BOSTON — What a difference a couple of years makes.
When Adam Silver took part in a panel discussion on the evolution of sports leagues at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he seemed to have a ball. David Stern's deputy commissioner cut a cool, calm and collected figure as he spoke about the role of analytics types in the resolution of the NBA's 2011 labor stoppage (which, lest we forget, amounted to something of a knockout victory for the league over the players' union) and the NBA brand's surging popularity in China, while occasionally breaking stride to crack jokes about stuff like Michael Jordan's tenure as the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.
He barely broke a sweat in breezing through the chat, showing a somewhat surprising amount of personality in the process and projecting the image that, whenever he would ascend to the throne, the league's future would be in good hands. That ascent, as you know, took place one month ago, and when Silver took the stage on Saturday afternoon at the Hynes Convention Center for one of the most anticipated sessions of the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he wasn't one of five panelists — it was just him and author/interviewer Malcolm Gladwell, one on one, for an hour in front of a sea of people eager to hear what the newly minted commish had to say in the latest stop on his ongoing "transparency" tour.
I'm not sure if Silver ever actually perspired, but under the glare of the spotlight of the convention center's biggest ballroom, he did get held to the fire more often than a couple of years back. Here are four interesting things he had to say.
1. He really, really wants to raise the age minimum for entry into the NBA draft.
I wrote about this a bit a couple of weeks back, after Silver told USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick that increasing the minimum age at which a player can be eligible to enter the NBA draft pool from 19 to 20 — effectively turning the "one-and-done" system into more of a "two-and-done" scheme — was one of his top priorities now that he's in the big chair. Apparently, though, it's not just one of his top priorities.
Near the end of their tête-à-tête, Gladwell asked Silver what he called the "magic wand" question: If you had all 30 NBA owners totally on board and under your spell, and could push through any project, rule change or initiative you wanted, what would it be?
“I’d raise the age,” Silver said.
Silver and Gladwell spoke at some length about the age limit/age minimum issue, and the broader relationship between the NCAA and NBA, during the discussion. As he did in his sitdown with Amick, Silver emphasized his beliefs that the NBA bears some responsibility for ensuring the continued health of the college game, and that forcing prospects to spend two years developing before reaching the big-time will result in a stronger NBA game.
While those two years of seasoning could theoretically come outside the college basketball structure, whether in the D-League or overseas, Silver was clear and unmistakable in stating his preference for the NBA and NCAA developing a closer working relationship on this issue.
“I think the NCAA should have a seat at the table in all matters of NBA eligibility,” Silver said.
And vice versa, too. Silver suggested that the NBA involve the NCAA in discussions on compensating college athletes, if not through direct payments — "[They're] being paid, in a way, right now," he said, referencing scholarship costs, before later adding that his position on whether college athletes should be paid "depends on your definition of 'paying'" — then perhaps through alternative means. Maybe the NBA could contribute to insurance policies to protect college basketball players while they wait out the age limit, for example. Or maybe the NBA and the NCAA could work out a system allowing NBA teams to draft collegians who stayed in school and retained eligibility, putting their paychecks in an escrow account that the players could receive upon moving from college to the pros.
“We should be looking out for them,” Silver said. “College sports is a huge business in this country. Purely out of self interest, strong college basketball, I believe, is helpful to the NBA.”
Whether it's helpful to the young men whose opportunity to earn what the market will pay them for their labor would be forestalled yet another year by an artificial barrier implemented by two organizations in whose operations they have little to no say, of course, remains far, far less clear.
As it stands, Silver can't yet move forward with his preferred proposal. Increasing the age minimum is an issue that would have to be collectively bargained by the league and the National Basketball Players Association, which continues to be without executive leadership and would have to get its house in order before talks could start in earnest. For the time being, the commish will have to be content with envisioning a scenario in which he could abracadabra his way to another free (or, if one of his hybrid-pay plans were to go through, low-cost) year of workforce development for his league's future laborers.
2. He doesn't think the NBA has a performance-enhancing drug problem.
Sure, you get your Rashard Lewis, O.J. Mayo and Hedo Turkoglu cases every once in a while, but beyond that, Silver said he doesn't have the sense that the league he's inherited has a pervasive problem with PEDs. The two primary reasons for his sense: that "we test," and that "it's just not part of the culture."
"We may be just that we're fortunate in the NBA that there is a cultural view that those types of drugs are not helpful for performance," he said.
That said, with PED scandals impacting other sports like Major League Baseball and cycling, Silver didn't want to pretend that it's not conceivable that the league could have such an issue; it's just that it never seems to come up for him.
"I've been in the NBA for 22 years — I talk to players all the time, I talk to retired players, and I don't hear about it," Silver said. "I don't want to be naive."
The NBA and the players' union agreed to the appointment of a panel of experts to study the issue of human growth hormone (HGH) testing as part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, but no findings have been reported as yet. Stern had raised the prospect of updating that policy to include blood testing for HGH last February and said he hoped to have a policy in place by the beginning of this season A deal was reportedly close last March, but talks broke off; by September 2013, the two sides were reportedly nowhere close to an agreement that would lead to testing being implemented. Negotiations on the nature of the testing, and what Silver called "the appropriate procedures" for conducting it, remain ongoing.
“Understandably, and I’m sympathetic to the players here, where because it requires the taking of blood, we want to make sure that it’s done in the absolute right way."
3. He's open to the idea of postseason play-in games.
The idea of a late-season, single-elimination tournament to determine the eighth and final team to make the playoffs in each conference has been forwarded in the past by Grantland's Bill Simmons, but Silver apparently once floated a similar idea while he was deputy commissioner, and in echoing an idea that had been mentioned more than once during the two-day Sloan conference, he expressed interest in the possibility of moving some portion of the postseason away from full series and toward a win-or-go-home format.
"By having a seven-game series, you reduce the randomness of the outcome," Silver said. "I think what's so exciting about college basketball — and I'm a huge college basketball fan — is the single-elimination tournament, the NCAA tournament. There, statistically, you're gonna have a lot more upsets. So, I think for us, well, I have mixed views [...] In case of certain teams where star players were injured for a portion of the season or the team didn't jell until later in the season, that team can become competitive. Right? I like that idea."
4. He gets the arguments for changing up the draft, the lottery and other things in the interest of trying to curb tanking.
According to Silver, every time the league and union open up their collective bargaining process, both sides bring economists to the bargaining table.
"I always get a kick out of when the economists first come in. We have a general meeting. We say, 'Take our current CBA, our by-laws, our constitution, our guidelines on how we operate.' They go away, and they're academics, so they say, 'We'll study this, and we'll come back and we'll present some ideas for you,'" he said. "And it always happens ... they go away, they come back, and you can tell — they sit down with you and they're very excited, they want to tell you something."
And it's always the same thing.
"'You have it all wrong. Your incentives are completely backward. You've created an incentive for teams to be bad,'" they say, according to Silver. "And that's, of course, what the draft is, and why we have a draft lottery."
And that's, of course, why general managers like Bryan Colangelo think about tanking, whether Silver wants to think they do or not, and why boatloads of folks rend their garments about the notion that a large number of NBA teams, year in and year out, are not trying their darnedest to win.
While Silver didn't take the most dire view, he said he is open to suggestions as to how to tweak or overhaul the system, like the "wheel" plan forwarded by Boston Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren.
"I’m open to taking a fresh look at it. We’ve experimented to change things," Silver said, citing example of moving from a straight worst-record-gets-top-pick format to a weighted lottery system in which the team with the worst record has only a 25 percent chance of securing the top overall pick.
He also noted that tanking, to some degree, is in the eye of the beholder.
"In terms of the word 'tanking,' I think it’s used differently by different people," he said. "To me, tanking means a team goes out to intentionally lose the game. I think there’s genuine rebuilding in our system, especially when you have a cap-type system and you have to plan for the future. Just like any business, there’s short-term and long-term results.
"I think given their desire to win, [teams] make the decision that this player will not optimize our chance to win a championship, because this player will lead to two or three more wins this year," he continued. "But our goal is to win a championship, and that player just isn’t going to help us meet that long-term goal."
Still, Silver said that the volume of "chatter about the notion of tanking [...] concerns [him] from a business standpoint," but he hasn't yet been moved to the point that the system's flaws are fatal.
"I’m not sure the analytics support this notion that you can game the system and lose this many games to have this specific record," he said. "It requires a lot of precision."
And, as Colangelo told us Friday, sometimes those worst-laid plans don't quite come together.
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