It’s not every day that an NBA team goes up for sale. There are, after all, only 30 of them.
But for as rare as the opportunity to join that club is, it’s even harder to get the chance to purchase one of the handful of teams at the top of the league.
That’s why it was a bolt from the blue when Leslie Alexander announced in July that, after owning the Houston Rockets for more than 20 years, he was going to sell the franchise. And it’s also why Tuesday’s announcement that Alexander has agreed to sell the team to Houston businessman Tilman Fertitta for a record-breaking $2.2 billion should come as little surprise — despite the massive price tag.
And it certainly is massive. The $2.2 billion sale price breaks the record for the price to purchase an American professional sports team, breaking the $2 billion record jointly held by the sale prices of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014.
The last NBA team to be sold, the Atlanta Hawks, was moved for $850 million in June of 2015, while the Miami Marlins were sold last month for $1.2 billion to a group led by future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. The only NFL team sold this decade, the Buffalo Bills, was sold for a league-record $1.4 billion in 2014. Given the Bills are one of the least valuable teams in the league, it’s easy to assume several teams, at least, would surpass the price Fertitta is paying for the Rockets, as there are a few teams — at least the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls — that could fetch more than it in the NBA.
But the fact Fertitta is willing to pay such a price to purchase the Rockets is emblematic not just of the fact he’s a lifelong native of the region, not to mention one who lost out in the bidding to Alexander when he bought the team in 1993 and who owned a stake in the team before that. It also allows him to have the rarest of opportunities: to take control of a team that’s both ready to win now, and in a market where he can be assured of making healthy profits while doing so.
Yes, two-thirds of the NBA has changed hands over the past 20 years, as one generation of owners has largely been replaced by a new one. But only two franchises that were sold — the Boston Celtics in 2002 and the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 — were teams that were anywhere close to the position the Rockets are in today.
Houston plays in one of the NBA’s largest markets, one of the most popular NBA teams in China — thanks to Hall of Famer Yao Ming having spent his entire career with the Rockets — and is one of the best teams in the league today thanks to the star-studded backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul, making the Rockets easily among the handful of the most desirable teams in the NBA.
And the rest of teams in that category — the Lakers, Bulls, Knicks, Warriors, Celtics, Clippers, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs — aren’t expected to be available anytime soon.
That also helps explain why this sales process wrapped up so quickly, especially compared with the sale of other teams in recent years. Other than the Clippers, who were sold under unique circumstances after the banishment of Donald Sterling, the past several teams to go on the open market — the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies — all needed, at minimum, several months to find new owners, and in some cases even longer than that.
The Rockets, on the other hand, went from being up for sale to reaching an agreement to be sold in less than two months — a ridiculously fast time for such a process to be completed, particularly when there were multiple bidders involved. This only underscores the interest in the franchise and the desire of Fertitta, who lost out in the bidding to Alexander when Alexander bought the team in 1993 and who owned a stake in the team before that, to purchase his hometown team.
In doing so, he’ll have big shoes to fill. Alexander has been one of the league’s best owners over his two-plus decades running the Rockets, overseeing a team that’s featured multiple stars — from Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to Ming and Tracy McGrady to Harden and Paul today — to go along with a stable front office.
The secret to having a successful NBA franchise has always been good ownership. It doesn’t take long to look at the teams that have been atop the sport in recent seasons — organizations like the Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Celtics and Warriors — and see that strong, stable ownership has been an essential part of the success of those teams.
That doesn’t mean having strong ownership supersedes talent — the NBA is a player’s league, and always will be. But having strong ownership allows for empowered front offices and coaching staffs, which in turn allows for teams to become more desirable locations for the league’s best players and helps cultivate raw talent into the sport’s next generation of stars.
In today’s NBA, in which players are using their individual power to assert their manifest destiny in ways they never have before — those traits are more powerful than ever. That’s how the past three summers have seen the three top free agents on the market — LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, Kevin Durant in 2016 and Gordon Hayward in 2017 — choose to leave their former teams for the Spurs, Warriors and Celtics, respectively, as free agents.
The only situation that doesn’t fit this narrative is in Cleveland — one that has the obvious exception in LeBron James, who essentially is his own franchise at this point, deciding he wanted to return. And even James factors into this when you consider his initial decision to leave Cleveland in 2010 to join another team — the Heat — on that list.
So, in short, the opportunity to buy a team like the Rockets doesn’t come along often. That’s why it was barely a blink of an eye between Alexander putting them up for sale and Fertitta choosing to buy them.
And, if history is any guide, it will be money well spent.
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