NBA owners and their teams’ general managers often appear sympatico. They sit alongside one another at press conferences where draft picks and free agent signings are introduced. They interact amiably at games and practices. They are “management,” seemingly joined at the hip in a quest for an NBA title.
Until they aren’t.
Exhibit A is Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey. Earlier this month, the Trail Blazers announced they had retained O’Melveny & Myers, an international law firm headquartered in Los Angeles, to probe “concerns around workplace environment by non-player personnel at the practice facility.”
Olshey, 56, is at the center of those “concerns.” The announcement pledged the law firm would conduct a “full, fair and independent review into these concerns, and [the team] will take appropriate action based on its outcome.”
The Olshey investigation illustrates how the interests of owners and team leaders can sharply diverge. O’Melveny & Myers could conclude that Olshey engaged in a form of misconduct so bad as to empower Trail Blazers owner Jody Allen to fire him “with cause.” Findings might also damage Olshey’s reputation in a way that would make it difficult for him to get another NBA job.
Although necessary circumstances for a “for cause” firing vary by employment contract, serious transgressions are required. A “for cause” firing ordinarily relieves the team of the obligation to pay the remainder of a contract. Olshey, who joined the Trail Blazers in 2012, is under contract through the 2023-24 season. When a team fires a GM, it is usually designated “without cause” and reflects frustration with team performance. All or a portion of the GM’s contract is then paid out.
Olshey could question whether the probe is truly “independent.” The paying client is team ownership, who, Olshey might suspect, intends to fire him.
Olshey was sharply criticized over the summer after he hired Chauncey Billups as head coach. In 1997, Billups, while a rookie on the Boston Celtics, was accused of, but not criminally charged with, sexual assault. Billups denied the accusation and reached an out-of-court settlement with the accuser. Olshey faced backlash for his public assurances that the team had corroborated Billups’ account, despite not hearing from the accuser.
Details about Olshey’s suspected misdeeds are hazy. Yahoo! reports that the former Los Angeles Clippers executive “allegedly subjected staffers to profanity-laced tirades” and intimidated underlings. But ESPN shares that in the more than nine years Olshey has run the Trail Blazers, the NBA “received no calls to the league office or its tips hotline alleging workplace complaints against Olshey.” If fired for cause, Olshey might downplay the allegations as defamatory pretext.
The Olshey probe also faces structural hurdles. A law firm lacks subpoena power and can’t compel witness testimony or disclosure of relevant emails or texts. This can lead to an incomplete and inaccurate retelling. However, as explained in the investigation around Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver, a law firm can rely on contractual and employee handbook obligations to require cooperation.
With Olshey under investigation, NBA general managers are in talks to form a labor association, which as ESPN details, would provide GMs with “access to legal defense funds, lawyer referrals and public relations professionals.”
Several categories of NBA professionals have already formed labor associations, most prominently the NBPA, the players’ union. The National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA), the NBA Physicians Association and the NBA Athletic Trainers Association are among the others.
The NBCA offers a sensible model for NBA GMs. Under the leadership of executive director and general counsel David Fogel, an employment attorney by trade, the NBCA provides numerous services to current and former NBA head coaches and assistant coaches. Those services include negotiation of pension, 401(K), disability and joint licensing agreements; review of employment contracts and severance agreements; and advocacy for coaches who are accused of misconduct.
“The NBCA,” Fogel told Sportico in an interview, “exists to advocate for and to support coaches on all items affecting them both on and off the court.” He added, “the NBCA also strives to ensure that the coaches have a collective voice and representation on all important matters that pertain to the NBA coaching profession.”
The potential advantages of a GM association are readily apparent in Olshey’s situation. It could remind media and fans that an allegation and a finding of fault aren’t synonymous and that an investigation may have limitations. Further, the association could act as a buffer between Olshey and the team, much like the NBPA acts on a player’s behalf. And, if the Trail Blazers dismiss Olshey, the association could perform triage and intervene on how the dismissal is contractually structured and presented to the public.
A GM association wouldn’t preclude Olshey from retaining his own attorneys and agents to monitor the investigation and keep tabs on emerging evidence and witness activity. Monitoring is particularly important if Olshey and the Trail Blazers later litigate, arbitrate or mediate a firing.
A legal dispute wouldn’t be unprecedented. Former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor sued the team and then-owner Donald Sterling for wrongful termination and discrimination after he was fired in 2008.