Stray Shots: David Stern Legacy Edition
• Having covered the NBA for a relatively brief time, I’ve no real relationship with David Stern. Our first interaction, suitably terrifying, occurred just three months ago in Las Vegas, when I asked Stern and Adam Silver a question about revenue sharing at a Board of Governors press conference during summer league. I only got my name and media affiliation out before Stern interrupted me, wagging his index finger and repeating two or three times, “Oh, so you’re the one.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was pretty sure Stern was already dispatching henchmen to ransack my hotel room and/or track down my loved ones.
It is for other people, including those who worked with and against him for three decades, to hash out Stern’s legacy. He is a bit of a bully, with a legendary temper that set league office employees on edge. He is also a creative thinker and a visionary who has been willing to admit, when asked the right questions, how fortunate he was to take the job when he did — in 1984, as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were taking the league from tape delay to prime time, and as Michael Jordan and Nike were beginning their dual rise to an unprecedented level of fame that would change sports forever. The next 15 months will feature hagiographies to Stern, and the NBA will rightfully honor him as the steward who negotiated mammoth television deals, understood the importance of media, took risks both successful (the Dream Team) and less successful (the NBA’s ongoing venture into China) to expand the game globally, and always operated with the best interests of the league — and its owners — in mind. Another part of that legacy: He and the players union pioneered the salary cap system, now common in other sports, that links player salaries in the aggregate with league revenues and simultaneously limits what each team can spend.
(The fact that Stern has constructed a 15-month retirement timeline for himself is weird, and puts Silver in a strange position. It also gives Stern a chance to get the NBA — the Kings, really — to Seattle under his watch, making up for his stated regrets, something Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo first reported today.)
Being commissioner meant frequent strong-arming and unpopular decisions, including four separate lockouts (if you include the lockout of the referees before the 2009-10 season), hundreds of missed games, and interminable hotel stakeouts. There are other, more awkward examples of Stern alienating fans and stakeholders for what he rightly or wrongly believed was the NBA’s greater good. The most infamous would include the institution of the dress code, Stern’s puzzling role in the league’s duplicitous departure from Seattle, and the vetoing of the initial Chris Paul deal, a decision Stern made after publicly promising not to meddle in the Hornets’ personnel matters. Even discarding Dan Gilbert’s mysteriously leaked e-mail objecting to the trade, it is impossible to believe Stern made that call without at least considering how the deal looked on its face — helping the juggernaut Lakers — and how the other 29 owners responded to news of the proposal.
The veto also indisputably helped the Hornets, even though the no. 1 pick they received from the Wolves was not the pick that won the Anthony Davis lottery.
There were other, lesser acts of emperorship — the microfiber basketballs; all the pithy and arrogant lockout justifications; and even forgotten acts like the creation, from thin air, of bonus draft picks for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s as a means of making the team more attractive to its future purchaser after its incumbent owner, Ted Stepien, traded just about every future pick Cleveland had. He was disingenuous at times in the way he wielded information during the recent lockout, skewing the math to fit the league’s argument — an expected negotiating tactic. All for the good of the league.
This kind of stuff is the inevitable collateral damage of a prolonged commissionership aimed almost completely at grabbing as much profit as possible. The NBA’s failure to detect Tim Donaghy’s gambling stands as an outlier for which the league can never truly be forgiven.
But the broader narrative is one of growth and success, and Stern has been happy to remind folks of all the “forces” (a word he likes to use) beyond his control that contributed to that success. He has openly admitted the NBA was initially opposed to allowing its players onto Team USA for the Olympics, an idea that really came from a high-ranking Serbian FIBA official.
It is very difficult to suss out one man’s contributions in a phenomenon as complex as the rise of professional basketball. But Stern quite clearly helped the process along, by thinking creatively, understanding very early the importance of television and international growth, and, most of all, by working his ass off. In Jack McCallum’s must-read book Dream Team, Rick Welts, currently a Golden State Warriors executive who was in charge of sponsorships at the NBA during Stern’s early years, reflects about how hard it was to suck in advertisers at that time. “The perception was that the NBA was mismanaged, too many African Americans, too many drug accusations, too many teams going out of business,” Welts told McCallum. “I’d call advertising agencies, and to get a return call was remarkable if you had NBA attached to your name. I’d come home beaten and battered after twelve hours of rejection, and the phone would ring in my room at ten o’clock. It would be David, and after 15 minutes, I’d be charged up and ready to go again.”
The NBA needed an ass-kicker and a worker in its early years, and that was Stern.
• The job of commissioner now falls to Silver, well-liked around the league for his thoughtfulness and (compared to Stern) gentler demeanor. There will not be any revolutionary changes in the early years of Silver’s tenure. He’ll have to settle in, prove his mettle as a negotiator without Stern, and steer the NBA on its current path of even more growth and revenue. There was some fear that the acrimony of the lockout — the notion that neither big-market nor small-market owners got what they wanted — would build resentment toward Silver and hurt his chances of succeeding Stern. That he has won unanimous approval is notable, and perhaps evidence that the newer guard of ownership — the private-equity folks and those for whom the NBA is a side gig — really have grown to view Silver as their guy.
Silver, according to folks who know him, is a creative thinker open to new ideas — and more open than Stern to discussing significant out-of-the-box ways to change the NBA. As Henry Abbott noted at ESPN.com on Thursday, Silver has been doing the nitty-gritty day-to-day work with Stern for a while now. It was obvious at those horrid 3 a.m. lockout press conferences. When someone would ask a very technical questions about something like the mini mid-level exception, Stern would turn to Silver and yield the floor.
Silver has been at the forefront of the league’s embrace of the Internet, social media, and all sorts of fancy technologies coming down the line to your TV and your favorite team’s arena. You know how the NBA allows writers (ahem) to swipe video clips from broadcasts without throwing an intellectual property fit? Silver has a lot to do with that. He is known to go home, watch games, and pepper people all around the league about why this or that part of the social media/television viewing experience isn’t as good as it could be, and how the league might make it better.
He has been a huge champion of the D-League, even sitting in last season at the league’s owners’ meeting and speaking there about the league’s importance going forward. Silver will continue using the D-League as an incubator for both rule changes and other structural adjustments to the game, and there is hope among folks in the D-League sphere that Silver will continue pushing for a true minor league system. That might eventually include one D-League team per franchise, and/or a revamped NBA roster with extra hybrid spots allowing teams to control more players they can shuttle back-and-forth to the minors.
The D-League has already implemented FIBA-style rules that allow players to knock the ball off the rim. It has managed to shorten games, something in which Silver is said to be interested going forward. It’s unclear how much Silver personally had to do with the recent crackdowns on pre-game introductions and player lollygagging after timeouts — moves Stern has publicly praised — but there is the sense around the league that Silver is interested in finding ways to get games closer to two hours in length. (I discussed some possible methods here.)
Silver is also said to be open to larger discussions about game length, rules, and even the structure of the draft.
Again: This is all big-picture stuff that will come far down the line or not at all. Silver has to last in the job and keep his eye on labor issues that may or may not continue festering as the collective bargaining agreement’s mutual opt-out date approaches in 2017. But people around the league are cautiously excited about the conversations they might be able to have with Silver that they couldn’t really have with Stern.
• I’m on record as a skeptic on the notion that the league can do anything meaningful to engineer more “competitive balance,” the catchphrase of the lockout. Basketball has always been the least balanced of the four major professional sports. Teams need star players to win, and the best way to get those star players is through the draft — and all the skill, luck, and timing breaks that go into getting one that way. From there, it’s a matter of making smart decisions around that star player — nailing a good percentage of future draft picks, developing young players, and (especially) using free agency wisely during the precious offseasons in which your franchise guy might still be on his rookie deal.
The league during the lockout made a ton of noise about the unfairness of a system in which the Lakers spend $100 million and the Kings spend half that. But the Kings (and the Spurs, and Wolves, and Cavaliers, and Magic, and other small- or mid-market teams) have repeatedly blown by the luxury tax after acquiring the talent necessary to open a championship window. In other words: The acquisition of that talent was the variable, not a team’s financial well-being. There is no easy way to legislate for this other stuff — luck, management skill, sunshine, and a hot club scene.
But the league in the new collective bargaining deal has tried to do that, at least on the fringes, and Silver has always struck me as a competitive-balance true believer. The owners might have used “competitive balance” as a fan-friendly way to hold the players hostage for more money, but Silver really believes the NBA can achieve greater parity — the sort of parity that would generate more fan interest and gobs of money.
I’m open to the possibility he’s right and I’m wrong. Profitability, via insane local TV deals and willing owners, has helped the big-market teams work with a larger margin of error under both the old and new CBAs. They could send $3 million in cash in any individual trade. They were happy to flip expiring contracts tied to unproductive players to small-market teams in exchange for good second or third bananas on bloated deals. (The Pau Gasol deal is the very best example of this.) They could engage in sign-and-trade an extend-and-trade deals with non-glamour teams holding unhappy superstars, giving those superstars a desired new home and max money.
It didn’t always work, obviously. The correlation between spending and winning isn’t strong, and as outlined above, the causation is problematic and perhaps non-existent. The Knicks were terrible for many years in which they outspent the world.
But profitability has at least emboldened the bigger teams to act like sharks. The new CBA has dealt with that by both eating away at those profits (via revenue-sharing and a harsh new luxury tax) and taking away player-acquisition tools from teams that spend up to the luxury tax threshold (and above). Those teams have a lesser mid-level exception, and starting this summer, they won’t be able to engage in the kind of sign-and-trade deals through which New York and the Lakers acquired Marcus Camby and Steve Nash, respectively. The league has made extend-and-trades, like the Carmelo Anthony deal, borderline non-starters by forcing such players to accept shorter contracts and smaller raises. The league has increased, by a tiny and almost meaningless margin, the gap between what a free agent (think Kevin Love in three years, when the Lakers should have cap space) can get by re-signing with his own team and what a rival can offer.
Silver will be at the forefront of studying whether any of this actually makes a difference, beyond the window dressing of squeezing payrolls a bit closer together and making all 30 teams (in theory) profitable. Do these tweaks stop the Lakers from pairing Dwight Howard and Love, or simply prevent them from overpaying Steve Blake and Metta World Peace?
If it’s more the latter, will Silver be willing to consider more dramatic changes? And will he have the clout to sell the owners on those changes? Remember that the entire system is interconnected. Engineering deeper competitive balance could involve everything — the draft, the length of rookie contracts, cap rules, and lifting or eliminating ceilings on player salaries so that superstars would have to take massive pay cuts in order to join up. Heck, “competitive balance” also implicates the very foundation of the league — the length of the season, game times, and the use of long seven-game playoff series.
Silver is said to be at least open to having these conversations, provided he keeps the job long enough to have them in a serious way. That kind of openness is always good for the league’s well-being.