Adam Silver, NBA dealing with serious consequences from fast-changing landscape

The phrase “unintended consequences” became embedded in the minds of many NBA folks eight years ago, when a salary-cap spike led to Kevin Durant signing as a free agent with the Golden State Warriors, as if a high crime was committed.

Should commissioner Adam Silver rework it to call recent developments “expected consequences?”

Raptors forward Jontay Porter is under investigation by the NBA, according to ESPN, for issues related to his performances parallel to gambling. On one hand, gambling entities kept such a close eye on matters it was able to peep the inconsistencies very quickly, so it could be caught before things really got out of hand — if misconduct did take place.

On the other hand, the NBA and every other professional sports league is so embedded into the gambling space it felt like something was bound to happen. Gambling has always existed, so there’s no moral stand against it, at least not in this space.

And it’s so profitable the NBA would be fools to ignore the financial benefits, but there are certainly drawbacks.

Having Rudy Gobert insinuate anything related to gambling to the officials is a terrible look, and Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff pointing out fans (or bettors) finding his phone number to call him and even insinuate things about his family over a parlay is a matter the league has to take seriously, while ensuring the safety of all its employees.

Jan 11, 2024; Paris, FRANCE; NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks before a NBA Game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers at AccorHotels Arena. Mandatory Credit:  Alexis Reau/Presse Sports via USA TODAY Sports
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has instituted many changes in the NBA over the past few years. (Alexis Reau/Presse Sports via USA TODAY Sports)

Silver is walking a tightrope as a changing landscape is moving so fast it’s hard to get in front of it. He’s tasked with not only growing the game but maximizing revenue — and make no mistake, those two elements do not run on the same track.

Being a steward for the game, and a historian, means he has to keep track of things to make sure they don’t get out of whack, while also not fighting the natural evolution of the game. The wild scoring nights and subsequent change in officiating since the All-Star break is proof of a necessary scale back.

Making the pie even bigger, especially as the NFL encroaches on more NBA turf, means Silver has to embrace almost every revenue shifter — be it gambling or the play-in tournament, or the in-season tournament, to keep pace.

The play-in has been a huge success, and the intended consequence of making the regular season more compelling has worked precisely as it was intended. The IST was so long ago it’s almost hard to remember it was just December the league convened in Las Vegas for the inaugural championship game — and while it wasn’t as definitive of a success as the play-in, it feels like a net positive, aside from the hideous floors.

So it’s not all bad, this change. At some point, new fans and incoming players will look at these new inventions as the status quo, and maybe even as tradition. But it has to stick around long enough to be treated as such, and the league has to exercise some level of caution as opposed to going all-in, all the time.

The league is at an inflection point of sorts, and maybe it's an impossible ask. Silver isn’t the authoritarian figure David Stern was, but Stern was respected and, in some cases, feared. Stern was no perfect figure, he had missteps and things he would’ve taken a mulligan on. But there was a feeling that at least the league had a compass, that nothing got too far out of the NBA’s reach. Silver’s relationship with players has been fruitful for the players in relation to Stern, but he can’t cash in on that equity to get them to perform or halfway compete in an All-Star Game.

Silver didn’t say abolishing the All-Star Game would certainly happen, but the fact he’s letting those words reach the public is a negative sign. Yes, it’s a meaningless exhibition with no real practical stakes, but it is important to the mythology of the game, to actually growing it for future generations.

But if Silver can’t get the players to see this is about something greater than themselves and their pocketbooks, it’s a failing on all involved. And those willing to give benefit to the players, rewarding them for not giving a damn but framing it as honesty, should have higher standards.

We’re seeing many taking advantage of the game, but who’s putting equity into it, something that can’t be measured in dollars and cents? All-Star Weekend is the league’s biggest moneymaker aside from the playoffs, and maybe the players are overtaxed with obligations outside of the game that they can’t prepare for it.

But therein lies the problem — the game has become an afterthought because so many other entities are eating off the trough of what the game has to offer. And nobody has recentered things yet.

That’s where Silver has the unenviable task of saying the hard things, of being the boss even though he has 30 bosses to answer to.

Things are moving so quickly, nothing feels institutional anymore. Give Silver credit for being pliable, for instituting new things, but if it continues it’ll become more difficult to keep up.

“Is that the year of the in-season tournament?”

“Wait, are the All-NBA teams positionless?”

“Did the league go back to East-West for the All-Star Game?”

Silver needs to put a stake in the ground and present a general ethos for what the NBA is going to stand for on the floor and off it, in the near future. Too often the league feels like it’s swaying to whatever the whims of the public are as opposed to having a firm grip on its identity.

So many of these things are unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we are still very much feeling the effects from. It’s sped up changes that perhaps were inevitable anyways.

But you just wonder if the league will lose the fabric of so many things that makes it special while chasing and courting every entity, sacrificing its beautiful soul along the way.

An unintended consequence, indeed.