In January, Suns owner Robert Sarver blamed the team's deteriorating relationship with Markieff Morris on an entire generation's purported habits. "I'm not sure it's just the NBA," Sarver said. "My whole view of the millennial culture is that they have a tough time dealing with setbacks, and Markieff Morris is the perfect example. He had a setback in the offseason, and he can't seem to recover from it."
Sarver went on: "I'm not sure if it's the technology or the instant gratification of being online. But the other thing is, I'm not a fan of social media. I tell my kids it's like Fantasyland. The only thing people put online are good things that happen to them, or things they make up. And it creates unrealistic expectations."
The comments received backlash from different places. ESPN's Brian Windhorst pointed out the hypocrisy of an NBA owner referring to instant gratification when teams continue to fire coaches at the first sign of trouble. Just days before his comments, the Suns fired two assistant coaches. Shortly after, head coach Jeff Hornacek was out the door, replaced by interim coach Earl Watson.
Another group of people took note of Sarver's comments: millennial experts. Yes, they exist. In fact, many of those I spoke to have worked closely with Fortune 500 companies and appear to have built a great career out of spending time understanding a generation people tend to categorize as lazy and entitled. According to Jason Dorsey, a millennial expert who has studied generational trends for more than a decade, if Morris is just another millennial, then Sarver is just another person who is generalizing them. "When people act entitled, [it is] often learned behavior," Dorsey said. "It's his generation that raised this generation."
Joan Kuhl, who launched a company called Why Millennials Matter in 2014 and has worked with young professionals and consulted for companies including Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson, expressed her disappointment at Sarver's comments as well. "He's just like every other CEO or managing director," Kuhl said. "This is a leadership issue. The majority of people left their jobs last year because of their boss and not because of their position. Leadership has a huge impact on your morale, your engagement and your performance."
While experts seem to agree that Sarver's comments are problematic and indicative of how the majority of people view millennials, there's another issue they have problems agreeing on: the definition of what a millennial is. Kuhl believes millennials are anyone born from 1980 to 2000. Dorsey defines millennials as anyone born from 1977 to 1995 ("I'm barely a millennial, baby!" Dorsey, who is 37, exclaims over the phone). Defining a generation by age range is in itself a generalization.
There's also the impact of geography. Where a person grows up will impact his or her way of thinking and approach to life. Within the millennial group, those in their 20s are in a different stage of life than those in their 30s. So millennials as a focus of study are defined in three broader ways: parenting trends, changes in technology and formative events.
The handful of experts interviewed were all very business-like, divulging knowledge by using corporate examples, relaying data and findings that they've come upon by working with companies that are trying to reach out to a millennial consumer base, and often times hoping to better relate to their own employees. In some ways, these issues are transferable to the NBA. As the topic of Kevin Durant and the Thunder's overprotective approach with their star player comes up, Kuhl expresses her concern.
"I'd rather arm young people with the tools to handle themselves than block them from the world," Kuhl said. "It's like the parents that shelter you. For someone like him, you want them to grow from these experiences. You're holding him back and not letting him grow by himself."
Durant has also responded to criticism from fans and media on Twitter. NBA players face a barrage of unnecessary and often inappropriate comments on their social media feeds. For that, Kuhl suggests unplugging, a strategy LaMarcus Aldridge embraced earlier this season when he deleted his Twitter and Instagram after a loss to the Warriors.
"The social media today is so overwhelming," Kuhl said. "It makes you feel underwhelmed about your own accomplishments, your own life, your own relationships. It's got major psychological impact."
Another common topic among millennial experts is diversity in the workplace and the importance of mentoring. "High-performing teams have diversity," Dorsey said. "You need people who are shoulder-to-shoulder with you. You don't learn as fast when you don't have that diversity."
Dorsey explains two scenarios. In the first, 10 people who have never completed a task are put together in the same room. In the second, there are nine people who've never completed the task, but one who has. The first one sounds like the Philadelphia 76ers, while the second is closer to the Timberwolves pairing Kevin Garnett as a mentor for Karl-Anthony Towns.
In the case of the 76ers, they received a lot of criticism for not providing the best work environment for rookie Jahlil Okafor to grow in. Responding to the need for a mentor, the team recently signed Elton Brand out of retirement to give itself at least one respectable veteran voice in the locker room.
"Pressure can come from having more financially," Kuhl said. "The sharp lens that's on you when you're a public figure. We need to be intentional about mentorship. [Teams] need to think holistically about players. Management needs to stop thinking about not just results but about the wellness of their players."
Experts also suggest coaches embrace the information age. Ditch the phone, drop the voicemail routine, join a group chat, or even engage with players on social media.
But can millennial experts actually help NBA teams? It would make for must-see television if Byron Scott and D'Angelo Russell had a meeting mediated by one, or if Gregg Popovich learned how to Snapchat with Kawhi Leonard. But athletes operate in a completely different world with circumstances few can relate to. To treat these players as typical millennials would be incorrectly generalizing them as well.
It's not like professional sports teams haven't tried engaging with millennials. Last offseason, the San Francisco 49ers consulted with Stanford researchers for advice on how to better communicate with their players. But teams already have their own support systems, with psychologists and other staff members on hand to work through communication issues. The experts believe they can lend a unique perspective, but they may have to wait until millennials actually become a majority of the ownership group. That will take a few more decades.
As for Morris, after sulking through most of the season, he was re-inserted into the starting lineup after Hornacek's firing and built up his trade value enough for the Suns to move him to the Wizards at the trade deadline last week in exchange for a first-round pick. He is now on a team with aspirations of making the playoffs, away from an organization he felt betrayed by after they traded his twin brother, Marcus. In the end, Morris got what he wanted. Does this mean he was rewarded for his so-called "millennial behavior," and learned nothing from it?
"We can't just say it's typical millennial behavior because of his age," Kuhl said. "That entitled behavior is too much money and fame at too young of an age without the character or values to keep things in perspective. To me, his spoiled-brat behavior is more about who he is as a person. Maybe he did get what he wanted in the short term, but in the long run, things may shift."
Then she concluded by unintentionally summarizing why the behavior Sarver described goes unpunished in the NBA. "We're talking about sports," Kuhl said, "where people hire on talent and not necessarily based on character."