Robert Sarver’s plan puts specialists in positions of strength


PHOENIX — Robert Sarver has often been chided for trying to run the Phoenix Suns like he runs his banks.

By hiring longtime player agent Lon Babby to head a revamped basketball operations department, Sarver is putting his business philosophies to the ultimate test.

Sarver believes in the banking world that there are hunters and there are skinners. By this he means the best person at bringing in business often isn’t the best person to underwrite the loan.

So in banks there’s specialization, and the hunter will find the business and the skinner will close the deal.

In Sarver’s analysis of NBA front offices, he sees four main areas that a basketball operations department must be able to handle: talent evaluation, contract negotiation, understanding the collective bargaining agreement and communicating with players.

Most teams employ one general manager, a generalist if you will, who can handle all four phases at least adequately. They might be experts in particular phases but only OK at other parts of the basketball operations game, so Sarver doesn’t see the logic in employing one “general” manager when he can bring aboard multiple executives who are experts at particular aspects of the job.

“They’re kind of different skill sets, and sometimes they take different personalities,” Sarver said. “What maybe made most sense was to put together a team and rather than bring someone in who can be a generalist in all those areas, have two people who could be specialists who really could give us the best so we’re really good at all four.”

On Tuesday, Sarver introduced his newest skinner, long-time agent Lon Babby, who possesses a lifetime worth of knowledge in negotiation, understanding the collective bargaining agreement and communicating with players but even admitted that talent evaluation is not his strength.

In that regard, his first order of business is to hire a talent evaluator, a right-hand man who can give the Suns specialists in all areas of the basketball operations game. That man will not be Dell Demps, however, as the former Spurs executive has been hired by the Hornets.

It’s hard to say what kind of talent evaluator will be willing to step into this unorthodox structure. For example, Steve Kerr was the Suns’ GM and president of basketball operations, so some potential GMs might not want another executive above them on the org chart. The ultimate success of this endeavor may hinge on whether the Suns can find that ideal talent evaluation hunter to complement the skinner in Babby.

“I’m going to play to my strengths,” Babby said. “I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not good at. I’ve never told anybody I was Red Auerbach. I have no expectation of taking the lead on those kind of talent evaluation questions. My first order of priority is to bring somebody in here who’s a basketball genius.

“What I’m going to try to do is bring my discipline, my processes, my abilities to raise the level of preparation so that we’re exhaustive in everything we do, but at the end of the day we’re going to have a first-rate talent evaluator because that’s not what my strength is and I’m not pretending otherwise. That will be my first order of business. You can bring somebody into this structure that can thrive into this place.”

If the Suns can find that basketball genius, you have to feel pretty good about their direction, which includes expanding the work they do in scouting current NBA players without cutting back on college scouting.

As much as things looked to the contrary at the start of the offseason, the Suns appear to have a plan.

Sarver spoke of considering saving his money for next offseason, but after noticing there is really only one franchise player potentially on the market who the Suns don’t have much of a shot at anyway (Carmelo), he figured the Suns were better off utilizing their resources now. That’s especially the case as long as Steve Nash and Grant Hill are in town, as Sarver feels an “obligation” to help them win.

After mulling over those options, Sarver said he decided to “sign some good contracts at reasonable prices that give us the ability to really compete again and be good but also the flexibility that if we want to bring that franchise player in, the best way that’s going to happen for us is through a trade, not through free agency.”

This is the very same reasoning I’ve pondered myself, and while some have criticized the Suns for clogging up their cap with role players, they represent the Suns’ best attempt to stay competitive since Phoenix won’t be signing a superstar free agent in the near future, and perhaps the accumulation of assets could open the door to a deal for a stud down the road.

Those will be decisions made by the new GM Babby hires to join a revamped structure that could be “a little bit of a template,” according to Sarver, of what we will see from basketball front offices in the near future whereby executive positions will be held by individuals with a background besides playing and coaching basketball.

It remains to be seen if Sarver is on the cutting edge of running a basketball operations department or if this will be another area in which one of Sarver’s business strategies falls short in the world of basketball.

The old guard in any industry — sports in particular – will always resist change, so Sarver is exposing himself to widespread criticism if this arrangement flops.

But you don’t see centers bringing the ball up the court nor point guards setting picks and rolling down the lane, so Sarver’s plan to specialize his basketball operations department actually makes a lot of sense.