New NBA commissioner Adam Silver approaches his position with an open mind, inviting fresh ideas about how to improve a soaring league that does have its issues.
Silver acknowledged such Wednesday at the Boston College Chief Executives’ Club of Boston luncheon at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where the neophyte leader was the keynote speaker.
When asked by an attendee what were his three biggest concerns about the NBA, he said he would keep those a “secret.” The NBA is in remarkable shape, save a couple of warts that have become more obvious as the season has progressed.
Silver could not ignore that one NBA team has lost 17 straight games, traded for nearly the entire second round of the 2014 draft, and is preventing its top pick from last summer from making his debut even though he’s been cleared to play for a month after an injury.
The Philadelphia 76ers have gutted their roster and general manager Ed Hinkie, a disciple of Houston’s analytics-influenced Daryl Morey, has ensured the 76ers could be one of the worst teams in recent memory, already carrying that losing streak.
The question is whether Hinkie’s method is blatantly tanking or just rebuilding on steroids. Silver said it’s the latter (without the steroid comment, of course) because the league’s current system of a weighted lottery encourages teams to get bad before they take the long road back to respectability.
He’s correct for the most part. Nobody wants to go 41-41 and lose to Miami in the first round unless that’s a step in the growth process. Teams such as Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta, and Portland linger around the .500 line, good enough to compete for the postseason but never elite enough to reach the NBA Finals.
Teams such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and yes, the Celtics, have taken note of the perils of mediocrity and decided to take the plunge for the betterment of the future, just as Seattle/Oklahoma City did when it drafted Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook consecutively, and just as Chicago did when it nabbed Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng.
“I think it’s important to clarify what we all mean by tanking,” Silver said. “Where I grew up, tanking meant the coach and the players or some subset of that group were intentionally trying to lose a game. I don’t think that’s going on anywhere in the NBA and I would take action immediately if I thought it was.
“What is going on is rebuilding. And we have a system right now that incentivizes teams to rebuild. There’s a sense that you’re better off rebuilding in some cases from scratch than remaining mediocre. Now I am concerned even if it’s a legitimate strategy that there’s a perception out there by many people that it’s not. There’s an awful lot of chatter out there in the land and I continue to hear the ‘T’ word. So I think it’s my obligation to address it.”
Yet Silver admitted that the same teams habitually living in the lottery — such as the Kings, Bucks, Raptors, Bobcats, Wizards, and Pistons — is perhaps a byproduct of mismanagement. Silver cannot regulate the management of teams. He can’t control poor signings, questionable draft picks, and lopsided trades.
“If you have the same teams repeatedly ending up in the lottery and staying in the bottom portion of the league, you would think it’s not an effective strategy,” Silver said. “I don’t want with a broad brush to suggest that there’s a group of teams mismanaged based on the fact they’re in the lottery. There is genuine, appropriate rebuilding in this league, but at the same time some teams are better-managed than others. The competition does take place just as on the court, it takes place among really smart owners and GMs as well.
“Management really does matter, there’s no question about that.”
Silver can’t save the owners from themselves, but what he can do is collaborate with the owners along with GMs and the NBA Players Association to develop a more modern system that encourages winning and development. The league is better when the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics, and Knicks are flourishing and it’s also better when some of the bottom-feeder teams are also managed appropriately.
The new commissioner has to begin to hold certain owners accountable for their actions, but he also has to allow the business of the NBA to continue without much interference. It’s too early to determine whether Hinkie’s drastic plan will work in Philadelphia, but an impatient fan base that is enduring its sixth or seventh rebuilding plan since the Iverson years should hold management accountable if it doesn’t.
For now, Silver’s best action is not to overreact to those crying foul. He is a rational enough man to take a deep breath and examine whether the system with which the league chooses players should be dramatically changed. There are enough bright minds, including Silver’s, to create a system in which all parties are content.
Believe it or not, we’re close to that stage now.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.