NBA general managers are working to finalize the formation of a professional association that would collectively support executives with access to legal defense funds, lawyer referrals and public relations professionals, sources told ESPN.
Over the past several months, the league’s GMs have formed a steering committee to create a constitution, opened an LLC and informed the league office of their intentions to form a group similar in purpose and structure to the National Basketball Coaches Association, sources said.
While these steps originated in March and predate the organizational investigation into Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey, that situation has further convinced front-office executives of the need for such an association, sources said.
Dozens of executives told ESPN that Portland’s internal probe has stoked fears that organizations can make decisions to fire top basketball executives for any number of traditional reasons — team performance, personality conflicts, differing philosophies — and search simultaneously for ways to pursue “cause” violations in contracts.
With declining revenue and dwindling attendance across the league coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many top team basketball executives are fearful Portland is creating a blueprint for other ownership groups to invoke firing for cause and sidestep payment on contracts.
On Nov. 6, the Blazers announced they’d hired the law firm O’Melveny & Myers to “conduct a fair and independent review” after a complaint was raised to the organization’s human resources department of “concerns around workplace environment by non-player personnel at the practice facility.”
The firm has since interviewed dozens of former and current employees about Olshey and their experiences around the team’s suburban practice facility.
In his nine-plus years running the Trail Blazers, the NBA has received no calls to the league office or its tips hotline alleging workplace complaints against Olshey, sources told ESPN. The Blazers’ human resources department received no complaints on Olshey until recent weeks, Yahoo Sports reported.
Olshey signed a three-year contract extension in 2019 after the Blazers made the Western Conference finals. It kicked in with the 2021-22 season and extends through 2023-24. Olshey, who was hired in 2012 after nine seasons with the LA Clippers, has signed two extensions in his Portland tenure.
When the Blazers announced the extension in May 2019, owner Jody Allen made particular mention of the franchise’s culture under Olshey: “…I have great confidence in the culture he has created in Portland, and I look forward to seeing it thrive and grow for years to come.”
The Blazers have had little turnover in the front office or coaching staff and have reached the playoffs in eight straight seasons — the longest active streak in the NBA. The organization and Olshey had been widely criticized for a lack of transparency on the research they did before hiring first-year coach Chauncey Billups, who was accused of rape in a 1997 civil suit. The team commissioned an independent investigation into the allegation but said details of that investigation were “proprietary.”
Olshey has not publicly addressed the current probe into Portland’s workplace environment. The Blazers haven’t suspended Olshey while the investigation is ongoing, and he’s continued to carry out his duties running the team. Once the Blazers elevated the HR complaint to the hiring of an outside firm, the leaguewide belief has been that Olshey’s job and contract are in jeopardy.
Portland is 8-8 to start this season as All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has shot a career-low 38.4% from the field and averaged his fewest points per game since his rookie year. Lillard had expressed frustration over the summer at the team’s lack of playoff success but has since affirmed his commitment to the franchise.
Terms reported by the media like “toxic environment” and “hostile workplace” felt to rival GMs as a campaign to trigger a firing for “cause,” presumably a tactic to set up the voiding of the remaining years and salary on Olshey’s contract. That’s what worries rival executives and has hastened the urgency of finalizing an association that could help support front-office executives in situations like the one unfolding in Portland.