NBA commissioner Adam Silver arrived at July’s board of governors meeting hoping to appeal to his owners’ sense of partnership. Let’s pursue a gentlemen’s agreement on policing ourselves, he said, sparing the brunt of the burden from falling upon the league’s head coaches.
In the Wynn Hotel ballroom on the Las Vegas Strip, Silver told the gathering, which included owners, team presidents and general managers, what they shouldn’t want this season and beyond — an implementation of “draconian rules” legislating the legitimacy of real or imagined injuries, especially in marquee television games.
It wouldn’t be long until one ownership voice spoke out, Phoenix’s Robert Sarver, insisting NBA teams would never work so cooperatively in today’s cutthroat competitive environment. Witnesses say Sarver insisted that sitting multiple starters for games or All-Stars in national television matchups had to be met with real league office rules and real punishment — or nothing would change.
Sarver gathered enough ownership support to prod Silver into sending the issue to the league’s competition committee to make a formal recommendation to the board of governors. Essentially, that cast aside the possibility of self-policing and pushed a reluctant commissioner to potentially use his office’s power to administer fines and punishments on several new fronts this season.
And make no mistake: Silver will be aggressive in making sure he gets the two-thirds majority of the owners’ votes needed to fine teams for sitting healthy star players in national television games or multiple healthy starters in regular-season games, and for failing to make a star player sitting out visually accessible to fans on the bench.
As Silver told the board of governors gathering this summer, he had never wanted the commissioner’s office to get into the business of regulating the work of individual teams’ medical staffs. Yet, they’ll all have to find a way to make this work — and it could get complicated.
While yes, the NBA is sensitive to the ticket-buying public losing out on the chance to see LeBron James or Stephen Curry on a once-a-season trip out of their conference, this is ultimately a television-revenue issue. The network games on ABC, ESPN and TNT were punctured when the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs turned national appearances into split-squad spring training games. Silver has been hellbent on a solution.
The NBA largely eliminated back-to-back games around teams’ national television appearances. The plan to discipline teams resting players, along with NBA draft lottery reform, are both mandates the commissioner is pushing hard to get passed.
The resting rules have been met with little resistance. Silver has mostly sold it to owners as an economic issue. He has warned that the NBA’s future revenues and growth are directly tied to solving the resting issue, because that problem ultimately threatens regular-season and playoff ratings — never mind the cumulative cost of eroding interest in the sport.
In the relatively immediate aftermath of David Stern’s dictatorial commissionership, Silver didn’t go to war over his 2014 draft lottery reform plan. At the height of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ grand experiment, the league office feared more teams trying such a dramatic tanking route and it attempted to push through more sweeping changes to the lottery. In the end, small- and mid-market general managers convinced owners that it was an overreaction, that flattening out the chances for the teams with the worst records to get higher picks in the draft would turn into another disadvantage for markets that aren’t destinations for free agents. For the Charlottes and Atlantas, Detroits and Sacramentos, Clevelands and Oklahoma Citys, the chances of landing a superstar free agent are modest, so why especially penalize franchises that might make only an occasional appearance in the draft lottery? The target might be the repeat lottery offenders, but the collateral damage could have set back other franchises years.
There was something looming over the 2014 draft reform vote too: the next collective bargaining agreement. Philadelphia inspired some fear within other teams, because owner Josh Harris was the chair of the NBA’s revenue sharing committee. That, along with a relentless lobbying campaign, turned three or four expected no votes into 13, and ultimately kept the NBA short of the two-thirds majority needed for lottery reform passage.
This time, it’s a different NBA landscape. Silver’s relationships and leverage have been further forged. For everyone, he’s going to be hard to beat on these initiatives. The competition committee is composed of several strong, independent-minded executives and coaches — including San Antonio’s RC Buford, Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, Toronto’s Masai Ujiri and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. Still, there was a belief in the room that the group needed to be supportive of the commissioner’s agenda, and ultimately, they delivered his full plan to the owners for the Sept. 28 vote.
In the end, the NBA’s owners couldn’t trust one another enough to honor this massive global financial partnership and simply play the best players on the biggest television nights of the season. Of course, this way, the owners also don’t have to grapple with their GMs and coaches on basketball choices. This way, they can let Adam Silver do it.
This time, too, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association isn’t taking no for an answer.