Stern gone, but stricter days could be ahead for NBA
NEW ORLEANS -- Want to know the difference that a new commissioner can make?
"I would like a harder system to distribute players better," said Adam Silver, "as opposed to the tax system we have in place right now."
As far as Silver was concerned, this was not news. In his old role alongside David Stern and the owners, Silver -- in his former role as NBA deputy commissioner -- had been negotiating with the players for a hard salary cap throughout the lockout year of 2011. In the end, both sides were able to save the 2011-12 season by compromising on a new bargaining agreement with punishing taxes on high-end payrolls.
The system in place now, however, is not an end to itself. It is, as Silver sees it, a bridge to a future in which Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov won't be able to spend $189 million on players and taxes while competing against contenders like the Okahoma City Thunder, who are respecting the tax threshhold while spending 38 percent as much. Where is the fairness in that?
"We have a responsibility at the NBA as the stewards of the game to ensure that the game is played the right way, and those values of the game that people like Bill Bradley talk about are executed properly," Silver said in his debut news conference Saturday at All-Star Weekend. "We at the league office are thinking about those things every day. So you have my commitment that I am focused on the game. Ultimately that's what this is about."
He was standing at his new podium to introduce himself to a global fan base that had grown used to their commissioner of the previous 30 years, for better and for worse. Though Silver had spent 22 of those years working under Stern, he presented himself and his views with the energy of a fresh perspective, as if he were seeing the game and its league for the first time and taking none of its strengths and ideals for granted.
"The league certainly has changed my life -- the game of basketball has," said Silver, 51. "I'm the youngest of four children from my parents, and I have a half sister as well. But when I was growing up my parents were divorced at a young age, and basketball was a game I played on a junior league through my elementary school and then as an older kid. When I was younger, when my parents were first divorced, basketball is what bonded my father and I together."
He was saying, in a way that Stern used to in his early days but no longer could, that he will be vested personally in the game. Therefore all solutions are on the table. "With any institution," he said, "you always need to take a fresh look."
And with this first step forward into public view with Stern nowhere to be seen, Silver was laying down the parameters of his open mindedness. His perspective may be surprising, because he is new, and also because his constituency of owners and players is expecting him to show more respect than they claimed to receive from Stern as he and they grew accustomed to each other over the decades.
Silver is going to be under pressure to grow the league commercially without expansion -- no new teams are forthcoming domestically or internationally, he insisted Saturday -- and especially without doing harm to the game itself. This was the main point that he was seeking to make, and by making it he held himself to the highest standard: That he shall make money without doing harm.
It is like being a Hollywood mogul who makes films to move audiences, or an American president whose impact transcends the squabbling for power. What Silver must do is neither impossible nor straightforward, and it is easier said than done.
Just about everything he was saying Saturday backed up his point of view that the game must be protected. He talked about making refereeing more transparent, which is a necessity that will be backed by the referees themselves. He talked about pursuing a minimum age of 20 -- equal to two years in college -- in order to draft players with more leadership ability while also improving basketball from the colleges all the way down to the youth levels.
"As I travel the league I increasingly hear from our coaches, especially, who feel that many of even the top players in the league could use more time to develop as leaders of college programs," Silver said. "Ultimately this is a team sport, it's not an individual sport ... from a college standpoint if those teams could have an opportunity to jell, to come together, if those players had the benefit to play for some of these great college coaches for longer periods of time, I think it would lead to stronger college basketball and stronger NBA ball as well."
There has been much talk of tanking in the NBA this season, and Silver provided his definition of the term.
"My understanding of tanking would be losing games on purpose," he said. "And there's absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game, or certainly in any time that I've been in the league, on purpose."
That's not true, actually: Many former coaches can tell stories in recent decades of benching their players in order to enhance their team's position in the draft. What is happening this year is that teams are recognizing that the best way to develop a team for the longterm is to build through the draft, which means that losing seasons must be endured.
"What you're referring to, I think, is rebuilding," Silver said. "And I'm not sure it's just a function of the collective bargaining agreement; there's a balance with any team of the need to look out to the future, and at the same time put a competitive product on the floor.
"What we're seeing in the league right now is there's no question that several teams are building towards the future. And I think their fans understand that as well. If there was any indication whatsoever that players or coaches somehow were not doing their absolute most to win a game, we would be all over that. But I don't believe for a second that's what's going on. I think we have the most competitive players in the world, the most competitive coaches, and I think they're doing everything they can to win games."
This issue of tanking strikes at the tension between serving the game and exploiting it. Some would say that the losing franchises that are planning to rebuild through the draft are exploiting the system; others know that those teams are making an investment in the game by sacrificing for the short term in order to develop a roster of lasting value.
It all comes down to growing the league financially while also growing it in ways that aren't measured so easily. The trick of Silver's open mindedness will be to convince owners and players to work together for their greater good.
"That's the most important message you'll hear from the league," he said, "that when collective bargaining comes, we'll deal with whatever issues we need to, but in the meantime we are partners in this league."
He was focusing now on the players, who have yet to find a replacement for their disgraced ex-leader Billy Hunter.
"Their greatest incentive should be to grow this league with us -- at least from a financial standpoint," he said. "And that's going to have such a greater impact ultimately on their salaries than sort of tinkering around with the percentages of BRI (basketball-related income). So I'm looking forward to dealing with a partner in this league, not an adversary, a partner that's going to continue to build this league with me and with the league."
Someday the new commissioner won't be so new on the job anymore. There will be negotiations for another collective bargaining agreement, in which he will argue that a hard cap and an even distribution of players will lead to a more entertaining, less predictable league, and therefore more money for everyone.
Will he be able to make that case? Can they make more money while also making the game better? The answer to that question will be spelled out over the next few years, and whether Silver can build on a strong first impression.