After a long 27 year reign as one of the most powerful Commissioners in all of sports, David Stern, one of the primary men responsible for resurrecting the NBA in the 1980's, is now leading the charge to its demise.
It's hard to ignore all the good that David Stern has done for the NBA. Reviving the League from tape-delay hell in the early 80's. Championing cultural diversity and encouraging minority ownership (so enthusiastic was Stern about this that he quick "vetted" former Nuggets owners Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee without checking to see if they could afford to run a franchise.) Marketing the NBA effectively throughout the world to where the NBA is now a global phenomenon. Stern deserves kudos for that and will be remembered fondly for it . However ...
The reign of Commissioner David Stern needs to end soon for the good of the league.
I suppose that some would label me a Union supporter (which I clearly have been, and it would be a fair accusation) and conclude that I am not qualified to speak on this matter. However, my reasoning goes much further than player and economic relations. It goes well beyond three lockouts in 16 years (four, if you count the three-day lockout in 1996.) It goes beyond Stern's condescending and arrogant displays of his own power (say in recent press conferences.) It even goes beyond a refereeing scandal with former referee and convicted felon Tim Donaghy. It goes, simply, to the core of the NBA as Stern has constructed it.
It's my carefully considered opinion that Stern still commands a modicum of respect within NBA ownership. But his ability to run roughshod over the owners and impose his will on them ended with an influx of new ownership over the last decade. All of whom do not owe their success to Stern himself, but rather to their own businesses. It is these owners, primarily in small markets, who are pushing this lockout to its extreme. You get the feeling that Stern desperately wanted this lockout to end two weeks ago when the players and owners met with federal mediator George Cohen. But as Stern went home sick the hardline owners - including: Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt - took control. After making considerable progress, these owners felt that too many compromises were being made, so they put a screeching halt to the proceedings via a very odd appearance by Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen.
Stern leaving the negotiations that day wasn't in itself a sign of his weakening power, it was the owners disregarding their lockstep message (aided by Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver) that Stern had created, and took control of the situation. It was as clear a sign that the new owners are running the show. As witnessed by Miami Heat owner Mickey Arison's recent twitter comments and subsequent $500,000 fine, not everyone on the owners side is on the same page. Yet, increasingly, Stern's policies and league-wide hammer isn't quite what it used to be; nor is it particularly desired.
All of this could be forgiven if the Commissioner was taking the lead on real competitive balance reform. An establishment of a legitimate minor league system instead of a half-measure approach where some teams own Developmental League franchises and others disregard the D-Leauge all together. You really want to reduce player costs? Signing players to a minor league contract out of high school or college reduces up front costs and lowers the risk! You also can have a stable from which to draw from should you choose to develop from within. Why no one within ownership ranks talked about this is asinine. Stern could have taken the lead on this subject, but never did. As Tom Ziller of SB Nation.com said, this lockout seems to be more about covering the teams' interest payments on their massive loans than it is about creating a truly competitive league.
If Stern and the powers that be in the NBA office wanted to change competitive balance, how about a real change in marketing? I've been beating the drum on this for a year. There's no change in approach, and it's as if the owners want to have limits on themselves - with less money going to players - but don't want to change the fact that stars are marketed and favored above all else in the NBA. You want to know why teams can't seem to beat the teams with stars? It's because the culture and marketing of the NBA dictates it to be so. No matter what adjustments to the system happen this will ALWAYS be the case as long as the NBA continues to tell teams, "if you don't have a star, you might as well walk away." That's not on the players. That thought process rests firmly on the head of Stern and the NBA owners.
There's been no real leadership for actual change by the Commissioner. Just some pandering to the hardline owners. No vision. No outside the box thinking. Just a group of owners saying, "save us from ourselves." That's it. Nothing that will come out of this CBA will change the previous mentality. Acting on stiffer penalties for a hard luxury tax and screaming that it will create "parity" is disingenuous at best, a half baked change without even a hint at altering the culture of favoritism in the league.
With all the changes to come, watch the ensuing games. Watch LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony and other stars fall into that comfortable groove they have with referees and the NBA marketing department. When this happens, remember that the person who created this system is still the person in charge.
This is the same person who needs to be swept out with the new CBA.
Twitter: @jmorton78 https://twitter.com/#!/jmorton78