It only took a month for some of the shine to come off of the Adam Silver Era of the NBA.
Through the first 30 days of his tenure, Silver was lauded for his commitment to transparency and his forward-thinking nature. Even Mark Cuban was pleased. During his 1-on-1 with Malcolm Gladwell at the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, however, Silver wasted no time slipping on the cowl of a supervillain. When Gladwell led with a question about players taking a pay cut in the previous CBA negotiations, Silver masterfully dodged and equivocated, pointing out that since revenue had increased, taking a smaller percentage of BRI didn’t constitute a pay cut.
It’s a fine little Gordian Knot of logic. Technically, it’s almost true: the players receive bigger checks — or at least checks of the same size — so they didn’t lose any earnings! Yet that doesn’t come close to passing the smell test; lost earning potential, particularly in an enterprise where the employees are business partners, is a half-step removed from lost earnings. From a commissioner who’d gotten off to such a great start, it was a bit of a downer, a reminder that Silver was in many ways the attack dog of the United Silver/Stern Front during lockout negotiations. When it comes to being a company man and representing the interests of his constituency (the owners), Silver is every bit the boss his predecessor was.
What Silver has going for him that tempers that to a very minor extent is his aforementioned affinity for transparency. There’s no illusion with Silver, his legalese when on the record not withstanding. He’s not shy about the fact that he treats the company line like an Olympic balance beam — and aims for the gold. One might be dejected by the results, but the process is laid bare for anyone who wants to peer through their fingers as the sausage is made.
And Silver knows it. He’ll reel you back in with his willingness to discuss almost anything, even as he’s phrasing the conversation the entire time. Many dismissed the idea of a Draft Wheel when it was first reported as whimsy, yet the idea came from Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren, a man with a certain amount of gravitas around the league. Further, Silver addressed it at length during his sitdown with Gladwell. In fact, he was open to discussion about all sorts of off-the-wall ideas. He talked about a play-in tournament for the eighth seed while acknowledging some of the difficulties of such a scenario. That was another common theme for Silver’s comments; where in the past Stern had more bullishly stuck to his talking points and controlled the tenor of the conversation by drawing a narrow focus on the substance, Silver shines a spotlight on opposing views and recognizes the failings of his own. It’s an effective oratory and negotiating tactic that can make for a sympathetic audience.
Such a crowd allows Silver to pitch his less popular ideas without being fed immediately to the lions. Most prevalent is his desire — nay, downright obsession — with raising the age limit for entering the NBA from 19 to 20. Were he given a magic wand and able to change one thing, he without hesitation named that as his one alteration to the league landscape. Again, Silver was transparent about his reasoning: the belief is that keeping players in college (or the D-League, or Europe, or SPACE!) for two years will make for a better product. Ostensibly, that’s because teams will have more data on incoming prospects, and the prospects in turn will have another year of development under their belts. It’s a tenuous argument. There are players who will benefit from an additional year in college, especially if it means more playing time than they might receive in the NBA. Those players, however, have a smaller impact on the overall health of the game than do the superstars, and they’re best served by getting to the league as quickly as possible. They need to practice and play against NBA players and learn the intricacies of the professional game.
But there’s more to Silver’s argument than just longitudinal talent development. He emphasized the importance of a closer relationship between the NBA and NCAA, hinting at the idea that the league could help defray some of the costs were college sports to move to a model that included some form of payment for its athletic employees. The health of college basketball — and of the relationship between the two levels of the game — is important to Silver because it can serve as a massive marketing tool for the association and its future players. March Madness is a powerful force in the public eye, able to make superstars of the most marginal prospects. Give the very best young players two chances to play in the tournament and grow their brand, and the NBA reaps the rewards down the line through increased ratings and merchandising.
Whether all of that would offset the delayed growth of future stars is an open question, and one the NBA will investigate. Silver knows that he doesn’t know the answer, and he’ll happily tell you that as he tries to convince you of the veracity of his position. It’s kind of his thing. He has a league to protect and owners to serve — in sum, a job to do. He’ll continue to do things that get under your skin and things that give you hope for the future of the league. And quietly, he’s already arming himself for the next lockout. Changing the age limit is an issue that would have to be negotiated in the next CBA. He defended the “socialist” nature of the league, pointing out that the teams are not true economic competitors, that they instead share revenue in a number of ways beyond direct revenue sharing, such as splitting the national TV deal. And his opening salvo, in which he hardly wasted a breath before dropping the BRI-bomb, sent us all back to those interminable days of 2011. Perhaps the one place Silver’s not yet ready to reveal his hand is in his preparations for the next labor battle, but if one reads between the lines, the war games are apparent.
Welcome, truly, to the Adam Silver experience. Some heroes live long enough to see themselves become the villain. Silver is neither hero nor villain, yet he’s got a little bit of both in him. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you it’s true — and convince you it’s good for the league. Now, would you care to have a seat at the negotiating table?