NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The news Thursday night that Steve Ballmer had bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion sparked a lot of criticism of Steve Ballmer.
I've read people complaining that he has overpaid for acquisitions in the past like aQuantive ($6.2 billion) and almost for Yahoo! (YHOO), which he tried to buy for $45 billion. Now he's spending what seems like an enormous amount for the Clippers.
And, of course, people are sending around the YouTube clips of him jumping on stage in front of Microsoft (MSFT) employees and his infamous 2007 CNBC interview in which he downplayed the importance of the iPhone. For 14 years, critics used those episodes to paint Ballmer as a big, dumb buffoon who never should have been picked to run the Microsoft in the first place.
However, these criticisms are off base and unfair. They also certainly don't matter at all in relation to his bid for the LA Clippers, which is being sold by Donald Sterling after, the NBA banded him from basketball for life and fined Sterling $2.5 million on admitting to a racist rant.
I'm not saying Steve Ballmer was a perfect CEO during his time at Microsoft. He could have done better in a number of areas -- most importantly mobile -- and the management development techniques of firing underperformers didn't always create the best culture in its Redmond headquarters.
However, the views of Ballmer are always universally negative. I'm going to take the other side of that argument and outline the rebuttal to these views:1. Ballmer jumps around a lot on stage and he cried saying goodbye to his employees. Is this really a bad thing? Critics portray it as if he's unhinged. Would you rather a CEO who wasn't passionate and didn't care about his people?
2. Sure he missed mobile, but he didn't miss cloud. You could argue that Microsoft is just as strong - if not stronger - in cloud than even Amazon, with its Amazon Web Services. And this strength is going to be a critical asset for Microsoft moving forward.
3. He didn't overpay for Yahoo!. He backed out of it. So you can't criticize him for that. And yet, even if he had, it's trading for $35 billion now and it will likely be worth close to that later after Alibaba starts trading later this year.
4. Ballmer took over as Microsoft CEO at the height of the dot.com bubble. People always like to complain that the stock was down over his tenure. But that's because he took over when the stock was at almost $60. That would be as if we always gave a referendum of John Chambers' tenure at Cisco ( CSCO) by complaining about where the stock was in relation to the $80 level it hit in early 2000. If Ballmer had taken Microsoft over in mid-1996, the stock would have ended up 378% during his tenure. If he'd taken over at the end of 2000, the stock would have been up 50% during his tenure.
5. Did he overpay for aQuantive? Yes. But no one seems to ever mention he underpaid for his stake in Facebook ( FB).
6. Satya Nadella seems to be well-liked by Wall Street and getting the benefit of the doubt. The stock is up almost 9% this year when the Nasdaq is only up 1.6%. A big part of the jump came from Nadella's first earnings call. But isn't the company's "performance" over this period, due to the tail end of Steve's tenure, not Nadella's? Steve blessed the growth of cloud under Nadella. He is owed some credit for allowing a strong manager like Nadella to develop under him.
7. Criticizing iPhone is now a great historical sound-bite. We'll watch it forever. But part of being a CEO is being a cheerleader for your own stuff and pointing out the flaws in others' competitive offerings. He has to say that. Now if Ballmer had said that and been working furiously behind the scenes to put out a stronger mobile phone OS, it would have been even better.
8. You can say that Microsoft totally missed the rise of Android and iOS, but they are still getting paid a lot in royalties by every Android maker every time they sell a phone.
9. Was it "nepotism" that led to Gates picking him as CEO in 2000? Sure, but doesn't Ballmer get credit for quitting Harvard Business School and taking a flyer on being the head of sales for a nascent software company? Such loyalty usually does get rewarded.
10. He's worth $20 billion and, unlike Gates, hasn't really sold any Microsoft shares. Now I don't fault Gates for selling his shares so that he can invest those proceeds into his philanthropic efforts, but I give Ballmer full credit for remaining a full "owner" of Microsoft during his tenure as CEO and now after. You can say he missed some waves of technology, but he always kept his money where his mouth was.