clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Phoenix Suns Owner Robert Sarver Wants To Save The League After Crippling His Own Franchise

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Phoenix Suns fans are fairly unanimous in their distaste for Robert Sarver, managing partner of the team's ownership group. They feel, rightfully so, that Sarver's mismanagement and disloyalty has led to the disintegration of a proud franchise and championship-contending roster.

National media take potshots at Sarver whenever possible. Local media and fans too. Heck, even current players during a lockout!

Sarver appears to be a difficult boss. Some of the nicest guys in all of sports - heck, in all the world - have voluntarily walked away from their jobs in the past 18 months without even having a new job in place. Steve Kerr. David Griffin. Rick Welts. Going years back, you can add in Mike D'Antoni, Jerry Colangelo (senior advisor at the time) and Bryan Colangelo. Really wonderful people. All gone of their own accord.

And this while Sarver was a key voice in the decision to lock out players this summer while the NBA tries to totally change the NBA salary structure. For some reason, he was not a fan of losing money while some of his fellow owners made boatloads.

And now rumors have surfaced that Robert Sarver has continued stomping his foot and pounding the floor. If not for Sarver's meddling last week, commissioner David Stern would be publicly hugging union president Derek Fisher right now, the NBA would be back in business and players would be preparing for training camp.

Is it possible that players, front office staff and NBA executives could name a WORSE owner in the NBA, if a poll were taken right now? I doubt it.

Does Robert Sarver care that people don't like him? I doubt that either.

Before I go any further, let me set my own record straight. Regular readers probably believe that I'm a fan of Sarver. Of all the writers on this blog, I'm the one most likely to defend his latest decision. I agreed with the decision to offer Amare only partial guarantees in his contract. I agreed with the decision that the 2008 Suns were "stale" and that Marion was the most logical piece to move amongst Nash, Stoudemire, Bell, Barbosa, Diaw and him. And I agree that the current NBA system heavily favors the largest markets, leaving teams like the Suns praying for leftover scraps.

But I am not an apologist for Robert Sarver, the person. Neither am I a hater. I simply have no opinion of him as a person because I've never met him. 

All we have to go on are the opinions of media, which by definition is third-hand knowledge. And that assumes the writer of the story had first-hand knowledge themselves, which is almost never the case. They have sources, who have sources. Which means that anything we read online is likely 5th or 6th-hand knowledge.

Ever play that game where you have people pass along a story by whispering it in the next person's ear? By the third or forth ear, the story has changed. Now if you factor in the personal motivations of each of those folks...

Case in point: all week, heck all summer, we've been under the impression that Robert Sarver would be a big fan of a hard salary cap. And even last week, he was supposedly the one who derailed an attempt by Stern and the players to keep the soft cap in place. Sarver wants a hard cap. Rich owners like Jerry Buss want a soft cap so they can monopolize talent. And Stern just wants the money to start rolling in again.

Makes total sense, right?

Well, read this article from NBA insider Chris Broussard over the weekend. He basically threw that whole notion out with the bath water.

This illustrates the complexity of the situation, and why the "large-markets-are-doves/small-markets-are-hawks’’ equation doesn’t work. For instance, while it’s long been reported that Phoenix’s Robert Sarver is a hawk, two sources close to the situation insist he’s one of the biggest doves in the ownership ranks.

WTF, right?

According to multiple "sources", the owners are close to agreeing on a massive increase to revenue sharing, yet still want a hard cap before they implement it.

Is it possible that Sarver has insisted/negotiated on the revenue-sharing part, but it's the big-market owners (who would do most of the "giving" side of the sharing) who want a hard cap in order to further increase profits before giving it away to guys like Sarver and Michael Jordan?

The reason for this seeming contradiction is related to the enhanced revenue-sharing system the league will implement. The big-market owners will bear the brunt of the new system and, according to sources, some of them are adamant about having a hard cap so that if they must share revenues, they’ll have more money from which to pull. 

"The big markets want to revenue share but not with their current profits,’’ one of the sources said. "Instead, they want to share from the profit they would get from a harder cap.’’ 

After all this time, is it possible that our assumptions regarding Sarver's motives were totally wrong? Uh, probably not. He wants to make money, just like Buss and Cuban.

But our assumptions of how exactly he's going about it are probably complete conjecture.

Heck, even local media are forgetting reality in their articles to condemn Sarver:

...the only thing small market about Phoenix is Sarver, who paid a fortune for the team and won't suffer significant short-term losses to win a championship.

That is total BS. Phoenix is, at best, the 12th largest revenue market in the league. And when did it suddenly become cool to bash Sarver for spending too much money to buy the team? That's like bashing me and millions of other people for spending too much on my mortgage before the housing bubble burst. It's okay to bash Sarver - just use real facts when doing so.

If I take the person out of the equation, I am left with this understanding:

  1. The Phoenix Suns are in a mid-to-small NBA market (depending on your rule set, Suns are around 12th-16th in market size).
  2. Under the current salary structure, in place since the late 80s, the Suns have won 0 championships.*
  3. With the exception of one team who drafted Robinson and Duncan in the 90s, only the big markets have won multiple championships in that time span.
  4. Again with the prior exception, it is widely understood that you can't win a championship without wild spending.
  5. Only big markets continue to earn a profit while spending wildly.
  6. Only one team wins a championship each year.
(*yes, they MIGHT have won a championship in the mid-2000s but we will never know. Any number of other things could have just as wrong as the things that actually did go wrong)

Contrast this with the NFL model and you've got a big reason why the owners SHOULD want to change the structure. We can condemn Sarver all we want for not going broke to win, but really in an objective world SHOULD he have to lose money when a handful of his brethren are rolling in the dough? 

Check out this wonderful article by Andrew Brandt, a former NFL front-office person who now is a widely respected writer.

As with the NFL collective bargaining negotiations, the overriding issue is the split of revenue, from which all other issues flow. Despite the rhetoric, the two sides are moving closer on the most important item on the checklist. Three weeks from a real deadline, that is significant and should not be minimized.

As with any negotiation of this magnitude, much like the NFL, the devil is in the details. The NBA is insistent on a hard cap, or at least a significantly harder cap, as a way to achieve profitability off the court and competitive balance on it. Thus, in the NBA's view, the hard cap primarily affects both distribution of talent and distribution of money.


Brandt compares the NBA model with the NFL and NHL models, and firmly believes that the latter models are stronger for the league AND not as worrisome for players as you might think.

The NBPA's position is that were a hard cap instituted, non-marquee players would have to accept lower salaries and nonguaranteed contracts. This may be true, but it would depend on a few factors. Were the salary floor raised along with the cap ceiling, lower-budget teams, which will always struggle to attract superstar talent, would be forced to pay much more than they do now. This would flow through to the entire league, not just the upper echelon of players.

Right. A hard cap coupled with a hard floor would keep NBA players in business. Shorter deals with buyout clauses would help owners get out of cap-killers (the NHL now has 1/3 or 2/3 buyout clauses, depending on years in league, in every contract).

Look, no one likes Robert Sarver. And he very well might be the worst owner in sports. And after getting what he wants - more cash, hard salary ceilings - he will probably still screw up the Suns' future.

But you have to recognize this: Robert Sarver is not afraid of putting a target on his back to fight for what he wants. He reportedly is fighting tooth and nail to give himself a level playing field with the other NBA franchises. By doing so, he is taking away the built-in excuse for losing.

At that point, all the blame would rightfully belong on his shoulders, where it currently resides anyway.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bright Side of the Sun Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Phoenix Suns news from Bright Side of the Sun