM Bob Bass retired after the 2003-04 season and was replaced with Allen Bristow, who had coached the team for 1991-92 through 1995-96, before being fired. Bristow was later re-hired as an assistant GM and replaced Bass as GM. All this shuffling was emblematic of the Hornets’ ownership under George Shinn, who managed to piss off the Charlotte market that had embraced the team and also ran the team to New Orleans, which was a very specious market for pro hoops even before the terrible flooding of 2005.
In keeping with the theme of capriciousness, Bristow lasted through the 2004-05 season and then he resigned citing health issues and Bower stepped in. It was a nice way for Bower to get the top, though the Hornets might not be the ideal franchise to run considering that Bower took over a rebuilding team, an uncertain future because of the floods in New Orleans and, even before that, the teams not meeting its attendance quotas, and dealing with Shinn.
How’s he done so far? Well, it’s really too early to tell. Bower’s only draft was last summer, where he nabbed Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons and he was also involved in the Hornets’ big ticket signing/trades for Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler. With such a sparse resume, I thought it’d be more interesting to look at the most dominant figure in Hornets history, Shinn, who really has taken this franchise where it is today.
George Shinn, The Backstory
Shinn’s back history is pretty improbable. According to BusinessWeek, Shinn graduated last in his high school class of 293 students and worked transient jobs in a textile plant, a car wash, and as a custodian. Shinn later bought into several small business schools and consolidated them into a single name school Rutledge Educational System, Inc.. Shinn was said to have excelled in drumming up admissions and was paid in shares, which he eventually redeemed for somewhere between $30-$50 million back in 1987. Shinn also became a well-known local in Charlotte as a motivational speaker and man about town.
Shinn and Charlotte
Shinn used his newfound wealth to buy into the expansion Charlotte Hornets, who were formed in 1988. The Hornets were an instant hit in Charlotte, a market without another professional team and a market that was situated in the heart of college basketball fandom of Duke, UNC, and NC State (who were all ACC powerhouses), not to mention Wake Forest. The Hornets were a ridiculously hot tickets their first few years in Charlotte, from their debut in1988-89 through 1997-98, the team averaged over 23,000 fans per game, and never averaged fewer than 23,172 in a season.
After that, things got tough. Attendance plummeted:
What happened? Shinn found numerous ways to piss off the good folks of Charlotte. For years, people were not enamored with the way Shinn ran the franchise. In the early 1990s, the Hornets scored in the draft, nabbing Larry Johnson first overall in 1991 and Alonzo Mourning second overall in 1992. They were a granite frontline that looked like it would carry the team through the decade. Shinn gave LJ a huge $84 million extension in 1993-94 only to find out shortly thereafter that Johnson had serious back problems. Johnson played through the pain but was never the Charles Barkley-type monster he had been his first two years in the NBA. When Mourning came due for an extension before the 1995-96 season, Shinn refused to ante up a similar deal. Mourning, as a dominant center, probably was worth paying for but Bob Bass followed instructions and dumped Zo for Matt Geiger and Glen Rice.
The trade worked out better than could’ve been expected and Rice blossomed into an All-Star and helped keep the team competitive, if not a potential championship contender. When Rice’s contract was expiring, Shinn followed the same pattern, and dealt him for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell in the middle of the 1998-99 season. Once again, the move worked and the team stayed competitive. Similarly when Jones’ contract expired after the 1999-00 season, Bass dealt him for Jamal Mashburn and P.J. Brown, who played at least as well as Jones thereafter. Still, this constant flipping of players wasn’t endearing to fans and there was a sense that Shinn was cheap and wouldn’t pay his players or keep fan favorites. This perception was probably unfair, as nearly every post-LJ contract driven trade was a clear Hornet win, except the Zo trade.
Shinn & Charlotte, The Business Side
At the same time as he was doing all this trading, Shinn was demanding a new arena with more modern amenities. The new arena was supposed to cost about $250 million and Shinn was willing to kick in no more than $100 million, essentially demanding that the city fund well over 50% of the cost. This was also not a good time for Shinn to be asking for charity as Shinn became embroiled in accusations when an female employee accused him of sexual assault. No charges were filed but a civil suit ensued. Shinn won after trial but the win was not clean, as Shinn’s defense was that he, a noted family man, and the married plaintiff were engaged in consensual activity. The trial was a bit of a circus and the ancillary good will the case cost Shinn all of his goodwill in a conservative town like Charlotte. Shinn’s attorney scoffed at the civil suit characterizing the plaintiff’s case as follows: “They met, she gave him a blowjob, she left.” If an owner had problems getting public money under the best of circumstances, this was far from even such a case.
Shinn even had a chance to recapture the good will when Michael Jordan expressed an interest in buying into the team, an offer that Shinn rejected. This also peeved the locals. Despite public outcry, this was probably not an unreasoanblemove. Based upon Jordan’s later dealings with Milwaukee and Washington, it was evident that Jordan wasn’t willing to put much money into the team and thought that his presence was worth a good deal of equity. (One might argue, however, that MJ had a point because he might have fixed things with with specific regard to Shinn’s messy situation in Charlotte).
The public scorn seriously deteriorated the Hornets’ fan base by 2000-01. The team came within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals but had weak attendance. Publicly, Shinn was considered a cheapskate, a hypocrite, a jerk, and unreasonable. In a rather amazing collective decision, the population basically shunned the Hornets. Shinn, who was not happy to be denied the new arena, threatened to cut the first deal he saw to get out of town. At one time this threat might’ve carried some weight but times had changed. In 1988, the Hornets were the only game in town. Now Charlotte had an NFL and NHL team, neither of whom were run by people who pissed off the populace.
In 2002, Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans. New Orleans had failed as an NBA city once before, when the New Orleans Jazz left in the late 1970s. In “To the Brink”, Michael C. Lewis’ history of the Jazz, felt that the New Orleans Jazz failed more because of mismanagement and mediocrity. According to Rod Hundley, “[The Jazz] were managed terribly…We had nonbasketball people making basketball decisions.” Most famously, the team gave up the draft pick that turned out to be Magic Johnson for an older Gail Goodrich. Hundley contended that “[i]f we had Magic Johnson, we’d have never left New Orleans.”
Notwithstanding this anecdotal history, the feeling of many was that New Orleans was, at its heart, a small city with strong competition for the entertainment dollar (ever heard of Mardi Gras?) and the Saints were already the first sports team in town. The rumor has it that the NBA only permitted to the move unless Shinn guaranteed that the Hornets would meet certain attendance thresholds. The Hornets first three years in New Orleans were far from successful:
By the beginning of the 2005-06 season, Shinn was in serious trouble. Attendance was falling, Bass had retired, and the team was coming off of a 18-64 season, it’s worse showing since the early 1990s and they had the worst attendance in the entire NBA. To make matters worse, the team was also being hit with several lawsuits for: (1) failing to pay overtime, (2) improperly intimidating employees, (3) cheating ticket brokers by recording luxury box sales as ticket sales. This last one was particularly interesting because as ESPN.com noted: “The scheme also could have boosted official attendance figures by reflecting sales for large numbers of inexpensive tickets when the money paid really only should have reflected the size of the group in the suite.” Truly mind-boggling when you consider how low the recorded ticket sales were anyway (state officials also believed that the 14,221 listed attendance average of 2004-05 did not reflect the actual turnstile attendance of about 9,000 fans per game).
The interesting issue was whether the NBA had any recourse against Shinn for greatly devaluing the franchise and potentially violating federal employment laws. Much of this, however, became less important to everyone when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans before the 2005-06 season. The Hornets were forced to scramble for a new home and they settled on Oklahoma City. Turns out that Shinn found a winning location despite himself. Put in pure attendance numbers, Oklahoma has been quite rewarding to Shinn, as he has had his best attendance since 1998-99:
Even if the novelty of pro hoops wears off on some level, the Hornets could do okay in Oklahoma City. According to BusinessWeekly:
“Even if attendance wanes [in Oklahoma], Shinn has a head start toward a winning financial season. In the deal that lured him, Oklahoma City offered an incentive-laden package, including a pledge to make up the difference if Hornets revenues from tickets, concessions, and sponsorships fall below $40 million this season. The money would come from city and state coffers as well as from a consortium of local business leaders. ‘We’re a free-enterprise business. I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to continue to borrow money to fund losses,’ says Shinn.”
This leads us to the question that is on everybody’s mind today, will the Hornets return to New Orleans? Last month, Shinn was quoted as saying: “[t]he people (in Oklahoma City) have been not just gracious, they’ve been wonderful. But it’s just a situation that got down to what is the right thing to do, and the right thing is to go back.” Maybe Shinn believes he is speaking the truth but just looking at the numbers, there is no way in hell that the Hornets end up in New Orleans long term. The team’s attendance numbers were putrid before the area was decimated by a Katrina and now half the population left New Orleans. At the same time, Oklahoma City is delivering attendance and profit guarantees. I’d ignore Shinn’s posturing and watch where the money is. Absent, some crazy subsidies, Shinn won’t and really can’t stay in New Orleans much longer.
Ordinarily, we’d assess how a team’s GM had executed his decision making in terms of transactions. Here, all we have to assess is the owner. We did this once before, looking at Donald Sterling and the Clippers and concluded that Sterling, was running a pretty nice and profitable organization. In the case of Shinn, we can’t be quite as charitable. Shinn killed his golden goose in Charlotte without need by refusing to budge on the public financing issue and probably lost a lot of money as a result. To compound the problem he left town in a snit, taking the team to a terrible NBA market in New Orleans.
We’ve seen plenty of owners who were unreasonable, were cheap, or just plain putzes. But they all usually had some grand design of winning or being profitable, if not both. Shinn is one of the rare breed who was able to kill the product publicly and kill the bottom line. As an owner, Shinn is entitled to do what he wants but it’s tough to think of a worse owner in the NBA.