NBA-to-Entertainment Company Translator: Part II “The Western Conference”

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In the heyday of Grantland, they featured a piece from the good people at Men in Blazers to develop an “NBA to English Premiere League” translator. It helped novices to soccer pick a team in the most popular sports league in the world. It worked so well, I adopted Chelsea as my premiere league squad based off this little comparison to the Lakers:

“Your winning tradition has been soiled by an arrogance which, real or imagined, has caused you to be roundly despised across the league. You have a young coach attempting to gain the respect of a veteran squad, led by a soft Spanish big man and an aging Kobe, who could be any one of Chelsea’s graying superstars — John Terry, Frank Lampard, or Didier Drogba — attempting to substitute experience for pace.”

In 2011, that made a lot of sense. So if you want to pick an NBA team based off where you work, or want to invest based off your favorite NBA team, well I have you covered.

On to the Western Conference. The one with all the stars, all the hits, all the buzz. The “Bestern” Conference. Of course, they still have some teams near the bottom, just not as many.

Western Conference

Sacramento Kings – Spectrum

Let’s just pull the band aid off this wound: the Sacramento Kings are the worst team in the NBA (and have been since the Lakers beat them fair and square in the early 2000s) and Spectrum is just the worst. Honestly, if someone loves “Spectrum” (previously Time-Warner Cable) send me a message.

I’ll wait. Just like a Spectrum customer on hold trying to cancel.

So to “rebrand” Time-Warner became Spectrum a few years back. They said it was because of a merger, but mainly it was to hide from their past. The Kings changed from the Royals because they moved cities, and wanted to hide from their past.

Also, like T-Mobile failing to merge with AT&T, Time-Warner Cable was almost purchased by Comcast, and instead was purchased by Charter Communications. Those set of moves are the NBA equivalent of drafting Boogie Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein because they were “buddies”, while trading a lot of future draft picks to Boston.

(Yes, I know Spectrum co-owns the Lakers channel. They still are awful.)

Phoenix Suns – AMC Networks

The Phoenix Suns in the 2000s were the flashiest thing in basketball. The “7 seconds or less” teams featured passing & shooting, running & gunning, and won the hearts of NBA pundits, the equivalent of critics. They set the template for pace & space all that would come in contemporary basketball.

AMC Networks won the hearts of critics repeatedly over the same time frame. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Better Call Saul and even more obscure shows (Halt and Catch Fire; everything on Sundance TV) were the cultural equivalent of Steve Nash, Joe Johnson and Andre Stoudemire. (Nash is Breaking Bad; Shawn Marion is Mad Men; Amare Stoudamire is the rest of the obscure shows, cause he’s career ended too soon and so do they.)

But neither team quite made it to the championship—their bigger market rivals like the Lakers, Mavericks or Golden State did—and continue to be positioned better into the future. It’s a bummer when you set the template—prestige TV; pace and space—just for others to do it better. But that’s the fate of Phoenix and AMC.

Instead, you can double down on what works. For AMC, that means more zombies in more shows (we’re up to three, counting Talking Dead). For Phoenix, that means point guards, peaking at 3 on the roster in 2014: Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas.

Dallas Mavericks – Turner (TNT, TBS, CNN)

Dallas has to be the “good but not great” team of the NBA. Yes, they’ve won an NBA championship this decade, but they missed the playoffs multiple times since, and they peaked in 2007, only to lose in the first round to an eight seed. TNT is the same way. I feel like I could name every show on TNT (The Last Ship, Animal Kingdom, Claws, The Alienist) but I don’t watch any of them, I just watch the NBA and Law & Order reruns (and fine, Star Wars).

But you do have old reliable stables in each. Turner has CNN. Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki. Sure, they aren’t the greatest player in cable news/NBA (that’s either MSNBC or Fox News; that’s Lebron or Durant at power forward) but they still get you 20 and 10 a lot of nights.

The future is brighter than most with two young potential stars on the Mavericks and a new ownership group with AT&T that could throw a lot of money at these networks to make OTT work. We’ll see.

Memphis Grizzlies – NuFox

Fox burst on to the scene as the last of the broadcast channels, and Memphis was one of the last teams to join the NBA. Both have foreign origins—Rupert Murdoch hails from Australia; the Grizzlies started in Canada—but now appeal more and more to middle America (NuFox has Fox News and Memphis is in Kentucky).

Both have also done pretty well for themselves. The Grizzlies stayed good and frisky for the last it seems like forever with the grit-and-grind combos of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Z-Bo. Fox and Fox News have felt like just a permanent fixture on the broadcast/cable landscape. The future is probably bleak: the Grizzlies are getting old and Fox sold its best assets to Disney.

Los Angeles Clippers – AT&T-Time Warner

We could call this category the “cold fusion” analogy: both the Clippers and AT&T are five years away from utterly taking over…and always will be.

AT&T acquired DirecTV and promised it wouldn’t raise prices, which is promptly did. (Do I have to point that out to make the analogy work? No, but we always should.) But DirecTV is the Blake Griffen of entertainment M&A—a good but not great piece they probably overpaid for. And now the government is telling AT&T that they can’t acquire Time-Warner, which like the Chris Paul trade: both came about because of immense “shadiness” (either David Stern vetoing the first trade or Trump fighting the deal because he hates CNN).

If you’re worth a lot of money, but don’t really have a lot of fans, or even a clear plan to success, you’re either the Clippers or AT&T-Time Warner.

San Antonio Spurs – CBS Corporation

Leslie Moonves took over CBS in 1995 and reigned for two decades. Gregg Popovich joined the Spurs in 1996 and has reigned ever since.

Now, Gregg Popovich isn’t a sexual predator, but his record of success in the NBA matches Moonves sustained run. Tons of 50 win seasons, multiple championships, strong talent—is Tim Duncan the CSI/NCIS of power forwards? is Tony Parker The Big Bang Theory of point guards is Manu the Survivor of the NBA?—no matter how the landscape moved under him, Popovich kept on winning.

Until now, of course. The biggest thing in San Antonio just left—Kawhi Leonard—and CBS finally moved on from Moonves. This could be the year CBS stops winning the ratings wars and the Spurs miss the playoffs. For the first time in two decades, the future of both these legacy institutions is in doubt.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Hulu

If you’re new to the scene, but you’re frisky and could win a lot of games, you could be Hulu in entertainment or Minnesota T-Wolves in the NBA.

Just look at the assets of each. Minnesota has some of the highest upside guys in the league: Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, but mostly Karl Anthony-Towns. KAT is The Handsmaid’s Tale of basketball: so much potential, but maybe he doesn’t deliver every night. (Did anyone watch season 2 of Handsmaid’s Tale?)

The similarities continue at the corporate level. Both are mired in bad ownership. (Hulu’s joint ownership is a nightmare for decision-making, and Comcast/Disney are in a Cold War; Thibodeau and may not speak to his owner.) But if the ownership can keep it together, well Hulu/Timberwolves may just win it all.

Denver Nuggets – NBC’s Cable Channels

What do you call a staple of the landscape that has hidden in the background for decades, just doing it’s thing? In other words, are the Denver Nuggets the “USA Network” (and heck, Bravo and E! and Syfy channel) of NBA teams? Watch this SNL bit:

What is Burn Notice?

Yeah, and you’d have the same difficulty explaining how the nuggets win 50 games any given year. NBC’s cable properties have perfected that art, just with ratings. So has Denver in the NBA. They make the playoffs almost every year, but we don’t know quite how. Currently that’s due to Nikola Jokic, like how Bravo continues cranking our reality shows people keep watching.

Portland Trailblazers – FX/FXX

Is anyone edgier than FX? Shows about corrupt cops, plastic surgeons, biker gangs and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? You want anti-heroes? FX invented anti-heroes!

Fans gave The Trailblazers the nickname the “jailblazers” at one point in their history. Yeah, they’re the anti-heroes of the NBA.

The analogy goes deeper. Both currently have “stars” who are disgruntled, and willing to take it to the media to air their grievances (Jon Landgraf is the Damian Lillard of cable network executives). Portland fans are also the TV critics of fanbases: TV critics bemoan the lack of Emmys wins every year for one FX show or another; Portland fans take any NBA writer who doesn’t praise their team to task on Twitter/forums.

New Orleans Pelicans – Universal

Listen, when you want to compare NBA teams to movie studios, you can’t ignore monster franchises. Universal has at least two: Fast & Furious and Jurassic NOUN. New Orleans has one: Anthony Davis. They’ve surrounded him with an up-and-down point guard in Jrue Holiday, which is the player equivalent of the surprise hits Universal always seems to manage like Get Out, Straight Outta Compton or Bridesmaids.

The other commonality is no one really wants to own Universal Pictures. Universal has been owned by General Electric, Vivendi, which was owned by Seagrams, and now Comcast. The New Orleans franchise was controlled by the league for a time period in the late-2000s because no one wanted to buy them. For successful franchises, no one seems to want them.

Now if Universal can just acquire its own Dreamworks Animation, they’ll be set.

Oklahoma City Thunder – Movie Pass

The challenge with finding an analogy for MoviePass is that you need to find a team who’s public opinion did a 180 so quickly it would break your neck like Arnold Schwarzenneger in a 1980s action film. Fortunately, we have that in one team, er person: Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.

Two years ago he won the MVP trophy by scorching the league for a triple double over the course of a season. Then, by the next year, he was passé and his team lost in the first round of the playoffs. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a team that went from peak hype to peak disparagement as quickly.

Sort of like MoviePass. Whereas the Thunder suffer from a deficit of passing, MoviePass just suffered from deficits. It turns out paying people to see movies is a bad business model, we just didn’t realize it at the time.

Utah Jazz – ESPN

Utah joined came to Utah in 1979. ESPN started in 1979. Coincidence? Hardly, these are two reliable franchises that may not win it all, but they deliver the goods year after year.

In the beginning, it was rough. ESPN struggled to gain viewers and Utah struggled to win. SportsCenter was what brought ESPN to the game in the first place. This is the equivalent of Karl Malone and John Stockton developing a reliable pick and roll game that eventually took them to precipice of winning it all.

Lately, the paths have started to diverge. ESPN has all the money in the world, but cable subscribers are dropping, the equivalent of Gordon Hayward leaving for Boston/OTT. Utah, meanwhile, has an exciting star in Donovan Mitchell, and may compete for third place in the Western Conference.

In a lot of ways, though, ESPN still is the third/fourth place team in TV. Viewers are time-delaying everything, except sports. So ESPN/Utah Jazz may not be winning, but they’re still doing really well.

Houston Rockets – HBO

Houston gave me a lot of trouble. I started with a connection to Youtube (they both use algorithms!) then moved to AT&T/Time-Warner (they both make tons of deals!), but neither felt right. Youtube is too young of a company and AT&T doesn’t belong in the top 3.

We needed a brand that is old, but not too old. With a track record of “winning”, meaning it’s brought home the hardware and has history chockfull of NBA superstars. And they currently need to have the biggest star in the game. Ah, there it is…

Houston Rockets are the HBO of the NBA.

Houston has long been successful in the NBA, with back-to-back championships in the 1990s, led by the Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest centers of all time. Yep, Hakeem is The Sopranos of the NBA. Since The Sopranos/Olajuwon peak, though, there has been a lot of flailing around on both sides: Tracy McGracy is the True Blood of the NBA and since Yao Ming’s career was cut short, he’s the Deadwood of the NBA.

But to truly finish the analogy know this:

In recent times, both the Rockets and HBO were saved by men in beards.

(Game of Thrones and James Harden). Yep, the Houston Rockets are HBO.

Golden State Warriors – Netflix

No one is hotter. Then Golden State in the NBA. Then Netflix in streaming.
(So why aren’t they number one? Because they aren’t.)

And eight years ago, if I had told you in 2018 these two companies would dominate their respective fields you’d have laughed. Netflix had just split their company in two and their stock price tanked. Bill Simmons wrote a piece about how Golden State had never been good at basketball. Now look at where we are.

Kevin Durant is the Stranger Things of the NBA, no one can figure out that show and no one can figure out how Durant’s  limbs are so long. Steph Curry started it all, so he’s the House of Cards (the original prestige darling). Klay Thompson is the Orange is the New Black: just reliable year in and year out. Draymond Green is all the Netflix comedy specials: lots of hit or miss, but when they hit you win.

I’d add that both of these teams/companies dominate the “buzz” factor. Golden State fills gyms and gets clicks; Netflix doesn’t have ratings and only has buzz. That’s what makes Netflix the Golden State Warriors of streaming and media.

Los Angeles Lakers – The Walt Disney Company

I’m skeptical of a lot of companies, especially digital brands not making money. But I have to admire someone, right?

Sure, the team I’ve written nearly a novella about just one acquisition, The Walt Disney Company.

Disney is crushing it. And have been for the last four decades. Actually, even before that Disney was crushing it. So who in basketball has crushed it for the last 30 years? The Los Angeles Lakers.

This connection makes sense on historical and recent terms. Historically, Showtime Lakers=Frank G. Wells Buena Vista run, and Staples is the equivalent of getting into home entertainment. Michael Eisner and Jerry Buss are the masterminds. The Kobe-Shaq three peat is the equivalent of Disney buying ESPN. Moreover, the Lakers had a recent string of star acquisitions, from Shaq to Pau Gasol to Chris Paul/Steve Nash, the equivalent of Disney buying Pixar, Lucasfilm and Marvel acquisitions.

And the stars keep coming: Disney bought 21st Century Fox and the Lakers lured LeBron from Cleveland. Looking towards the future, we could ask, “Did Disney pay too much?” Or for the Lakers, “Will LeBron’s health last?” It remains to be seen, but the king in content is Disney and the king in the NBA is the Lakers.

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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