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NBA executive titles are sounding more like Silicon Valley, and it’s no coincidence

Rob Pelinka's promotion from Lakers' general manager to president is part of an NBA-wide shift in how titles are handed out. (Reed Saxon/AP)

The Los Angeles Lakers announced Friday what many basketball fans probably perceived to be minor news: General Manager Rob Pelinka was being promoted to the carefully worded “vice president, basketball operations” while maintaining his previous title and receiving a contract extension.

The title bump may have looked ordinary, but it is a highly visible marker of a growing trend — as Silicon Valley types have flooded NBA ownership ranks, front offices have adopted their ranking hierarchy with no consistency among organizations.

A handful of positions are a major departure for the sport: The Oklahoma City Thunder, for instance, has vice presidents of “insight & foresight” and “identification & intelligence,” while former sportswriter Lee Jenkins serves as the Los Angeles Clippers’ “executive director of research and identity.”

“Some of these titles have become, I think, pretty entertaining,” said Tim Connelly, the Denver Nuggets’ president of basketball operations.

So what’s in a title? In NBA front offices, it turns out, a lot.

On paper, Pelinka’s achievements merited the reward. His tenure has delivered two MVP-caliber stars to a roster previously lacking such cache since Kobe Bryant’s 2016 retirement; the Lakers’ statement cited Pelinka’s role in signing LeBron James in 2018 and labeled the acquisition of Anthony Davis this past June as part of “one of the biggest trades in franchise history.” Pelinka’s promotion ostensibly solidifies his role atop the organization’s basketball pecking order after the team’s former president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, abruptly resigned minutes before a game last April.

But the wording of Pelinka’s new title holds meaning.

The Lakers’ top basketball officials before Johnson’s tenure were general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Jeanie Buss’s brother, Jim, who was the team’s “vice president of basketball operations.” Make no mistake, there is rhyme and reason to these semantic and punctuational differences. Perhaps, for example, the Lakers didn’t want Pelinka holding the exact same title as Jim Buss, who oversaw the losingest tenure in franchise history.

The wave of fancier job names stretches far beyond the Lakers, though — the titles on business cards of personnel around the league have become more scrutinized and yet more inscrutable. And yet they mean something in the NBA.

“Oh, it matters,” said Bobby Marks, a former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager who now works as ESPN’s front-office insider.

Travis Schlenk, the Atlanta Hawks’ president of basketball operations, echoed the sentiment. “I know they’re important, and they’re important to my staff,” he said.

This summer, Atlanta elevated Schlenk, previously the Hawks’ general manager, to president in conjunction with his own contract extension. Principal owner Tony Ressler noticed the front office had four vice presidents reporting to the lead basketball executive, and Ressler deemed it necessary to cement Schlenk’s status atop the division. “Because he’s from the business world, he’s looking at the [organizational] chart,” Schlenk said.

Ressler, along with Philadelphia 76ers majority owner Joshua Harris, co-founded private equity firm Apollo Global Management in 1990. Harris’s group purchased the 76ers in 2011, and Ressler’s cohort bought the Hawks in 2015. In between, former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for a then-NBA record $2 billion. “Nowadays teams are run like a Forbes company,” Marks said.

The clubs’ hierarchies have followed suit. When John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor of leadership, began studying organizational success in the early 1970s, the majority of businesses were led by a chairman of the board and president, with various vice presidents of marketing and sales and other departments completing the company’s executive committee. Soon, those vice presidents had the word “senior” or “executive” attached to the front of their titles upon promotions. Today, corporations are spearheaded by chief executive officers and other sectional chiefs.

“The Cs are all somehow important,” Kotter said. “Whether it’s CEO or CRO, etc., etc. I think the NBA is being caught up into some of the same social forces that produced those changes.”

Amid this trend, NBA executive positions have become incongruous across organizations. One month before Schlenk’s promotion, the San Antonio Spurs elevated their top basketball official, R.C. Buford, from general manager to CEO because Gregg Popovich has long held the title of president. David Griffin took over the New Orleans Pelicans in April, leading the team’s basketball operations as executive vice president because business-side executive Dennis Lauscha serves as president of both the Pelicans and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.

In Washington, Tommy Sheppard assumed control of the Wizards’ basketball department this offseason nominally as the team’s general manager. Philadelphia’s chief basketball official under Harris’s ownership is General Manager Elton Brand, although his two predecessors, Sam Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo, each held the title of president and general manager.

There are areas in which NBA titles truly mean something. Teams typically only allow a rival organization to interview a member of their front office if the meeting discusses a job of greater stature. “It’s kind of an unwritten rule,” said Rod Higgins, the Hawks’ vice president of basketball operations.

Connelly, after all, was promoted to the Nuggets’ president when his assistant general manager, Arturas Karnisovas, was elevated to Denver’s general manager after he met with the Milwaukee Bucks for their opening at that position in 2017. New Orleans’s second-in-command, Trajan Langdon, joined the Pelicans in May as general manager underneath Griffin having served as assistant general manager for the Nets under General Manager Sean Marks. Both positions equate to the No. 2 executive in an organization’s basketball operations department, but his job in New Orleans came with a salary increase, and the improved title will render Langdon that much more marketable to an ownership group the next time a leading personnel vacancy arises.

“Obviously the title piece is attractive,” Langdon said.

Some executives, though, believe this is all just semantics.

“I answer to the owner,” said Sheppard, who earned Washington’s general manager role after operating throughout the offseason with an interim tag when he replaced longtime president Ernie Grunfeld. “I think people get distracted very badly when you start worrying about titles and money and all that stuff. The job that I covet is the one I have. The most important thing for me was hearing from [owner] Ted [Leonsis] that I’m responsible for the Washington Wizards.”

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For others, the designation remains important. This is professional sports, after all, in which competition exists at the highest level. “It is a factor that gives an extra kind of unconscious clout to the guy with the bigger title,” Kotter said.

The other area executives’ ranks truly factor in is pension plans. Only senior officials are eligible for an extremely favorable annuity program that supersedes the standard 401(k) match other team employees receive, and Marks said typically those opportunities are limited to a team’s top three basketball personnel, someone with the title of president, vice president or GM. “It’s a recruiting rule, too, when you’re trying to hire somebody,” Marks added. “It’s a nice perk.”

The overwhelming majority of NBA executives plug away under often-cloudy job descriptions. A “basketball operations assistant” can function as a salary cap expert or a general office aid. As analytics departments continue growing, teams introduce new positions under new monikers every month. The job title, of course, only means so much. Even if they’re all chasing the same goal.

“The most important title,” Sheppard said, “is the one that Toronto has.”

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