A day after the news broke that ESPN The Magazine had crowned the Memphis Grizzlies the best franchise in North American pro sports, team CEO Jason Levien sat down for a one-on-one interview with The Daily News.
Among other things, he talked about why he believes Dave Joerger is a good fit as coach, confessed to watching the first three games of the Western Conference Finals multiple times and said he considers being declared the No. 1 pro sports franchise just a start.
Here are some highlights from that conversation; next week, we’ll have more of the interview with a focus on off-the-court efforts, including the regional push.
The Memphis Grizzlies have received recognition from ESPN The Magazine, which this week crowned the team the No. 1 franchise in all of North American professional sports.
Q: In earning the No. 1 designation from ESPN The Magazine, the Grizzlies received very high marks in several fan categories and ranked second out of 122 pro teams in three categories: affordability, “bang for the buck” and players (essentially, their ability and likability). What’s most important in terms of feedback that led to the No. 1 ranking?
A: What’s most important to me is we show our fans they are true partners with us in this endeavor. Part of this award is confirming our investment thesis coming into this, which is this is a great basketball town. This can be a great NBA city. Certainly, we don’t want this to be a high-water mark for us. We’re just at the beginning with the things we want to implement to improve the fan experience and make us a better organization.
Q: When the new ownership group, headed by Robert Pera and yourself, appeared at the first press conference, you spoke about wanting to change the paradigm for owning an NBA franchise. I guess I think of that old saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” It struck me then, and has since, that your view is very different. It’s almost like what they say about a computer’s hard drive: There are two kinds – those that have crashed and those that will. And you’re not waiting for that moment. You’re trying to be proactive in all that you do. Is that a fair assessment?
A: I actually like that analogy. I would say that in technology, if you look at a company like Apple, when they came out with their first iPhone they didn’t rest on their laurels. They kept making it better. That’s what we’re trying to do. We see the changes we made, particularly the coaching change, as one that we think will improve our product.
Q: Joerger so far?
A: We just got back from a retreat where the coaches and front office went down to Miami Beach and spent a few days together. And it was a bonding experience for a new staff. It was an opportunity to talk through what our collective vision is for the organization. And how we can strive for and achieve greatness. I think it was a very positive few days we spent together.
And I will say this about coach Joerger: He has a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm. That really resonates. It’s sort of contagious in our offices and that’s a big part of our culture that we want to grow. Already, in the few months he has assumed the role of head coach, he has made an impact on people.
Q: Several months after the playoff run, how do you view it? Did you go back and watch the games again?
A: I’ve gone back and looked a lot at the Spurs series so maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. But I’m trying to study what we did well, what we didn’t do well. I’ve watched games 1, 2 and 3 about 10 times each. Now remember, games 2 and 3 went to overtime, and a couple of balls bounce differently and we could be up 2-1. We’re closer than a 4-0 sweep, certainly, but they beat us. They were the better team.
Q: Training camp is about to start. Still open to making player moves?
A: We are like Dunkin’ Donuts. We’re always open.
Q: You’ve spoken pretty boldly about the goal being to win an NBA title. Do you really believe this team can win an NBA championship without a superstar?
A: First thing, I would challenge the definition of superstar. Because I think we’re building some superstars here. First and foremost, I think Tony Allen is a superstar on the defensive end of the floor like the league hasn’t seen in a long time. His impact is very quantifiable. I think Marc Gasol is the best center in the NBA. It may not show up in his points-per-game because he’s such an unselfish player, but his leadership on both ends of the floor is unmatched. I think Mike Conley is coming into his own and can play with any point guard in the league.
Q: Given what this team has accomplished recently – record 56 wins last season, first-ever conference finals, and now the No. 1 pro sports franchise honor, how will you define success in this coming season? Obviously injuries could change things. But injuries aside, would it be possible to fall back to, say, 47 wins and losing in the first round and, depending how you got there, to define it as a successful season?
A: It does depend how you get there, but we want to win. It’s hard for me to sit here and honestly say we’ll be satisfied if we go out in the first round this year. Because we think we’re better than that.
Next week: Part 2 of the Jason Levien interview in Don Wade’s column, The Press Box.