New Tone Set by Adam Silver May Prove Vital as NBA Faces Thornier Issues Ahead

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterNovember 7, 2014

Tony Gutierrez/AP Images

On a pleasant spring day, flanked by NBA legends on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, Kevin Johnson stood and proclaimed, with soaring conviction, that Adam Silver had transcended his title.

He was no longer just the NBA commissioner, or the owners' commissioner, Johnson said that April afternoon. No, Adam Silver had become "the players' commissioner."

"And we're proud to call him our commissioner," said Johnson, the former All-Star, current Sacramento mayor and temporary adviser to the players union.

The assembled players on the City Hall steps applauded, even as longtime union loyalists cringed.

It was a remarkable day. Silver had just banned Donald Sterling, the disgraced Clippers owner, for life. Nearly everyone—fans, media, playerswas cheering Silver's swift and principled stand.

If branding Silver the "players' commissioner" seemed hyperbolic, it was understandable in the moment. Seven months later, it's also sounding prophetic.

Sterling is gone. Another owner who espoused racist views, the Atlanta Hawks' Bruce Levenson, was pushed to sell his stake before his inflammatory words even became public.

And for the last several months, Silver has been busily tinkering with league policies at the players' behest:

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• The All-Star break has been expanded to a full week, in deference to player concerns.

 The sleeved alternate jerseys, which were widely panned last season, are no longer mandatory. It's now up to each team to decide, based on locker-room consensus, whether to wear them.

 Not announced, but also in effect, according to sources: The NBA champion gets to stay home for Christmas.

Adam Silver's willingness to allow the reigning NBA champs to play at home on Christmas is one of a handful of measures taken to address players' concerns.
Adam Silver's willingness to allow the reigning NBA champs to play at home on Christmas is one of a handful of measures taken to address players' concerns.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Last year, the defending champion Miami Heat complained about being sent to L.A. on the holiday. Silver sympathized, so the San Antonio Spurs will play at home this Dec. 25, and future champions will get the same benefit as long as no other conflicts arise.

These are small but important gestures, indicating a willingness by Silver to listen and to respond with swift solutions. He has shown flexibility on some weightier issues as well.

In early July, the NBA and the players union quietly resolved a potentially thorny dispute, involving tens of millions of dollars, during their annual audit of basketball-related revenue, according to sources. It was the sort of issue that might have strained relations in the past, but Silver moved quickly to satisfy the union's concerns.

Silver also lobbied Tennessee legislators to repeal their so-called jock tax, which levied fees of up to $7,500 per player, per year.

And the positive reviews keep coming.

"I support Adam Silver 100 percent," Knicks star Carmelo Anthony told reporters in September in the wake of the Hawks controversy. "I think he's done a great job since he's been in."

It is early yetSilver has held the commissioner title for just 10 months—but in ways large and small, he is carving a decidedly player-friendly reputation, which might be helpful when the stickier challenges arise. Say, in 2017, when the NBA and the union are negotiating their next labor deal.

For years, NBA labor talks have been defined by acrimony and distrust, bordering on contempta product of the testy relations between former commissioner David Stern and former union executive director Billy Hunter.

With billions of dollars at stake and sharply divided constituencies, Stern and Hunter were destined to clash regardless. But their caustic relationship added another obstacle at the negotiating table.

The testy relationship between former union chief Billy Hunter and David Stern complicated relations between the union and the league.
The testy relationship between former union chief Billy Hunter and David Stern complicated relations between the union and the league.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Stern could be imperious, cutting, condescending. Hunter was abrasive, bombastic and self-righteous. Their mutual enmity only grew over the course of 16 years, four labor deals and two extended lockouts.

We have entered a new era, with Silver bringing a softer touch to the commissioner's office and Michele Roberts lending a fresh voice to the union. There is a chance, at least, for a new sense of collaboration, with Silver's early moves setting a positive, constructive tone.

"It's not insignificant," said Ron Klempner, the union's longtime general counsel, who recently served as acting executive director for 18 months, before Roberts was hired.

Klempner, who is now serving as senior counsel for collective bargaining, was part of the union's negotiating team throughout the last two lockouts in 1999 and 2011, and had a front-row seat for Stern and Hunter's repeated clashes across the table.

"Having trust and respect and credibility at the bargaining table is invaluable," Klempner told Bleacher Report. "It goes so far in being able to bridge gaps. I don't know how you can get a deal done if you don't believe that the other party is telling the truth and respects and understands your point of view."

There is both symbolic and practical value in Silver's moves to date. It was Chris Paul, the Clippers star and union president, who pushed Silver to expand the All-Star break. It was LeBron James, the game's biggest star, who was the loudest voice criticizing the sleeved jerseys.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"This helps," Klempner said. "Is it everything? No, there will always be some contentiousness. That's to be expected. But clearly this helps in terms of being able to bridge the gaps."

Klempner called the longer All-Star break "an extremely positive development for the relationship" and "a definite gesture of goodwill."

That discussion began with a simple question from Silver: "What's on your mind?"

And Silver is still listening, indicating a willingness to consider shorter games or a shorter preseason or anything else that might ease the physical demands on the league's 450 players.

"Any opportunity where it's possible to accommodate the players, I'm looking to do that," Silver told B/R, "both as a sign of good faith, but also because it's better business.

"I've been trying to set a tone of partnership, of cooperation," Silver added, "and demonstrate that while at the end of the day players understand that I represent the owners, that it doesn't mean we can't work in partnership and constructively on all of the issues."

With a new collective bargaining agreement facing the NBA in a few years, Silver has tried to demonstrate a greater spirit of cooperation than the league has shown in the past.
With a new collective bargaining agreement facing the NBA in a few years, Silver has tried to demonstrate a greater spirit of cooperation than the league has shown in the past.USA TODAY Sports

Contrast that stance with Stern's heavy-handed dictates in his final decade: the dress code, the crackdown on player conduct, the flopping fines, all imposed without union input.

Or consider the NBA's ill-fated move to a synthetic ball in 2006, also done without player consultation. Stern was forced to scrap the program after two months of player uproar, admitting he had erred in not involving them at the outset.

While Silver is projecting a more cooperative spirit, the stiffer challenges are coming soonon negotiations over HGH testing, the age limit and a proposal to spread out (or "smooth") salary-cap increases stemming from the league's new $24 billion television deal.

How Silver and Roberts navigate these issues might be the best indicator of how the next round of labor talks will go. But in the meantime, players will get a longer midseason rest and more authority over their uniforms, and those things matter too.

Howard Beck is a senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.