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David Stern: An anchor of legacy

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source: Getty Images

This isn’t the David Stern we thought we knew. Or maybe it’s not the David Stern he wanted to be. Or maybe it’s not the David Stern who actually is David Stern.

The National Basketball Association has been under the care of Stern since 1984,with Stern having worked with the league in some capacity since 1966. Through that time he has ushered in the golden age of Bird vs. Magic, repaired a disastrous relationship with the television networks into a lucrative multi-platform product, and heralded in the Jordan Era, revamping the league’s entire marketing direction behind a single, colossal force. It is not a stretch to say the NBA would not have survived had it not been for Stern. You can point to Jordan’s ascendance as the saving grace, but someone at the top had to recognize what Jordan could do for the league and to have the fortitude, intestinal or otherwise, to put the full force of the league behind one player, no matter the cost.

David Stern saved professional basketball. And now there are many who think he has tried to kill it.

Stern implemented the dress code policy for players not in uniform, a divisive policy that did what it was intended, eased the image problems the league faced in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Was it fair? No. Like most policies for any company, it was a bummer. Stern and the owners staged the first lockout in 1999, needing a last-second deal to salvage a protracted season. Then 13 years later, he pulled the same maneuver, only with a more draconian approach. The lockout that cost the league 480 regular season games is famous for a lot of reasons. “How U,” mutant pizza, “enormous consequences,” and a host of memes. But perhaps none moreso than the hit Stern took to his public image and legacy.

What’s stunning is that no one’s really clear on what happened in the lockout. A lot of writers, big name writers with national support, spun Stern as the NBA’s version of Mr. Burns (making Adam Silver Smithers, a disservice to his leadership and intellect). He was described as borderline evil, an egomaniac hell-bent on destroying the players he had no regard for, he was accused of waging a personal war on the happiness of players. Others categorized him as nothing more than a puppet, a slave to the whims of a new era of ownership which would do what it wanted regardless of Stern’s influence. He was either out to get the players and put them back in their place in a non-in-any-way-subtlet racist domineering, or a feckless thug obeying the will of billionaires without hesitation or reservation.  So, no, the lockout did not put him in a good light.

But it was over, right? He could repair the damage and move on.

Except the Hornets.

The freaking Hornets.

George Shinn bought a team, made a mess of it, abandoned a great market in Charlotte that once upon a time in Carolina harnessed that state’s phenomenal passion for basketball, and moved it to New Orleans. Then he proceeded to drive it further into the ground, financially and basketball-wise. When Hurricane Katrina forced the team to play in Oklahoma City for part of the season, there were obvious signs that Shinn was thinking about filing for a new zipcode again. Shinn was generally regarded in the bottom five for NBA ownership. He wanted out. In a hurry. Health reasons sealed the deal. He would dump the team and the NBA threw the franchise and the city a bone by purchasing the team. The NBA did it to save face, but it should be noted, if it wanted the problem to go away quickly, if it wanted to simply resolve its issues, it could have tossed Larry Ellison a $325 million pricetag, taken a bath on the buyout of Shinn, and wiped its hands clean on the faces of Hornets fans.

The league did not, has not abandoned New Orleans.You’re not going to find that narrative hanging about many places, but it’s true.

The result, however, is that Stern was left with managing the franchise during a very delicate situation, the Chris Paul trade. You know what happened, I don’t need to fill you in. Stern vetoed the trade. Just a few notes on that situation.

  • Stern didn’t want to trade Chris Paul. Dell Demps didn’t want to trade Chris Paul. Monty Williams didn’t want to trade Chris Paul. The other NBA owners as investors in the New Orleans Hornets did not want to trade Chris Paul. The other NBA owners who had made significant financial concessions from their master plan in pursuit of granting small markets the ability to retain their own players did not want to trade Chis Paul. You know who wanted to trade Chris Paul? Chris Paul.
  • In what has become one of the great “if stupid people say it enough times, it becomes reality” stories of the year, it’s become popular storytelling that the trade was done, completed by both teams and when submitted to the league, Stern slammed down his big rubber stamp as commissioner and said “that’s not fair because we hate the Lakers (or Rockets if that’s your cup of tea)!”  People are unable to grasp the fact that somewhere in the chain of command, above Dell Demps is an ownership entity, shady as it may be, that had to approve it. Just like if you want to relocate your offices to a new building. You can have authority to research a new site, to contract out the construction, to get an estimate on total costs and a building plan, but you still need to go to the owner of the company and ask “Do you want to move here.'” Someone had to act as owner. And in the void of the other 29 NBA owners who you  definitely do not want making decisions for the Hornets along with their own, Stern became the face of the decision. It’s plausible to believe Stern acted as the owner in this capacity because any basic understanding of the chain of command will tell you someone had to.
So Stern rejected the trade, and that, more than anything else, has harmed his legacy. That’s right, he oversaw a league that lost games in two seasons within fifteen years in the modern era of sports media and turning down a trade which was not in the best long-term interests of a rebuilding club (as evidenced by any successful rebuilding project in the last thirty years) is the big black mark on his legacy. And it is. He should never have been in that position. It was a conflict of interest for Stern to be making those decisions, even if his own interests do not run in opposition to the Hornets. They should have been sold the moment the lockout ended, and if not, Dell Demps should have been granted autonomy. Maybe that wasn’t in the best interest of the Hornets, but it definitely wasn’t in the best interest of the league for it to remain in control of one of its franchises.
So the venom machine cranked up again. Not only does David Stern hate the players, he specifically hates Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant, and has a vendetta towards the Lakers for “basketball reasons.” That’s the new narrative. David Stern, anti-player.
There’s just one problem. If you’ve done your research, that sounds patently insane.
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Author David Halberstam wrote two NBA non-fiction books before his death in 2007. The first, “Breaks of the Game” serves as kind of a “before” picture to Jordan/Stern. It’s built around the 1980 Portland Trail Blazers, but to put the season in context, touches on the overall health of the league. In short, it wasn’t good. By comparison, his 1999 book on Michael Jordan, “Playing for Keeps” is the after-Jordan/Stern.” It reveals the growth of the league alongside ESPN and how Stern’s vision capitalized on the magnetic personality of Jordan.
Halberstam had an awe-inspiring ability to draw out perspective on people who are typically shrouded in mystery. Put simply, the guy worked on actual important things like the Vietnam War, and instability in third world countries, and 9/11. So no, sports was not a particularly daunting subject matter for him. In “Playing for Keeps,” Halberstam has a passage about Stern that stopped me in my tracks while flipping through it this fall during the unending lockout.
“If there was one lesson he was learning, it was that the league was its players, nothing more, nothing less, and that the best of these players, white and black, were uncommon men. More often than not, they were self-made, some of them the first generation in their families ever to be a success. They were men who had often lifted themselves up by the hardest work to reach their lofty positions. In time, when Stern eventually became commissioner, that simple perception served him well. Because most commissioners in professional sports are chosen by the owners, they are to all intents and purposes little more than the owners’ man, but Stern was different. He came in with such a love of the sport that even though he was very good with the owners and performed admirably for them, there was a large part of his soul that was always committed to the game itself — which meant it was committed to the players.”
That sound like the bogeyman of Secaucus? Is it possible that Halberstam, Pulitzer-Prize winner that he was, whiffed that hard on characterizing the man? Is it possible that Stern could have shifted so greatly in 12 years? Did Ron Artest and the Malice at the Palace really break that kind of an approach to the sport he’s been nurturing for 56 years? Doesn’t seem likely, no. But that doesn’t fit our need for a villain. And Stern, as slick as anyone you’ll find on a television screen, filled the role of punching bag.
This comes across blatantly as an apology, a defense of Stern. But Stern is certainly worthy of criticism, as anyone is. It’s just jarring how great the disconnect is between what perception of Stern’s legacy is now relative to what it’s been throughout his tenure as the caretaker of professional basketball. If we’re running down the greatest mistakes of Stern’s tenure within the past 15 years…
  • Not exerting enough institutional influence over ownership. The problem comes with the evolving idea that the commissioner is at the service of the owners of the league he presides over. But like an ombudsman’s job is to bridge the gap between entities with a broader scope, the NBA’s commissioner has a responsibility beyond that of just making his owners happy. He’s a caretaker for the sport. David Stern is responsible for watching over the game of basketball at all levels, as head of the highest level of organized play. Not only should Stern not be beholden to the owners’ whims (though he should certainly seek to address their concerns as entities within the game), he should actively seek to mold NBA ownership to the best possible model. That gigantic elephant in the room using the restroom is Donald Sterling. Stern has allowed poor ownership to run roughshod over the league, under the guise of “it’s their team.” But those teams make up the fabric of the history of the game, and as such, Stern’s responsibility is greater to those teams than the owners. We get lost in the fact that owners will come and go, minute by minute, far too often. There are icons of ownership, to be certain. But eventually they will be gone and the teams, at least some of them, will remain.
  • Failing to find a transition from the Jordan model of single-market dominance to plurality of success. You can use Jordan to put yourself on the map, to boost you into the stratosphere of success. You can put all your weight behind the Lakers to get you through the rough times. But eventually you have to address the fact that at some point, the other 25 owners of the league outside of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston are going to want to feel like they’re not just here for the comfy box seats. Stern can’t control on-court success, but the league has clearly marketed those teams nationwide to the detriment of its local clubs. We see it yearly. If the Grizzlies sold every night for Memphis like they do when the Lakers are in town, we wouldn’t be talking about their relocation.
  • Not acting swiftly enough to resolve the ownership situation of the Hornets. The idea was simple, to get through the new CBA and use the improvements to get a better price on the sale. But once it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen, the league needed to dump the asset. And if the other owners resisted, Stern needed to guide them back into the flock. Holding that asset is what allowed for the Paul trade to take place, and it continues to have an impact as agents and GMs struggle with trying to trade with the Hornets, even now.
  • Laying off as many employees as the league did during the lockout after one of the league’s most successful seasons in a decade. People who had been working with the league for decades lost their jobs because the NBA wanted to make it seem like they were taking on water. The teams were suffering (mostly of their own devise) but the league had little reason to clean house other than to make a point.
  • Allowing negotiations to drag out so far as to necessitate two lockouts. There’s just no getting around that being bad. Whether it was player insistence, owner stubbornness or plain old greed, Stern should have stepped in sooner, and more aggressively to both sides to avoid losing games. That’s on his watch.
There are others. Small moments of oversight where the Commish’s judgment failed in retrospect, but those are to be expected. The man’s human. He’s worthy of criticism, he’s worthy of praise. But somewhere in all this, his legacy has become circumspect, and it seems more and more that Stern will retire not as the champion of a league that he brought to unprecedented heights when there were concerns for its very survival when he took the reins, but as some sort of twisted despot, trying to bring the game down around him as it passed him by.
Stern spoke with the Orlando Sentinel during the All-Star break and when asked about his legacy, his response was fascinating.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

I actually don’t hope for a legacy. I think that it impedes your ability to make the hard decisions if you sit around saying how will this affect my legacy. You have to be willing to make difficult decisions and you know I think people will appreciate that as a CEO I worked as hard as humanely possible to guide this now enormous enterprise from the totally domestic $200 million business that it was to the global $5 billion dollar business that it is now that will hopefully set the stage for the next person to lead and continue the growth of this business.

via NBA David Stern: Sentinel Exclusive David Stern interview “I regret the 1998-99 NBA Lockout” – Page 2 – OrlandoSentinel.com.

Stern’s approach is probably right. Looking at the big picture in terms of yourself is damaging. But Stern should consider his legacy within the context of the legacy of the NBA and how that’s affected. And people should probably recognize that Stern is no demon, no monster hell-bent on crushing the soul of this league. He’s a kid from Chelsea who worked in a deli coming up, and wound up working for a sport he genuinely loves. He’s no more saint or demon than you or I. He’s a guy who works in a job, and sometimes he does it well and sometimes he does it poorly.

Stern doesn’t hope for a legacy, but more and more it seems that the league is dragging him by one throughout its history to the end of his.

(Image by Getty Images, slight adjustment by PBT for artistic effect.)

Watch Stephen Curry’s late lockdown defense (video)

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Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant might not think much of Stephen Curry‘s defense – Durant gave a great and tremendously honest answer – but Curry was at his defensive best late in the Warriors’ Game 5 win over the Thunder last night.

Curry locked up Durant multiple times. Also included in that clip: Curry’s rebound in traffic, because rebounding is a key part of defense.

The Draymond Green kicking controversy continued through Game 5

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after scoring against the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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We’ve shown you the video evidence beforeDraymond Green tries to sell calls by kicking. Despite the Flagrant 2 he picked up for one of those kicks that connected with Steven Adams‘ groin, he said he was never going to start playing “careful.”

He certainly didn’t in Game 5 — he got his foot up high not once but twice.

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As we said back when it happened, the league needs to come down harder on this next season — Green is far from the only player who does it, and the league can’t only call it a foul when it connects. The habit needs to be broken with all the players doing it.

Those kicks were not even the play were Green got a technical foul, his fifth of the playoffs (get to seven and you get an automatic one-game suspension).

Did Kevin Durant throw shade at Stephen Curry’s defense? Does Curry care?

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In the fourth quarter Thursday night, Stephen Curry came up big — on defense. He had a strip of a Kevin Durant shot as KD tried to bring the ball up for a shot, plus he had another steal. Curry is no lock down defender, but he made some plays.

After the game, Durant was asked if Curry is an underrated defender (video above). First, notice that Russell Westbrook laughs at the question — he hates giving opposing players compliments. Remember he said before the series Curry wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before. Durant stammered at first then tried to give a more diplomatic answer, but threw a little shade at Curry in the process.

“You know, he’s pretty good, but he doesn’t guard the best point guards. I think they do a good job of putting a couple guys on Russell, from Thompson to Iguodala, and Steph, they throw him in there sometimes. But he moves his feet pretty well, he’s good with his hands. But, you know, I like our matchup with him guarding Russ.”

As he should. I like the matchup of Westbrook vs. every other point guard in the league. Westbrook tore Curry up in Games 3 and 4.

Of course, Curry was asked about Durant’s comments when he came into the interview room, but he refused to take the bait.

“I got a great teammate that’s obviously a better defender on the perimeter. I like the challenge. I do my job the best I can”

He’s got a couple of teammates that are better defenders on the perimeter — Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Those guys are just busy with other players this series because the Thunder are deep and present a plethora of challenges.

This is all a tempest in a Conference Finals teapot. It wasn’t as big a deal as some in the media will try to make it out to be.

Curry is going to have to play defense and score better in Game 6 than his improved Game 5 play if the Warriors are coming back for one more game at Oracle Arena.

Tyronn Lue: ‘This is our Game 7’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
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TORONTO (AP) To keep their season alive, the Toronto Raptors are counting on a home-court advantage that saved them before.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers moved within one win of their second straight NBA Finals on Wednesday night by routing Toronto 116-78 in Game 5, the fourth lopsided game in a series where both teams have struggled mightily on the road.

Paced by the resurgent Kevin Love with 25 points, and 23 apiece from James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs built a 43-point lead in the second half and demolished the Raptors. Toronto lost three games in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena by a combined 88 points.

Fortunately, the Raptors are back home in front of their own frenzied fans and will host Game 6 on Friday night in Air Canada Centre, where the Cavs are 0-4 this season and lost Games 3 and 4 in this series.

After going 32-9 at home during the regular season, Toronto is 8-2 on its floor in the playoffs, and pulled off a Game 7 wins over Indiana and Miami.

The Raptors need it to be home sweet home one more time.

“We’ve got to play the same way we played the two home games we’ve had so far,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said Thursday, a day after he was hounded by Cleveland’s guards and scored just 13 on 5 of 12 shooting. “That’s all we can do. Can’t worry about the road. We might not get a chance to go back on the road if we don’t play the right way tomorrow.”

Toronto was overmatched from the opening tap in Game 5, falling behind by 18 after one quarter, 31 at halftime and finishing with 18 turnovers, five by Lowry.

“They’re drastically bad when you’ve got LeBron coming at you,” Lowry said.

In an all-over-the-map postseason, an elimination game against Cleveland is about as drastically bad as things have been for the Raptors, who led 3-2 in each of the first two rounds. Even so, Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan didn’t seem too troubled after Thursday’s film session.

“I don’t know why we get so comfortable once we put ourselves in a tougher situation,” DeRozan said. “We’ve been doing it all year and we always bounce back. I think we just thrive off adversity.”

Cleveland’s home record was one win better than Toronto’s this season, and the Cavs are unbeaten in seven home playoff games since Game 6 of last year’s finals. While his team has struggled in Toronto, coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t want to have to put that streak on the line.

“We want to come in with the approach that this is our Game 7,” Lue said. “We’ve worked hard all season to get to this point, and we want to treat this next game as our Game 7.”

After Wednesday’s big win, Irving said the hostile atmosphere the Cavs encountered in Toronto made them “probably my first legitimate two road games that I’ve experienced in my playoff career.”

“Our communication, everything had to be a lot sharper,” Irving said of battling the noise in the North. “We took a lot that we had to learn from that game, including myself. Going into Game 6, I feel a little bit more prepared than I was going into Game 3 and 4 of knowing what to expect, what it’s going to be like.”

If there was any good news for the Raptors in Game 5, it was the return of center Jonas Valanciunas, out since May 7 with a sprained right ankle. Casey said Valanciunas, who scored nine points in 18 minutes Wednesday, could provide offensive versatility in Game 6.

“Getting the ball in the post will be a calming effect for us,” Casey said. “He’s got to be able to make it out of the double team, as the guards do. We looked at that today. He can quarterback out of the low post as well as score out of the low post, and it gives us a third option.”

Can home court advantage and a healthy Valanciunas prolong the deepest playoff run in Raptors history and help Toronto reach a third Game 7?

Casey hasn’t given up hope.

“We’ve been here before,” he said. “We’re here at home. We’ve played well here at home. We are playing against one of the best teams in the NBA right now. Our guys take solace from being at home, understanding we’ve been here before and we can bounce back from it. I have faith we will bounce back.”