Jason Levien on Potential Organizational Changes and Facing the Luxury Tax



Jason Levien

Jason Levien has a big job ahead of him. Not only will the new CEO and Managing Partner of Memphis Basketball, LLC, be tasked with overseeing both the business and basketball sides of the organization — a post unlike any other employee in franchise history — while being the primary (only?) link between new controlling owner Robert Pera and the wider organization, but, as managing partner, he'll be representing the team in league matters and will be charged with managing a large ownership group. As controlling owner, Pera has full authority in most matters, but it will be important for minority owners to feel included, and Levien's performance will have a lot of bearing on how these relationships play out.

The first day on the job for Pera and Levien did not result in any staff changes for the Grizzlies, but the character of the organization is certain to change over the coming days and months regardless. And today was the first chance we've had to try to figure out what that evolution will look like.

While all of the current basketball and business operations staff remain in place, my guess is that there will be additions in the coming weeks even if they're aren't departures, though Levien was non-committal on that subject in a brief one-on-one session I had with him after the press conference.

“I think we're going to look for ways that we can add value, sure,” Levien said about potential additions. “I've been in the league a long time, so if we can find black belts we're going to try and find them.”

While potential additions on the basketball side are a mystery, it's been widely assumed that veteran executives David Carlock and Jeffrey Pollack, who were intimately involved in Pera's pursuit of the team, would have positions somewhere in the organization, but Levien, while praising both, wasn't ready to make any announcements.

“We'll wait and see, but I think they're superstars,” Levien said. “They've been unbelievable in this process. They have deep resumes in basketball and the NBA and professional sports. One of the luckiest things I've come through in this whole process is getting to know them and have them work with me in this process.Those guys are just tremendous.”

As for the basketball side, whatever happens in personnel, I'd expect more of an emphasis on salary management issues and statistical analysis to go along with the organization's current traditional scouting bent. On the former, Levien himself, with his background as a player agent and in legal and business arenas, will be a major factor.

“I think those are important pieces,” Levien said. “I hope I can add value to those areas because I have experience in those areas. But we've got to look at it and see, how can we have the best basketball operations department in the NBA and what do we need to do to be there? That's something we're going to have real conversations about.”

With the Grizzlies losing statistical consultant Aaron Barzilai to the Sixers recently, there will have to be additions of some kind if the team is going to have a stat analysis component

“I think that's important,” Levien says of so-called “advanced analytics.” “I'm not a guy who relies purely on numbers. Because as an agent I felt the heartbeat of my players and I could tell from scouting guys who was going to be successful and who might not be based on their heartbeat. It's not all about the numbers, but the numbers tell a story. Having real deep thought and process around those numbers and understanding them is important.”

Outside of the front office, the immediate question on the team-building front is how willing the new decision-makers will be to stay above the league's luxury tax line. Heisley left them a team in the red tax-wise, with no easy way to get under it.

On that front, Levien says that he and Pera were consulted.

“We talked to Mike about that and our position was we didn't own the team and we wanted to respectful of his management and ownership of the team,” Levien says. “We would have our day. We wanted to be supportive of what he was doing and we didn't want there to be any confusion over who was in charge. It was him.”

But Levien says that if the team needs to stay above the tax this season to maximize they're ability to compete at a high level, they will be willing to do so.

“We're not drawing any hard line in the sand,” Levien said, after asserting a willingness to be a tax payer this season. “We have to look at the circumstances.”

But the tax issue will become a more serious one after this season, with tax rates increasing under the new collective bargaining agreement and the prospect of the league's new “repeater tax” looming.

“I think you have to be cognizant of that,” Levien says of the harsher penalties that loom after this season. “I think it's hard to set yourself up to be a repeater tax team. I'm not sure it makes sense. I'm not sure it makes basketball sense because you lack flexibility with the way the rules have been set up.”

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