Biggest Priorities and Challenges for Incoming NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterJanuary 29, 2014

Biggest Priorities and Challenges for Incoming NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

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    Feb. 1, 2014 will mark the end of one era and the beginning of another in the NBA. On that day, David Stern will officially cede his throne as the commissioner of the league to long-time deputy Adam Silver.

    Stern's 30-year reign will come to a close with The Association in better shape than ever. Revenue and ratings are up, as is the quality of the on-court product, with even more opportunities for growth going forward. There seems to be peace between the players and the owners, and a tidal wave of talented prospects coming up through the amateur ranks only figures to build on basketball's existing momentum as a force in the sports world, both domestically and internationally.

    That doesn't mean, though, that Silver will be able to slip into his new gig without incident. On the contrary, the commish's plate will be fuller than ever, due in large part to the tremendous work done by Stern to this point.

    Granted, Silver's taken the lead on much of the NBA's business in recent years as Stern has (slowly but surely) shifted his responsibilities to his successor. As such, the transition between the two should be seamless.

    That is, so long as Silver's handle on these 10 issues is a solid as it would seem to be at this point.

     

Negotiating a New TV Contract

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    There's a chance that the NBA's new national TV deal will be wrapped up by the time Silver steps into his new role. 

    According to Forbes, the league is currently negotiating a deal with ESPN/ABC and TNT, who own the NBA's national TV rights through 2015-16. Those networks, which pay a combined average of $930 million per year to broadcast pro basketball, are working to get a new contract nailed down within an exclusive window of negotiation, before upstart networks like Fox Sports 1, NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network can throw their hats into the proverbial ring.

    The expansion of competition should push the NBA's rights fees into uncharted territory, with Forbes' pundits suggesting that the league could fetch upwards of $1.3 billion per year for its TV rights.

    The more Silver and his team can fetch for the league's media, the happier everyone will be. A bigger revenue pie means that the league's 30 owners will make more and, on the flip side, that the salary cap will rise, thereby funneling more money to the players.

     

    Full Disclosure: Bleacher Report is property of Turner Sports, which also owns TNT.

The Future of NBA Fashion

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    Of course, not all of the league's revenue comes strictly from TV rights. A significant chunk of the NBA's $5.5 billion revenue pie is generated from merchandise sales, with replica jerseys doing the heavy lifting in that regard.

    To that end, Silver and his associates at NBA headquarters in New York have already begun a highly visible (and, in some cases, controversial) campaign to drum up renewed interest in merchandise by having players wear sleeved jerseys on occasion. The Golden State Warriors were the first to try the new look from adidas last season and have since been joined by the Los Angeles Clippers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Phoenix Suns and (later this season) the Brooklyn Nets.

    Not to mention the rest of the 10 teams that played in pajama-style duds on Christmas Day, or the myriad other players who will be sporting sleeved jerseys at the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans. According to Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com, the league's "heritage" jerseys will all be sleeved by next season.

    The new style has already become a point of contention between the league and the players. LeBron James has voiced his displeasure with the new look on multiple occasions, contending that shooters, many of whom are notoriously finicky "creatures of habit" to begin with, have been and will be bothered by the extra fabric. According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, there are plenty of other players who don't care for the look and/or the feel of the newfangled uniforms.

    To its credit, the NBA doesn't seem intent to jam these jerseys down the players' throats. "If the feedback is that the players don't want to wear them, we won't," Sal LaRocca, the NBA's executive vice president of global merchandising, recently told Bucher. "We are 50-50 partners with the players in everything we do."

    If Silver wants sleeved jerseys to become the new norm, he'll need to sell the players on the possibilities the look presents for them. In addition to the presumed uptick in uniform sales, having sleeves on jerseys would give the NBA more "real estate" on which to place ads. That would open up new, lucrative revenue streams for the owners and players to split down the middle.

    That is, if the players are on board.

Building a Rapport with the New Players Association Leadership

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    Silver will probably have an easier time selling sleeves to the players if/when he forms a close and amicable working relationship with the leadership of the National Basketball Players Association. That may take some time, though, and not just because any tie between labor and management is bound to be tense by its very nature.

    At present, the players' union is operating without an executive director. Billy Hunter, the last union head, was deposed by a unanimous vote during the players' annual winter meeting at All-Star weekend last year amid allegations of improprieties from then-president Derek Fisher.

    Fisher has since been replaced as NBPA president by Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul. According to CBSSports.com's Ken Berger, the union is currently working with an executive search firm to find a suitable replacement for Hunter.

    Chances are, the union will have a new chief in place in relatively short order. It's entirely possible that the players will confirm their next leader during the All-Star break in New Orleans next month.

    Whenever the NBPA has a new head honcho in place, it'll be up to Silver to sidle up to him/her to ensure that the existing labor peace lasts beyond the shelf life of the current collective bargaining agreement, from which both parties can opt out come July 2017.

    That date is a ways away right now, though it couldn't hurt for both sides to get a head start in establishing trust with one another before future negotiations get contentious.

Stamping out Flopping

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    Whatever trust Silver is able to build with the union leadership will come in handy in the NBA's ongoing pursuit to eliminate "flopping" from the game.

    According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, there were 24 violations of the league's anti-embellishment policy last season from 19 players on 13 different teams. Only five offenders—Reggie Evans, Gerald Wallace, J.J. Barea, Omer Asik and Kevin Martin—drew fines for their actions, though, since such penalties were only administered to those who committed multiple infractions over the course of the regular season.

    Compare that to the eight players who were fined during the postseason, wherein the NBA did away with the first-flop warning and went straight to $5,000 wrist slaps.

    Just over halfway through the 2013-14 season, The Association has already seen 22 players draw ire for exaggerating contact, with but three—Lance Stephenson, James Harden and Corey Brewer—taking hits to their pocket books.

    It's tough to say whether the league's anti-flopping policies have done much to cut down on the dubious practice since they were instituted in the fall of 2012. What's clear, though, is that players are still finding ways to fool officials, and that those instances can often be of consequence to the flow of a game.

    If the NBA intends to end flopping for good, it'll probably need to either up the ante on fines considerably, devise a way to penalize players for the offense during a game or (ideally) both. Such will require the consent of the players, for whom larger fines will likely have to be collectively bargained, and of the referees, who are overworked as is.

    As commissioner, Silver will be uniquely qualified to bridge the gaps between all interested parties and arrive at a solution that everyone can agree to.

Addressing Tanking

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    If you think of tanking as the organizational equivalent to an individual player flopping, you can begin to understand why there's been such an uproar about the former and, in turn, why the NBA does and should have an interest in doing away with it.

    Like flopping, tanking is considered by some to be an affront to the spirit of the sport itself. By going out of its way to lose, a team is attempting to exploit apparent loopholes in the rulebook to its own advantage and to the disadvantage of its competitors. In the process, that team is willfully putting out a subpar product for its fans, implicitly allowing its opponents to coast to victory, demoralizing its own players and coaches and potentially poisoning what might otherwise be an agreeable atmosphere around the organization.

    Not that tanking doesn't feature its own attendant logic. The NBA is a star-oriented league, and the best way for any team—especially one in a small, undesirable market—to land a star is to draft and develop one. Intentional losing is seen as the best way to put clubs in position to acquire a future stud through those means.

    As one anonymous NBA GM admitted to ESPN The Magazine's Jeff Goodman last October with regard to the 2014 draft:

    If you're an NBA general manager like me, the last place you want to be is in the middle.`How do you pull it off? First, you talk it over with ownership. I analyzed the team and told them what I wanted to do, the guys I wanted to get rid of and the guys with future value whom we wanted to keep. We obviously traded away some of our veteran guys who gave us a better chance of winning right now for future draft picks and young players. The owners didn't want to tread water any more than I did. They'd rather go down to the bottom with the hope of coming up, so they signed off on it. It wasn't a fight at all. In a different season, it might not make sense, but this draft certainly makes it more appealing.

    If Silver wants to eliminate tanking, he and his cohort will have to devise means of making such a strategy less appealing. Grantland's Zach Lowe recently revealed a proposal that's been kicked around by a number of power players within the league that would, in essence, predetermine every team's picks over a 30-year period. Several other ideas—including the "unweighting" of the lottery, rewarding teams for post-playoff elimination success and doing away with the draft entirely—have been bandied about as means of disincentivizing poor performance.

    However Silver chooses to go about it, he'll have to keep in mind the need to maintain (if not strengthen) the very integrity of the game that tanking and the like threaten in the first place. 

Expansion in the NBA...

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    The occasional tidal wive of incoming talent, which the next couple draft classes figure to be, also brings to mind the possibility of expanding the NBA's footprint to new and unfamiliar markets alike. After all, if there's a massive influx of quality players into the league, the powers that be won't need to worry as much about the watering down of the overall product.

    To be sure, the league's 30 owners are probably far less concerned with spreading talent too thinly than they are with sacrificing their own slices of the proverbial revenue pie. Why divvy up money from TV contracts, merchandising and revenue sharing among 32 teams when you already do so between 30?

    Well, because having more teams in the right places could, in theory, expand the overall pie to everyone's benefit. Why not absorb major markets like Seattle and Las Vegas if doing so meant more dough for all in the form of substantial expansion fees and even more exorbitant media rights contracts?

    Logistically speaking, the league might prefer to move a club to a bigger market over opening up a brand-new shop. But the skyrocketing values of existing franchises have slowed their exchange between mega-millionaires and billionaires considerably, leaving the Milwaukee Bucks as the only one currently on shaky ground.

    And even they seem unlikely to leave the confines of Wisconsin, assuming long-time owner Herb Kohl finds ownership partners who are willing to keep the Bucks right where they are.

    Surely, Seattle's brilliant but unsuccessful bid to lure the Kings away from Sacramento and Las Vegas' plans to build new privately funded arenas give the NBA two more viable options for expansion, along with Kansas City and Vancouver (among others). If expansion is something that Silver wants and finds beneficial for the league as a whole, he'll have to convince his constituents (i.e. the owners) to sign on by showing them the potential windfall that'd come from opening up the doors of their exclusive club to two new members.

...in the D-League...

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    Getting the NBA's owners to agree to a more complete expansion of the D-League might be an even taller order for Adam Silver.

    Slowly but surely, the D-League is becoming a fully functional minor league system for pro basketball, though it still has a long way to go before it can so much as sniff the complexity, sophistication and efficacy of Major League Baseball's extensive setup. At present, 14 of the D-League's 17 teams sport single-affiliation partnerships of some sort with NBA counterparts. The other three (the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Bakersfield Jam and the Iowa Energy) serve as secondary outfits for the other 16 teams in The Association that don't either own or work directly with one farm team.

    For some, the added expenses of owning and/or running a team at a lower level doesn't seem a worthwhile investment. As the old saying goes, why own the cow when you can get the milk for free—or, in this case, at negligible cost to the overall bottom line?

    This is where having an advocate like Silver, who grasps the big picture of basketball beyond the money, is of the utmost importance.

    Every year, the D-League's value to the sport itself seems to grow. Last season, the D-League set new records for NBA player assignments (184) and players assigned from their parent clubs (58), in addition to welcoming 26 members of the 2012 draft class, including 11 first-rounders, into its ranks at one point or another (per the NBA). With each passing season, more and more players, coaches, referees and executives ar using the D-League as a stepping stone, a training ground wherein they can develop and hone their skills with the hope of landing an opportunity in the big show.

    A 30-team D-League, with exclusive partnerships for every NBA franchise, would bring with it some rather intriguing implications for the game as a whole. With a true farm system in place, Silver may well consider loosening restrictions on draft eligibility, since every squad would have an outpost where it could stash and develop youngsters who aren't quite ready for the rigors of the pro game. That same thinking could apply to just about any prospect who could use some more seasoning (looking at you, Anthony Bennett), as well as veterans, like Amar'e Stoudemire with the Erie BayHawks in 2012-13, who need to rehab from major injuries.

    Perhaps then, the league would look to subsidize D-League expansion in support of its more "cash-strapped" constituents, not unlike what it did in installing SportVU tracking cameras in all 29 of the NBA's arenas prior to the 2013-14 season.

...and Overseas

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    So far, Adam Silver has been far more vocal about extending the NBA's reach overseas than he has about growing the game stateside. As he told Larry Fine of Reuters last spring:

    When we do expand, we'd need to expand probably with multiple teams, so that you wouldn't have an orphan team in Europe, but that you'd potentially have a division so those teams could play each other more often and NBA teams presumably traveling in Europe could have more teams to play when they're over there.

    Silver's suggestion of creating a European division should the league expand internationally makes sense. With long-distance travel still being the challenge that it is, the NBA can't reasonably expect its teams to regularly swap sides of the pond throughout the season. Instead, it'd behoove clubs to make only the occasional sojourn across the Atlantic Ocean for extended road trips.

    Trouble is, most of the major facilities in Europe aren't yet up to par for the NBA. Silver said during the proceedings between the Knicks and the Pistons in London in January 2013 that only Paris, Berlin and Istanbul could realistically meet the league's lofty standards for team accommodations (via Mitch Lawrence of The New York Daily News).

    For Silver, the prospect of putting the NBA's stamp on European clubs is one that will have to be cultivated over not years, but decades (via The New York Daily News): “It’s a complex issue, as to whether the NBA should be expanding or if we should relocate franchises. Ultimately, it’s how much fan support there is. It’s a long horizon in 20 years. The international opportunity is a huge one for the NBA.”

    One that, as lucrative as it may be, is still a ways off from becoming a viable reality.

Eliminating Divisions

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    In the meantime, Adam Silver could shake up the landscape of the NBA in a more cosmetic manner by doing away with intra-conference divisions. Silver broached the subject during an appearance on the NBA's channel on Sirius XM Radio this past December.

    "One thing I have learned from David (Stern) over all those years ... is every day we should wake up and take a fresh look at everything we do. Divisions fall into that category," Silver said (via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today). "Historically, based on geography in terms of ways to schedule and convenience of travel, the goal was to enhance rivalries and I'm not sure if that's still what's happening.

    "That's something I'm sure the competition committee, when they next meet, will be taking a fresh look at."

    The committee could consider disbanding divisions, whose importance has waned considerably over the years, as soon as this coming offseason. The divisions themselves already lack sensible groupings in some cases; the Oklahoma City Thunder still occupy the spot in the Northwest that once belonged to the Seattle SuperSonics, while the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans remain in the Southwest when geography would dictate a snugger fit in one of the Eastern Conference's groupings.

    Simply put, divisional differentiations currently stand as curious relics of the NBA's bygone days of regional rivalries. Teams don't play for division titles; they play for postseason spots by seed. Nowadays, being a division champion merely guarantees a team a top-four seed, as opposed to one of the top-three.

    But really, why should being the best of a largely arbitrary fivesome confer any advantage at all?

    Chances are, if Silver has his way, it won't.

Improving Player Health and Safety

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    If Adam Silver is willing to dispose of divisions, perhaps he'll eventually warm up to the idea of shortening games and/or seasons—albeit for entirely different reasons.

    The rash of injuries to some of the NBA's biggest stars in recent seasons has touched off a debate about the demands that the modern game makes of its players. Advances in sports medicine, training, travel and diet—all of which have contributed positively to the health and wellness of players—have been accompanied by harder work, longer hours and year-round schedules for many of the same benefactors. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic than they've ever been, and are often found putting more pressure and stress on their bodies as a result.

    Meanwhile, the league itself has been slow to adapt to the physical changes that've taken place among the purveyors of its sport. Games are still 48 minutes long, with 82 on each team's season schedule. As Tom Sunnergren detailed for Bleacher Report, the NBA has yet to allow teams to wear biometric technology, which could help to streamline decisions regarding a player's fitness from minute to minute and night to night, even though a handful of organizations already use the sensors in practice.

    As Grantland's Zach Lowe discussed this past September, the league would probably be reluctant to shorten the games themselves or reduce the number that each team has to play—much less both. Shorter games mean less time in which to run ads, and a less packed schedule would cut down on overall ticket sales and leave the NBA with less product to push when approaching TV networks about selling its content. 

    Those two changes, while potentially harmful to The Association's finances in the immediate term, could improve the product over the long haul by introducing a measure of randomness and scarcity into a league that's all too predictable. As the argument goes, longer games and seasons simply give superior squads more time in which to separate themselves from everyone else.

    In a way, injuries constitute one of the few real "wild cards" that inject uncertainty into the proceedings. But the NBA, more than any other major American professional sport, is a player's league wherein star power is paramount to success, both on and off the court.

    And if the stars themselves aren't healthy enough to shine, the league as a whole suffers. As such, it would be wise for Adam Silver to seek out innovative solutions to keep his players fit and active. That way, he can continue to strengthen ties between the owners and the players while improving the game from which they all stand to benefit.

     

    What else should the new commish do? Let me know on Twitter!