For the first time in Atlanta's history, the organization has a general manager who is not also the head coach. Michael Cooper will take care of the duties on the court, but someone else will handle the salary offers and the basketball operations that were handled previously by head coaches or by others in the organization.
Angela Taylor was formerly the general manager of the Washington Mystics during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. In 2009, the Mystics reached the playoff for the first time in three years and in 2010, they finished as the regular season champions of the Eastern Conference with a 22-11 record. It was the first 20-win season in Washington's long history.
Her years in the league - as Vice-President of Business Operations with the Minnesota Lynx and her work at the WNBA league for 10 seasons gave her ample opportunity not just in understanding the intricacies of the salary cap but in identifying and evaluating talent. She also has experience both as a player - she played on a Stanford team that went to three final fours - and as an assistant coach, both at Stanford and at Texas A&M. She graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in economics, and is well qualified for her new job with the Dream in almost any aspect you can think of.
I had the chance to speak to Taylor at the Dream's headquarters. We talked a lot about the responsibilities of a general manager as well as asking questions ranging from her time with the Washington Mystics to her perspective on statistical analysis and on the 2014 WNBA Draft. What follows is the first part of that interview.
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Swish Appeal: With the news coming out of Los Angeles about new ownership for the Sparks, what is your take on the situation? For a while, it looked like an ownership group headed by Joe Lacob of the Golden State Warriors would get the Sparks, but the league was able to keep the team in Los Angeles.
Angela Taylor: I think that everyone in the league, from the league office to the teams to the players , they are ecstatic for a number of different reasons. First and foremost is that our storied Sparks team – I remember the first game in 1997 – that they’re remaining in L. A. , an important market to us as a whole.
But they’re also ecstatic in bringing a great ownership group in headed by Magic Johnson. Just watching the press conference, you felt the energy and the excitement. He knows the league, he appreciates these players, he’s watched us from the very beginning. He understands how hard these women play, how talented they are, and he knows how to build a championship team. You see what he’s doing with his Dodgers organization, how they’re really being aggressive in supporting them financially. He’s a businessman.
So, I think for a lot of different reasons this was great for the league. It showed that there’s someone who looks at the return from his investments, and he’s opting to invest in the WNBA.
Swish Appeal: How did the Atlanta Dream get in touch with you, and how long did it take between the time they contacted you and the time you were hired?
Angela Taylor: I’ve known this ownership team for a couple of years, and they got in touch with me in December after Coach [Michael] Cooper had been hired. I think that that’s when they made the decision that they were going have a dual role, a separate GM from the head coach.
We started having conversations. Initially, I started gauging my interest in getting back into the WNBA. The more and more I spoke to them about their vision for the organization, the commitment to the fans here in Atlanta and to the Atlanta Dream, I started to be sold on this as a fantastic opportunity.
Just knowing Coach Cooper, it’s a dream to be able to work with him. I have the utmost respect for what he’s been able to do in women’s basketball and in the WNBA with the Sparks in the past. I think together we’ll be able to build a championship contender.
Swish Appeal: Have you and Coach Cooper discussed how the responsibilities are going to be divided between the two of you?
Angela Taylor: It’s a dynamic relationship. It’s going to be an ongoing discussion to maximize what we both bring to the table. I know we’ll work well together. We have complementary personalities and we have the same vision, and that’s to win a championship and to do it the right way.
So, it’ll be an ongoing conversation. We’re getting to know each other. We have not worked together this intimately in the past, so we’ll continue to get to know one other. I have the utmost confidence that it won’t be a problem. I think that we complement one another - he’s so focused on the basketball side and that will allow me to do the administrative things that are my strengths. I think that as we continue to build our support staff and our assistant coaches, I think that we can build a great team on the basketball ops side.
Swish Appeal: Given that you were the owner and president of NetWork Sports Consulting before your new job, did you imagine yourself as coming back to basketball, college or pro, in a supervisory position?
Angela Taylor: What I’ve learned over the years when you’re little– my father was in the military for twenty-seven years and my mother was a teacher for twenty-five-plus years – you think you’ll do the same thing for the long term.
And I learned, early in my career, that you do what you want to do for as long as you enjoy it. So I never shut the door on any opportunity. I love the WNBA. I grew up with the WNBA, having started in 1997 in the league office with [former WNBA president] Val Ackerman and [Chief of Basketball Operations] Renee Brown. Obviously, I kept a close eye on it but was really focused on building on my own company. It’s always been a dream for me to have my own company and build my own brand, but this opportunity resonated with me, for a variety of reasons.
The biggest one was that one of my goals in life when I joined the WNBA was to win a championship, to be part of a championship team. There’s nothing like that. When I was at Stanford, to be part of what Tara [VanDerveer] built there was incredible. That was the thing that enticed me back into the WNBA. I believe in what this league is about, and I believe I can contribute to the future.
Swish Appeal: Going back to Network Sports Consulting - given that NSC is a planning and brand management company - are WNBA general managers involved in issues like finances, or marketing, or public relations? If so, do you have decision-making authority, or advisory input?
Angela Taylor: I think it depends on a particular person’s strengths and their interests and their abilities and the organizational structure and the other individuals within that organization. I think different general managers bring different things to the table.
For me, I do have that business acumen, having worked as Vice-President of Business Operations with the Minnesota Lynx in the past. I’ve been with the league since its inception, so I’m certainly aware of a lot of their functions and the things that are taking place on the business side.
We’re in this together as an organization – basketball ops and business operations need to work together to make sure that we’re packing the house. Philips Arena is going to be packed this year. And that we’re building the right team and a successful championship organization.
I always have a lot of strong opinions about different things and creative ideas. If they ask me, I certainly want to do whatever it takes for this franchise to be championship franchise on both sides of the table.
Swish Appeal: In our previous interview with Coach Cooper, he stated that an advantage of a dual coach/GM system is that players who might not get the contract they wanted won't necessary blame the coach. In your experience, are players contract expectations generally in line with offers that the front office makes?
Angela Taylor: It varies. You know, I think that depending on how long the player has been in the league and their role on various teams, and their agent – that that dynamic changes.
I think often times for players in the WNBA, what’s important to them in free agency may be different for what it may be in any other professional sport because there’s not a huge disparity between what you can pay these players. So it’s not always just a financial thing -- it’s about the market, it’s about the coaching staff, it’s about the vision of the organization. There are so many factors that go into their free agent decision.
To have the separation of roles, I think it does help. Coaches are looking at the here and now, and general managers tend to take a longer viewpoint and look toward the future and sustainability. I think those views complement each other, so that you don’t get into situations where you’re trying to make desperate moves where they hurt you in the future. They’re not mutually exclusive; you can be successful in the short term and long term.
Q&A with Mike Thibault about Magic Johnson
Washington Mystics General Manager and Head Coach Mike Thibault gives us some of his thoughts regarding Magic Johnson being part of the Los Angeles Sparks' ownership group and also about his time with the Los Angeles Lakers
Swish Appeal: Given the salary cap, and the qualified minimums of the current collective bargaining agreement, how much freedom does a GM have when making offers?
Angela Taylor: Under the current CBA, we know what the veteran maximum is and we know what the rookie maximum and minimums are. When we’re negotiating with players – we’re talking about thousands or ten thousands of dollars in what you can negotiate with a player on, versus the NBA where when you’re negotiating a free agent contract it can be a couple of million dollars.
I think that for us we have to be nuanced in managing the cap and be aware of what’s going on with your cap in the future. But for me in free agency, it’s not just the dollar amount. It’s about telling the full picture of the value of what coming to Atlanta is going to be for a free agent – what we’re doing as an organization. How we’re going to be one of the best organizations in the WNBA and how we take care of our players and how we take care of our staff and how our fans have embraced this team.
Swish Appeal: There's a belief in the NBA that GMs who emphasize statistical analysis will proliferate. Does that also apply to the WNBA? How much of your own evaluations rest on statistical tools?
Angela Taylor: This is a great question, I love this question. I’m fascinated by the data analytics that you’re starting to see in the NBA, and that’s one of the things that’s been great for me in the last three years – having stepped away from the WNBA, and having been on my own, it’s watching the NBA and what they’re doing from a data collection standpoint, and the stats cube that they use and the access to information that teams in general managers have or that fans have now.
I attended the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference last year, and I saw all the new technology and athletes and coaches and general managers are using to analyze players, put teams together, that sort of thing. I think that it’s great information, but how you use that information is so critical and so important. You can get paralyzed by too much data.
But I’m a numbers person, economics background, so I like to look at those things: the trends, and not necessary plus-minus. I like to look at player efficiency, and different lineups and different things. I hope we start to see more of that in the women’s game, both at the professional and collegiate level. I think that we’ll make much more savvy decisions in certain aspects.
But I think we’re a long, long away from that, just from a matter of collecting data. I don’t think we’re anywhere near where they are on the NBA side for sure, and even men’s college basketball is just getting there with Brad Stevens of Butler, who is now with the Boston Celtics. But I’m fascinated by it, and I hope to bring a little of that Atlanta, because it will put us in a different mind frame and it will give the coaching staff and myself some different tools to utilize, in addition to the anecdotal things or just watching video or our gut feeling.
Swish Appeal: Glenn Wong and Chris Deubert once wrote about the GM position: "The ability to control an organization and the possibility of leading it to a championship often makes the endless hours, duties, difficulties and lack of job security worth it." What are the hours of a general manager like during the season?
Angela Taylor: That’s easier to answer with what a GM’s hours are not like during the season! In season, off-season for me there’s no difference – it’s as challenging and as intense during the off-season as during in-season for different reasons.
During the off-season, it’s about preparations, it’s about being ready for when the players get back from overseas and training camp kicks off, launching into that championship contention. So you have to be up on what your players are doing – player development is huge in both Coach Cooper’s mind and my mind, making sure that our players are getting healthy, staying healthy, and that they’re in great shape and they’re ready for the season.
And at we’re prepared on our end, our scouting, looking at free agents, international players, or the top college seniors. So it’s a constant grind in the off-season.
In the in-season, it’s a little different, because not you have the games and you have that excitement and all the work in the off-season? …. You have the tangible evidence of whether or not it’s paying off. And so the hours are very similar during both, if you’re me, because you live and die with basketball.
And it’s fun! To be able to watch all of these games, to be able to talk to our players and keep in touch with them. I think that Malcolm Gladwell talked about the psychic benefits of owning a professional sports team. I think it’s very similar for general managers and coaches in that this is different than any other business in the world. You put in a lot of hours whether you’re at IBM, or at Twitter or Bing or whatever company you’re at? But here, there’s that and your players and your team – when you cut down the nets at the end of the year and raise that trophy.
Swish Appeal: What is on your desk right now? For example, what will you being today or next week?
Angela Taylor: First, we’re looking to hire an assistant coach. We’ve had great interest in the second assistant spot, so we’ll be looking at a lot of coaches and former players and people that are interested in being part of our organization.
We’ll be looking at our organizational chart – I’m a huge believer in that you win with people. The people that are part of this organization, that are part of this team, on the business side, no matter what their titles or roles are, they’re critical. We’ll be spending a lot of time getting to know those individuals currently on staff and those individuals that we may be interested in bringing on board.
Scouting college seniors – a lot of tape to watch. Looking at international players or other free agents that are out on the market. Anticipating when free agency does begin, getting ready to get on the horn and talk to those potential free agents, and setting down with Coach Cooper and Coach [Karleen] Thompson and trying to evaluate what our roster looks like now, what we need to do to get better, philosophically what we’re going to do from an Xs and Os standpoint.
My to-do list is exceptionally long. But it’s exciting. Just the energy and the excitement behind trying to put a championship together is what you live for.