Five things to hope for from commissioner Adam Silver’s NBA
By Ben Golliver
David Stern, the NBA’s king, is dead. Well, that’s not quite right. The king has scheduled his own death for February 1, 2014. Long live the king, and Adam Silver, his understudy and hand-picked successor.
The timing of Stern’s decision to exit stage left makes all the sense in the world: he just turned 70, 2014 is squarely in the middle of the league’s current collective bargaining agreement, and the NBA is in the midst of a golden age, driven to new heights by stars like LeBron James and the rise of digital communication and social media. Importantly, Silver will have a few years to get his feet wet before the next round of labor negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association, expected to take place in 2017.
Once he steps down, Stern will have been synonymous with the NBA for three full decades; a solid chunk of basketball fans can’t remember, or weren’t alive for, the pre-Stern days. If you’re 40 or under, chances are you think of Larry O’Brien as a trophy and not a person.
A Silver regime, then, represents totally new territory and brings nothing but questions. Stern and Silver are nearly inseparable these days and have worked closely together on numerous deals, including recent television and labor negotiations. What will change when two becomes one? What will Silver work to maintain? Where will he cast off on his own?
There’s no way to know for sure, especially 15 months in advance of the transfer of power. Heck, 15 months in the NBA is enough time to retire and come back twice. But Stern’s final day as boss will eventually come. When that happens, here are five things to hope for from commissioner Adam Silver’s NBA.
1. A warmer tone
Stern has always been at his best when his quick-witted sarcasm was delivered as punchline rather than a put down. In recent years, and particularly during the most recent labor negotiations, the latter started to eclipse the former. As the face of his league and its owners, his bellicose turns cast a dark cloud. Sure, Stern is subject to the same extreme over-analysis that presidential candidates deal with during their debates, but he often looked like his job was a chore or a bore. Professional sports are supposed to be precisely the opposite of that, for fans, and that’s where Silver comes in.
There’s the obvious age factor — Silver is 20 years younger than Stern — but there’s a personality difference too. Yes, the two executives can complete each other’s sentences, but Silver, largely because of Stern’s presence, has never come off as if he believes he’s the smartest guy in the room, even if he usually is. He enjoys good relationships with national media members, often calling them by their first name during press conferences, and he’s always been happy to play along when fans at the NBA Draft chant “Sexy Silver” or cheer him vigorously while he announces the second round picks. He comes off as if he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
No question, there’s an experienced, cutthroat and incredibly intelligent business executive behind that exterior. Silver, for example, showed himself to be unbending and tireless in his pursuit of key issues during the lockout. The hope here is that his measured personality, properly sized ego and occasional shy smile will foster a different climate than we’ve seen over the last few years. When it comes to choosing between being feared and loved, we know which side Stern would rush to, without a second thought. Given the commissioner’s basic job description — making millions of dollars for a small group of millionaires and billionaires — Silver surely realizes being loved isn’t truly an option for him. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t take quite as much pleasure from being feared as Stern did, because a more fun, more diplomatic league would be the result.
2. Increased commitment to revenue sharing
Silver said the words “competitive balance” so many times during the 2011 lockout that, by the end, he was bordering on pull-string doll status. While “competitive balance” morphed into a be-all, end-all excuse for every league desire, specifically slashing the players’ cut of Basketball-Related Income so as to virtually guarantee profits to the owners, Silver’s commitment to the ideal seemed to transcend mere greed. If there was anyone who articulated ownership’s varying internal demands — small markets fighting to stay afloat, big markets wanting to hold on to what they believed was their fair share — it was Silver.
The NBA emerged from the lockout with a bolstered revenue sharing plan that will see hundreds of millions of dollars transferred from richer teams to poorer teams over the course of the current agreement. Revenue sharing won’t necessarily give 30 teams the same ability to field a winner but it will increase the odds that all 30 teams can be profitable. The more healthy teams, it would seem, the better off for everyone.
Long-term, the issue is far from resolved, considering the gigantic regional television contracts available to the league’s big-market teams that dwarf the dollars available to the have-nots. After a summer that saw Steve Nash and Dwight Howard wind up with the Los Angeles Lakers, the calls for competitive balance on the court aren’t going anywhere. That’s not the worst thing in the world, as this issue should be a sweet spot for Silver, given his prominence in both negotiating television rights deals and the labor negotiations. It could take two or three (or way more) rounds of collective bargaining agreements to get to a point where “competitive balance” is a reality rather than a buzzword. Silver seems like a patient fellow who isn’t going anywhere. Let’s hope he can see this one through.
3. Improved player relations
Over the last decade, the NBA has adopted a number of policies that were far more popular with its season ticketholders than they were with its players. That list starts with the dress code, of course, but also includes harsher punishment for on-court incidents, a stricter drug testing policy, a one-and-done rule that prevents players from entering the NBA out of high school, harsh penalties for criticizing officials, a Twitter ban around game times, a time limit on pre-game handshakes, and an anti-flopping policy that includes fines and suspensions. Stern has wound up becoming the face of all of those moves, by design, because he’s more than powerful enough to take the full brunt of the criticism.
“That’s one of the problems with being the boss,” Stern said about the pushback on his anti-flopping program on Thursday. “You’ve got to make these decisions and then you open yourself up to a variety of critics, and I accept that.”
Even though he’s worked in lockstep with Stern for years, Silver, the No. 2 man, has been shielded from much of that criticism and the animosity from the league’s players. His promotion, then, offers an opportunity to reformulate the relationship between league office and athletes.
Silver began that process with a somewhat unexpected and unprompted olive branch on Thursday. “I want to say to the players, it’s a privilege for me over the past 20 years to work with some of the greatest athletes in the world who play the greatest game in the world,” he said. “From that standpoint, what an honor to be in this position.”
That’s exactly right. It’s a privilege and an honor for any lawyer/executive, no matter how supremely talented, to market 450 of the best basketball players in the world. Hopefully Silver keeps that thought in the back of his mind throughout his tenure, especially when labor negotiations get rough.
4. Improved fan relations
Look, no one besides Michael Jordan and a few other superstars is responsible for converting more hearts and minds to hoops than Stern. He is a visionary and a marketing genius. Over the last few years, though, Stern hasn’t hidden his preference: he would rather cultivate tens of millions of new fans in new markets like China, India and Brazil, rather than ensure an ideal experience for the hundreds of thousands of fans in Seattle and Sacramento. No clear-thinking businessman or businesswoman would criticize the general “follow the profits” approach; everyone in the league benefits from an increased global profile. It’s not the strategy, so much as the execution. Before making such a point of embarking on a worldwide duck hunt, it’s best to make sure the domestic ducks are in a row.
Stern was a regular presence during the years-long process that saw the SuperSonics move from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Stern tried to help forge a new arena deal between the Maloofs and the city of Sacramento last season. But did he do enough? Did he do everything he possibly could on behalf of the average fan? Sonics fans and Kings fans would surely agree that he hasn’t.
Could either situation have been improved or avoided if they had drawn a greater share of the league’s attention? We probably can’t know the answer to that question. We do know that it’s not enough for a commissioner to tell a fan base that has gone through as much as Sacramento’s has that it should just keep buying tickets and hope everything turns out alright. “My advice to Sacramento is to continue the enormous support that you have shown for the team, and we’ll see what the next steps turn out to be,” Stern said on Thursday. In effect, “Just keeping hanging in limbo. No promises.”
Minutes later, Stern said that he and Silver sit around and occasionally say to themselves: “Let’s think about the fans, our ultimate customers who we are supposed to make happy if we’re going to continue to thrive.”
Coming so quickly after his comments regarding Sacramento, it was hard to take Stern at his word there, even given his tremendous record on growing the game and managing fan relations. With no real push for expansion brewing and a number of existing markets (Sacramento, Charlotte, New Orleans, etc.) that can use help, Silver will be presented with an excellent opportunity, and no excuses, to begin his era on the right foot with his league’s most devoted and vulnerable followers.
5. Continued transparency with the officiating
As long as the NBA has human referees, point spreads, bang/bang plays and instant replay, it will have a problem with its officiating in the eyes of a substantial portion of its audience. One of the savviest developments in the wake of the Tim Donaghy scandal was the increase in transparency and accountability from the league’s officiating bureaucracy. It took several years, but now the NBA’s officials have a meaningful online presence that includes a website that explains complicated rules, provides breakdowns of controversial calls, and, most importantly, occasionally even admits errors!
Overturned calls or rescinded decisions don’t have the ability to impact wins and losses. With such a touchy topic, it’s the thought that counts. Every fan has felt jobbed by the guys in stripes; official confirmation of an official’s mistake may not ease the pain, but it at least sends a message that the league is truly committed to getting every call correct. While such admissions might temporarily bruise the ego of the referee who got it wrong, the big picture strategy works in their benefit: a more knowledgeable and informed audience is, generally speaking, a more forgiving audience.
Technology is instrumental on this one. Fifteen years ago, the league couldn’t quickly disseminate a video explaining why a specific call was correct or incorrect. Today, it can be done, start-to-finish, in a matter of minutes. As the league continues to ramp up its in-game video review processes and continues with its post-game evaluations of every call made by its officials, Silver has the ability to keep bringing his league’s fans under the hood for the fastest, clearest and most accurate interpretations of the games they just watched. Donaghy compelled Stern to take some of these measures; Silver, hopefully, will continue to implement and expand them because it’s good for business and the consumer.