How Silver plans to make NBA better

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has, in his first year on the job, become known for his ideas. He sat down with USA TODAY Sports to discuss the past, present and future.

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Adam Silver sits down with USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt to discuss his “eventful” first year as NBA commissioner and where the league goes from here. USA TODAY Sports

Video Transcript Automatically Generated Transcript (may not be 100% accurate)00:03 Get interest in first year. On the job as commissioner
00:06 what we will look back at how do you summarize your
00:08 wine as NBA commissioner. I summarized it as eventful. Chock full
00:15 I had some very unexpected things from other moments of great
00:19 joy and release it in the right they often after draft.
00:23 And moments though that. No one could’ve been completely prepared for
00:27 about the extent. I was trained for the jobs. Oh that
00:32 David Stern. You know I spend over forty years working on
00:36 before the show. As much you can’t repeat prepared for jab
00:41 you can’t be prepared for what happened just a few months
00:44 into your ten year. Went to balance the whole situation he
00:47 what was the thought process of how you got there and
00:50 how the recording on that tape was not the Donald Sterling
00:55 that I had known. For all those years. I wish. Somewhat
01:00 shocked. Can hear him say those things but I also recognize.
01:05 That I have an obligation on behalf of the league to
01:08 make a decision. I recognize that this was an issue that
01:11 it. Potentially have enormous impact. The operation of our league our
01:17 players on the business partners certainly there were a lot of
01:21 eyes on. The lead to see how we would respond in
01:23 this situation I factored all of those things and. I watched
01:28 how much it seems that you’re in favor of changing. The
01:31 playoff model where you stand on that though right now. About
01:35 FitzGerald has proposed several times mean that we change the theme
01:40 and his particular suggestion. Is that tape is division leaders so
01:44 that’s six teams. And then receive the remaining ten teams who
01:48 turned in order records a major change like that that you.
01:52 Really strong that it can buy a competition committee. By the
01:56 owners we all the talk about the impact or four part
01:59 television partners so it’s something that we’re looking at very closely
02:02 and I think from. Practical standpoint we’re looking at changes for
02:05 the 1617 seasons. I think the hiring. Taking him in this
02:12 wonderful step the relief and the fact that it was done.
02:15 In the NBA champion makes it over much more special and
02:19 gun and a priority for your bird the great coverage. For
02:22 basketball. Pick him someone I’ve known for a long time. When
02:27 she was a value on. There’s quite she’s doing so well
02:30 that people are talking about it and I think that’s what
02:33 Becky would say is that I don’t want people focus. The
02:37 first woman to support armistice in court for a team I
02:40 want to focus. I’ll do my job and I was refusal
02:43 to perform. Of course I thought this we’re.

In a short time, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has established himself as the players’ commissioner, the owners’ commissioner, the people’s commissioner and, perhaps best defining his early tenure, the ideas commissioner.

He forced the ouster of a problematic owner, saw a record increase in franchise valuations, scored a multibillion TV deal, helped player salaries increase and embraced their voice on social issues — all in his first year.

And he is willing to explore ideas, big and small, that will make the NBA a better game. The league experimented with a 44-minute preseason game, he approved an extended All-Star break, he’s looking at ways to improve the draft lottery and he is exploring the possibility of adopting a new playoff system that takes the best teams regardless of conference (which, Silver says, won’t happen until the 2016-17 season at the earliest).

“I’d like to think I’ve always been receptive to new ideas, but I’d also say I’ve learned, as much through osmosis — from owners who’ve been incredibly successful in their own right and from executives at partner companies of the NBA — that great ideas can come from anywhere,” Silver told USA TODAY Sports during an hour-long conversation at NBA headquarters. “I’ve learned that you need to look broader than the traditional decision-making processes that businesses follow, especially with a sport like basketball, where there are so many people who follow it passionately and have great ideas about how to improve the game.”

Silver said he understands the role of commissioner has evolved. It’s not just that he’s in charge of a league.

“Commissioners, understandably, are being asked to take leadership roles on a wide variety of issues, including some issues at least in my earlier days at the NBA, we would’ve never even thought about — issues dealing with bullying, domestic violence, racial tolerance and the rights of gays and lesbians in the work place,” he said. “I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility. I feel that responsibility to multiple constituencies.”

Silver, who was No. 1 on Sports Business Journal’s list of the most influential people in sports business, has been on the job a little more than a year since replacing his friend and former boss David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. He characterized his year as “eventful, chock-full. It actually went by very fast. … I had some very unexpected things. Some other moments of great joy.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said Silver’s first year was “amazing. He aced it.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has expressed support for legalizing sports betting at the federal level, discusses that stance and the future of sports gamling with USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt. USA TODAY Sports

Video Transcript Automatically Generated Transcript (may not be 100% accurate)00:03 In the big picture how did you develop your stance
00:05 on gambling in the second part of it is. Is there
00:08 any movement in heading in that direction how far how are
00:11 we. And the community around sports whether it’s talking to fans
00:14 and arena where they’re looking at the point spreads through. Your
00:17 paper and others and hearing sports commentators conference hardware and fear
00:22 not there’s no doubt there’s a very cold truth exists around
00:25 four. On top of that I’ve done a lot of international
00:28 war from happening in the and many of those jurisdictions sports
00:31 betting is perfectly legal fact that it was grueling games. People
00:35 that at bat and we knows that the stadium’s. And I
00:38 also saw that. We’ve all that was discussed and going on
00:42 around sportsman and a massive underground market that now exists. It
00:46 was something we needed to address directly rather do things we
00:49 don’t think it should happen because it is happening. Yes all
00:52 we think should happen decision whether they wanna participate. But in
00:56 order for you have to face. Persons to be changing federal
01:00 legislation which is why. I wrote that op Ed piece. Because
01:04 right now you’re Governor Christie and stayed in New Jersey pushing
01:07 forward to legalize sports betting there but of course that was
01:11 struck down as a violation of the federal law. I think
01:14 in terms of what the next steps I mean I’m not
01:17 looking through. Actively lobby on the issue much thought rob Manfred
01:21 comment I know that that’s something that. Baseball is taking a
01:25 close look at certainly enough to suggest there in favor of
01:27 it I imagine that for that other leagues over time we’ll
01:30 take a look at as well. Senator McCain I read in
01:33 the paper recently that he’s announced that that you want to
01:37 hold hearings on fourth. As they thought I think it’s an
01:40 issue that war evolve over time but meanwhile. Think a lot
01:44 of states are you apply pressure on Washington DC because of
01:49 fears of.


The story of that first year cannot be told without Silver’s firm, and efficient management of the Donald Sterling incident.

Sterling’s racially insensitive comments to a friend were made public during the playoffs in April, and Silver had a serious issue — one that threatened trust in the league.

Silver, who joined the league in 1992 as a special assistant to Stern, was next to the former commissioner for some of the NBA’s biggest crises: the ugly brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers in 2004, the troubling Tim Donaghy betting scandal in 2007, the frightening gun incident inside the Washington Wizards’ locker room in 2009, plus lockouts and internal issues. Those times helped him as he faced something so serious early on.

“I felt I was prepared as I could have been for the job coming in,” Silver said. “From Day One in 1992, when I began in the league, I always at least was in the room to watch David Stern and his process of decision-making. I was privy to his thought process and the legal process behind dozens of impactful decisions.”

But nothing prepares a leader for something like the Sterling situation.

“I feel I was trained — and not trained to deal with that specific matter — to deal with crisis situations in all aspects: the substance of them, how to deal with the legal issues, how to deal with the communications issues,” Silver said.

Silver and his team boxed in Sterling at every legal turn, and Sterling sold the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.

During the crisis, Silver had discussions with NBA owners, leaders and CEOs of major companies, such as Ken Chenault of American Express, Bob Iger of Disney, Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner, Ivan Siedenberg formerly of Verizon, former senator and NBA player Bill Bradley and Stern.

In a recent issue of Delta Sky, Chenault told the inflight magazine, “Leadership reputations are made or lost during a time of crisis. And the way you judge a strong company is really that company’s ability to not just survive a crisis but to emerge stronger.”

Chenault talked to Silver within 48 hours of the Sterling audio going public.

“Adam did a terrific job. What’s important is that Adam is authentic and he understood all the different constituents who were important,” Chenault said. “Adam understands the NBA is a very important brand and is a public trust. People saw Adam’s actions as thoughtful, authentic and genuine, and Adam has a high level of integrity. Instinctively, I knew Adam would do the right thing.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s punishment, which included banning him for life from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine.


Silver, who lives in Manhattan, is quick with a restaurant recommendation, takes the subway often and is an avid reader. He’s reading Duty by Robert Gates, the former U.S. secretary of defense, and he recently downloaded Becoming Richard Pryor, a new biography on the comedian.

He’s up early, working and watching NBA highlights and when he doesn’t have out-of-office meetings, he’s at the NBA’s midtown headquarters next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He puts in long hours and finishes his day watching the early NBA games and catching some of the West Coast starts.

With a wide range of responsibilities to various constituents, Silver works for the owners and he hears from them often in different ways. Some e-mail, some call and Cuban likes to use CyderDust, his electronic communication app that leaves no trace of correspondence.

“Ultimately, I recognize that I serve at the pleasure of 30 owners, but they recognize there are positions I need to take and do take for the long-term health of the sport that may conflict with their self-interest at any given time,” Silver said. “They understand the responsibility of the commissioner is broader than the immediate interest of those owners.”

Owners should be pleased with Silver’s first year. He negotiated a nine-year, $24 billion TV deal that has a huge impact, starting with more money for teams. Franchise values have also increased. The Clippers sold for $2 billion, the Milwaukee Bucks sold $550 million and the Atlanta Hawks could sell for nearly $1 billion.

The average NBA franchise is worth $1.1 billion, according to Forbes magazine’s team valuations released last month. The average value jumped 74%, the highest one-year increase for a league since the magazine has been doing valuations of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.

During the 2011 lockout, the league wanted to restore profitability for 30 teams, and while not every team is making money, the CBA has allowed for that. Nearly two-thirds of teams are profitable.

“Without being specific in terms of what’s working and what’s not and putting aside the improved economic conditions for our teams in the new deal, this system is creating a better playing field around the league,” Silver said.

Player salaries are rising, too. The salary cap stagnated in the $58 million range for six seasons, but it jumped to $63 million this season and is expected increase next season. And salary caps reaching $80, $90 and $100 million in the next six years are not far-fetched.

That doesn’t mean labor peace is guaranteed. Both players and the league can opt out of the collective-bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season.

Neither side has said what it will do, but based on what she has said publicly, no one would be surprised if new National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts fought for a higher percentage of basketball-related income (BRI). Right now, players receive about 51% of BRI.

Silver hasn’t revealed his cards either.

“I will point out the deal is far from everything we wanted in collective bargaining,” he said. “We compromised. The players association compromised. My sense is that the deal is working as we hoped it would. We’ll continue looking at it, as I’m sure the union is as well.”

Among pro sports commissioners, Silver also took the lead on gambling. He urged Congress to adopt federal policy which would allow states to make it legal under tight and specific mandates.It’s not because Silver is pro-gambling, but it’s because he sees where gambling is in Europe and where it’s headed in the USA, especially as states look for alternatives to raising taxes for income.

“My views on it evolved over time. I also saw all that was discussed around sports betting and the massive underground market that now exists,” he said. “It was something we needed to address directly rather than just saying ‘We don’t think it should happen’ because it is happening.”

USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick discusses the fallout from the NBA owners meetings, where a plan to make big changes to the draft lottery system did not receive enough votes to move forward. USA TODAY Sports

Video Transcript Automatically Generated Transcript (may not be 100% accurate)00:01 Here in New York NBA commissioner Adam silver addressed the
00:04 media after three days of meetings with the league’s owners. A
00:07 lot to discuss with the headline item the draft possible reform
00:11 whether or not there was going to be changes on that
00:12 front. The lottery. Proposal. Received thirteen votes against it seventeen in
00:19 favor. But big week because it change our bylaws requires a
00:23 three quarters vote of the owners the proposal. That was in
00:27 front of Ford was not approved. I’ve got to admit I’m
00:30 surprised there’s not going to be change on this front anytime
00:33 soon just a couple months ago it seemed like Philadelphia was
00:35 the only team in the NBA the felt like the current
00:37 system once the way to go. Then when they finally go
00:40 to the vote. Thirteen owners decide changes not necessary right now
00:44 doesn’t mean change won’t eventually come again take a step back.
00:47 Continue analyzing this issue I do think eventually we will be
00:50 made in the system. That’s over also address the labor situation
00:53 the idea that players and owners are widely expected to opt
00:56 out of the current collective bargaining agreement in the summer of
00:59 2017. It’s premature. Even for me to be concerned I mean
01:03 we have we negotiated tenure collective bargaining agreement. There’s a six
01:07 year out for either side we’re only going into year. For.
01:11 Now that’s over said this is still a couple years away
01:14 but make no mistake the jockeying has already begun he went
01:17 out of his way to mention that a third of the
01:18 teams in the NBA. Are still not profitable behind the scenes
01:22 it’s going to be a fluid conversation between silver and new
01:24 union director Michelle Roberts. If you are down at her legal
01:27 career for being a fighter in court we’re gonna help fight
01:29 on the road.


In the meantime, Silver is focused on the game. Having worked his way up primarily on the business side, Silver is deeply involved on the basketball side. His mantra is “the game above all.”

“While there’s enormous opportunities to build the NBA as a business, that’s only going to come by strengthening the game itself,” he said.

On some ideas, Silver implements quickly, such as experimenting with a 44-minute game (four minutes shorter than usual) during the preseason and extending the All-Star break to give players extra days off.

With others, he is deliberate because he wants to be sure it’s not a narrow view for a long-term solution. Draft reform and playoff seedings fall into that category. The league looked at draft reform, but the solution offered failed to get a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

Playoff seeding is the hot topic right now. The seventh- and eighth-place teams in the East are headed for the playoffs with sub.-500 records and the ninth- and 10th-place teams in the West are headed for 45-plus victories.

There is a chorus from fans, reporters and team executives calling for the best teams to make the playoffs regardless of conference.

On a Golden State Warriors TV broadcast last week, Silver suggested a chance the playoff format should happen soon. But he clarified those remarks to USA TODAY Sports. A change in the playoff system won’t happen next season but 2016-17 is a possibility.

“There is a lot to be said for taking a fresh look at our seedings and ensuring the very best teams are competing in the playoffs,” Silver said. “I should’ve been slightly more cautious in my response (to Golden State broadcaster) only because there is a long tradition in terms of our conference system. There are some important logistic issues we need to examine in terms of travel (and schedules). It’s fair to say it’s something that requires a very strong examination.”

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