The NBA, one of the most entertaining and star driven professional leagues, recently has found lawyers to be valuable as general managers and/or president of basketball operations. Although this trend is relatively new and not common with other professional leagues, there appears to be a natural fit for the attorneys who have made the jump to the front office for NBA teams.
The current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) was ratified by NBA Players’ Association in December 2016, took effect on July 1, 2017, and runs through the 2023-24 NBA season. The NBA CBA is arguably the most complex in professional American sports, and facilitates the most movement of elite players between teams. As Sopan Deb of the New York Times reported, a president or general manager must understand the difference between a “soft” cap and a “hard” cap, and the midlevel exception versus the biannual exception. Additionally, there are nuances such as the Gilbert Arenas Provision, which is not to be confused with the Derrick Rose Rule, and definitely not the Allan Houston Rule.
As the CBA has become more complex, franchises need to know the specific insides and outs to be able to maneuver within the salary cap to assemble championship rosters. Among other things, this requires an ability to scout, develop, and communicate with young players, negotiate contracts with players of varying skill levels through their agents, and orchestrating trades with other teams’ front offices. Similarly, an attorney must be able to read complex documents, communicate with clients and opposing counsel, and know how to negotiate for his clients’ best interests.
Specifically, attorneys who went on to become sports agents have become top targets for NBA front offices due to their familiarity with the CBA, players, and negotiating. Bob Myers, the poster-boy for the agent to president/general manager movement, was originally named general manager of the Golden State Warriors on April 24, 2012. Myers, 43, has assembled a roster that has won three NBA titles in the last five seasons and made five consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals. Myers earned the NBA Executive of the Year award in both 2014-15 and 2016-17 and is the only executive in Warriors history to earn Executive of the Year honors multiple times and one of only five in league history to earn the honor twice in a span of three seasons.
The Los Angeles Lakers attempted to follow the Warriors’ blue print when they hired Rob Pelinka to be their general manager in March of 2017, when the team was in the midst of a historic stretch of mediocrity. Pelinka was a powerful agent who represented star players such as Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Chris Bosh. Pelinka, who at the beginning of the season was also named the Vice President of Basketball Operations, currently has the Lakers contending for a championship just three seasons after inheriting a franchise in shambles.
However, there are some less successful examples of when teams named sports agents as general managers or presidents. Arn Tellem was one of the most powerful agents in the industry, representing players such Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Derrick Rose. Tellem has negotiated almost $967 million worth of NBA contracts. He was named vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons in 2015 and is a minority owner of the team. However, the Pistons have not enjoyed the same level of success as the Warriors or Lakers.
Most recently, the New York Knicks hired Leon Rose, former agent at Creative Artists Agency, to take over as the Knicks’ team president. Although Rose has no experience working in a front office, he is well respected in the basketball community as the former agent of superstars Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. The Knicks, who have struggled to attract high level talent, despite being an historic franchise located in NYC, are hoping Rose’s connections will lure star players to New York. Additionally, the Knicks have several older players signed to expensive contracts, so Rose will be required to put his knowledge of the CBA to use to negotiate deals and trades within the “soft cap.”
Additionally, the complex CBA requires the NBA to have a cap group, which monitors the teams and make sure their transactions do not violate the CBA while also making sure the NBA does not violate players’ rights. For example, Tony Leotti, a senior director and lawyer for the group, tracks days off for players. Leotti helps teams decide what constitutes a day off. Specifically, he collaborates with teams to work out grey areas left by the CBA, such as: can a player who sits out a practice show up to the facility to shoot around on his own? Can he sit with the team on the bench? This shields teams and the NBA from liability arising from a violation of players’ rights under the CBA.
As the NBA continues to expand globally, which will continue to increase the amount of overseas prospects while also increasing overall revenue, the CBA will continue to become more complex. Former attorneys Rob Pelinka and Bob Meyers have shown that agents/attorneys have a unique skillset which is tailor-made to be successful as a general manager or president of a team. Currently, the Knicks are hoping their newest hire, Leon Rose, will follow this pattern of success. Additionally, it is likely other leagues, such as the MLB, NHL, and NFL will take notice and look to gain a competitive advantage in their front office by considering attorneys to navigate through complex CBAs. Put simply, this concept of attorneys jumping into a new role which prioritizes their skillsets mirrors the mindsets of many American businesses, which value employees who can excel in multiple tasks.