Adam Silver negotiated his first 22 months as NBA commissioner about as adroitly as could be expected.
Silver received near universal praise for his April 2014 lifetime ban of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling following the release of Sterling’s recorded racist comments — and subsequently forced Sterling to sell the franchise. Silver led the league into an agreement with ESPN and Turner Sports on a massive new television contract, leading franchise valuations to skyrocket. He also engendered goodwill from players with schedule accommodations such as extending the all-star break, all but eliminating four-game-in five-night sets and reducing the number of back-to-back game nights.
During that time, the Golden State Warriors have flourished into one of the most popular teams in American sports (and reigning MVP Stephen Curry into perhaps the country’s most popular athlete), with their run to the title last season and their 24-game winning streak to begin this one, even drawing some attention from the usual dominance of the NFL and college football at this time of year.
Yet Silver still faces several potential landmines in his next two years at the helm.
The first is already happening – the ongoing fallout from Rajon Rondo’s use of a homophobic slur toward referee Bill Kennedy during a game in Mexico City earlier this month. There has been continued debate about whether the league went far enough with its penalty – a one-game suspension that came a week after the fact, following a lengthy investigation. Then, after Kennedy came out in a Yahoo Sports report Monday, it took Rondo multiple attempts to make a successful apology.
Silver has defended the one-game suspension, noting that Kennedy hadn’t made the decision to come out as a gay man until after the punishment had been handed down. But on the subject of Rondo’s apology, he deferred judgment until he got a chance to speak with Rondo himself.
“I don’t know enough about the circumstances around that apology,” Silver said in a phone interview earlier this week. “And, in fairness to Rajon, I don’t want to be critical of him without hearing directly from him beforehand. All I know is I spoke to Bill Kennedy, and most importantly, he seemed satisfied with the way this is being handled by the league.”
Trained as a lawyer, Silver rarely answers a question in public unless he knows the facts are behind him. If he’s not certain, he won’t answer until he is. Unlike his predecessor, David Stern, who was quick to fire off a quip to deflect a question he didn’t want to answer, Silver is far more measured in his responses while remaining genial and friendly.
He also possesses another lawyer’s trait – pragmatism – in abundance. That’s something that comes through in his stance on gambling, both regarding daily fantasy sports and sports betting. Silver has been far ahead of his counterparts in the other major American sports leagues on legalizing sports betting, writing an op-ed for the New York Times last year advocating for it. Despite recent rulings against DFS in New York, Silver has made no movement to take the NBA out of the DFS realm.
Silver believes people are going to play fantasy sports regardless. Rather than ignore that it’s happening in the shadows, he wants it out in the open.
“While, to me, daily fantasy is in no way sports betting, it’s certainly a cousin of sports betting, in that it attracts many of the same type of people who would otherwise choose to bet on sports,” he said. “Ultimately the issue is not whether you are pro- or anti-sports betting. You begin, from my standpoint, from the premise that it is going to continue to exist, and if it is going to continue to exist, should it be shoved underground, or should it be regulated?
“My sense is that the discussion around daily fantasy will lead to a renewed interested in regulating it. In addition, I think what comes with regulation is taxation. I think that increasingly, with roughly 44 states with lotteries and the vast majority of states that have regulated casino gambling and horse racing, that they will come to view sports betting in a similar fashion, and see it not just as an opportunity to regulate and protect leagues and consumers, but also see it as a legitimate source of tax revenue.”
Another defining characteristic of Silver’s personality that has shone through in his first two years as commissioner – and one that also differs from Stern – is his inclination to be a consensus builder. Stern was famous for ruling with an iron fist, and never hesitated to make a unilateral decision.
And while Silver has been decisive when called for – the most obvious example being the Sterling situation – he rarely takes matters into his own hands. One example is the ongoing debate into intentional fouls. “Hack-A-Shaq” has been around since the player it was named for, Shaquille O’Neal, was dominating the league 15 years ago — in every facet but at the free throw line. Now, the strategy is being employed now more than ever.
During Friday night’s ESPN-televised game between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, analyst Jeff Van Gundy spent much of the second half lambasting the league for allowing the rule to carry on, at one point saying Silver should “call the scorer’s table” and change it immediately.
That won’t be happening, though. Silver said via email Friday that the rule wouldn’t be changed midseason, but did say it would be revisited when the competition committee meets in July.
While that may leave some frustrated, such an approach has led to positive results in improving the relationship between the league office and the players’ association – a partnership that was left battered after the last lockout in 2011. By bringing players into the process on a variety of issues, the relationship between the two sides has significantly improved.
“I’m not going to rank the relationship, as compared to other times,” Silver said. “I would only say that the relationship, from my standpoint, is very healthy right now between the league and the players’ association.”
That sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association.
“The lines of communication have been really good,” Paul said. “Adam has asked for our input, and we appreciate that.”
The salary cap, set this year at $70 million, is expected to jump at least $20 million for next season thanks to the new television contract, and then it’s projected to jump close to another $20 million the year after that. With all that money pouring into the sport, it is in everyone’s interest to avoid the labor disputes of the past in order to keep the momentum of the present.
The league has already begun having meetings with the union, a full year before both sides have the ability to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. If either side does, there would be six months to negotiate a long-term deal before the CBA expires July 1, 2017.
“My sense is that through the ongoing discussions we’ve been having with the players’ association, that we are in the process of building a healthy and trusting relationship,” Silver said. “What will follow from a sense of trust across the table will be a constructive relationship that will lead to improved deals that will only accelerate the growth of the league.”