Back in February, at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business, David Stern gave a lecture on his commissionership and his 30-year tenure with the National Basketball Association.
Afterward, Commissioner Stern was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time to discuss a number of things related to the NBA, its business, the new labor agreement and some of the issues that Commission Adam Silver has already had to deal with over the course of the early going of his tenure.
“[Adam]’s doing a great job,” Stern told Basketball Insiders.
“He’s entitled to it. He’s been with me for 22 years in five different positions, but he’s always reported to me. As I told the owners, he’s ready and he’s proven it in the first year of his commissionership by 110 percent.”
During the last round of labor negotiations, it was Silver who was the most active voice for the league and its interests. Having already emerged as an influential figure and ally for Stern, the league and its players eventually ratifying what many saw as a more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement was a sign of good things to come.
The swiftness with how he dealt with the Donald Sterling situation and the league’s $24 billion television deal are two other episodes that reflect positively on the new commissioner.
“I think it’s something that we got to but it is where we were going,” Stern told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s great and I’m very excited for Adam and the owners and the franchise values. I had no doubt it would happen, but it’s great to see it actually happen.”
Indeed, as I spoke with Stern about Silver “hitting the ground running,” the league was still two weeks away from the 2015 All-Star Weekend, and by this point, there had been a lot of concern coming from the players union regarding the toll that travel and four games in five-night stretches had on players over the course of the long season.
Quite a few general managers shared those concerns and it quickly became something quite rare—an issue upon which the league’s management and its players union agreed.
A few weeks later, in addressing the media at Barclays Center on All-Star Saturday night, Silver let it be known that the league had taken note of the concerns that had been shared by both its Board of Governors and the union, and he addressed them, head-on. The hope, according to Silver, is to eliminate the four games in five nights and to both reduce travel frequency and even back-to-backs.
The other elephant in the room, however, was playoff reform. It is something that even the league’s players were discussing, and in several conversations with the likes of Wesley Matthews, Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and Damian Lillard, the prevailing sentiment from them was that reform was something that would ultimately benefit the league, its playoff system and competitive balance.
And for all that he has done so far, including taking a long, hard look at lottery form, it is that—playoff reform—which will be the first decision that Silver makes (or, at the very least, guides) that will have a direct impact on the on-court product of the league.
“[Playoff reform] is something that’s been talked about for a very long time,” Stern told Basketball Insiders. Still, the former commissioner, showing reverence to his understudy, refused to go on record with a recommendation as to what he thinks Silver should do.
“Let’s wait and see what [Silver] does,” Stern said with a smile. “I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.”
And as we chatted about the state of the NBA, some of his regrets from his 30-year tenure with the league and how he currently spends his time, I remembered being at Madison Square Garden when Stern announced the drafting of LeBron James. I remembered how he, along with the other superstars of today—Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry—assisted veteran ticket sellers like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett with the continued thriving of the league in the box office.
Amazingly, as I have had a first-hand view over the past 10 years, I realized, standing in front of the gray and clearly (although gracefully) aging Stern, that time truly does fly.
* * * * *
It has been 11 long years since the NBA realigned and divided its 30 teams into six divisions. With the Charlotte Hornets being reintegrated into the league as the Bobcats, the league had 30 teams competing and the four divisions—the Atlantic, Central, Pacific and Midwest—had seemingly become a bit too cramped.
The league realigned and it took 11 long years for the improbable to happen. As the want for playoff seeding changes became universal and Silver addressed the issue at All-Star Weekend, the league would see one of the most competitive playoff races in its history conclude with the 45-win Oklahoma City Thunder failing to qualify out in the Western Conference. For the first time since the realignment, all five teams from one division qualified for the postseason.
The Southwest Division—long having been the most competitive in the entire league—finally made modern history. Four teams won at least 50 games and the New Orleans Pelicans—by virtue of defeating the San Antonio Spurs on the final night of the regular season—squeaked past the injury-riddled Thunder, by virtue of a tie-breaker, for the final playoff spot in the conference.
Meanwhile, had the Thunder won 45 games as an Eastern Conference team, they would have earned the sixth seed and would have engaged in a competitive first round battle with the Chicago Bulls. It came as no surprise, then, when the league announced that it was moving forward with the recommendation that playoff seedings no longer be determined by division standing.
That is something that Basketball Insiders argued in this very space, as the Spurs dropped their seven-game first round series to the Los Angeles Clippers. The two teams did battle as the third and sixth seeds, despite the fact that each had a better record than the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
The 56-win Clippers hosted the 55-win Spurs while the 51-win Blazers, by virtue of their fourth seed, did battle with the 55-win Grizzlies. Had the teams simply been aligned by their win-loss record, the Blazers would have drawn the Clippers in the first round while the Spurs would have battled the Grizzlies.
That would have robbed the fans of what many consider to have been the best playoff series of this past postseason, but it may have resulted in a similarly great second round matchup featuring Spurs trying their luck against the Golden State Warriors.
Regardless, the league should generally want to give teams with the better regular season record better odds of advancing further. In the very recent past, teams, players and coaches have been outspoken in their increasingly firm belief that the regular season “doesn’t matter,” and it is difficult to argue against that in the grand scheme of things.
It becomes impossible to argue that when a 55-win team, by virtue of division and seeding rules, earns a lower seed than a clearly inferior team playing in a weaker division.
With LaMarcus Aldridge leaving Portland to join the Spurs and Durant presumably returning to full health this coming season, it is quite likely that the Northwest Division will again feature just one playoff team. If, at the end of the day, the Thunder earn the fourth seed with a 52-win record and were seeded above the second and third place teams from the Southwest, irrespective of record, that would be more than unfortunate.
That would have been asinine.
Fortunately, Silver recognized this and has recommended a welcomed change.
As we speak, I am told, the league is working through numerous permutations and suggestions as to how to better strike competitive balance during the actual playoffs. From what I understand, the league is not currently considering going with a playoff-seeding approach that will take the top 16 teams across all conferences, but there is a belief that something will be done to severely reduce the probability of a team with a losing record qualifying for the playoffs.
First thing is first, though. And Silver deserves credit.
August 1, 2015 marks exactly 18 months since he took over the helm of the league that we love so dearly. If there is one thing he has proven over these 18 months, it’s that he is not afraid to discuss and tackle the issues that truly matter.
And that is something that his mentor, David Stern, is not surprised by.
“I think he has done a great job,” Stern told me back in February.
“We worked together for 22 years,” he said.
“Sometimes, the line was indiscernible between who was doing ‘it,’ him or me. So our success over much of the last 30 years was a shared enterprise.”
As Silver continues leading the league into tomorrow, expect he and his staff to continue looking at the issues that truly matter—those that impact the on-court product.
After 18 months, it is difficult to disagree with Stern. Yes, Silver has done a great job.
Best rest assured, both lottery reform and an overhaul to the current playoff system are being looked at intently. There is still much work to be done.
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