David Stern was all business, and that was good for the game

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David Stern said Thursday as he talked about stepping down as commissioner that he is not a big fan of the “L”word — legacy. So we’ll call it his story. It could make a good novel.

David Stern’s story is a uniquely American story. His is a story about a smart, savvy, businessman chasing the dollar on behalf of the other, richer men that hired him. He could be genial, he at times was ruthless.

David Stern was all business with the NBA.

The result features so much good — you can argue he saved the NBA and today players and owners prosper because of his vision. But there is a ying to the yang — two lockouts to start with, there are fans in places like Seattle left wanting. Good or bad, everything on his ledger is a result of him chasing money. He will tell you about the good of the game, but for him what is good for the game is seen through the prism of dollar signs.

Ultimately, how you look at Stern’s legacy speaks to how you look at America’s corporate culture. Above everything else Stern was he was a businessman. Adam Silver, the incoming commissioner when Stern steps down in 2014, both embraced and praised that about Stern.

“David has transformed an industry, not just the NBA, and he has done it over 30 years plus…” said Silver at a press conference Thursday, adding that Stern had been the NBA general council before he became commissioner. “I think David is the one who turned sports leagues into brands, if you want to speak business. As (Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor) pointed out, 40-fold increase in television revenue, all kinds of other business metrics we can look at that would define David as one of the great business leaders of our time.”

Stern was a great business and marketing mind, and what great business minds do is seize on an opportunity.

That opportunity came first in the form of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Michael Jordan after them. Those were transcendent personalities, people who made you want to tune in and watch basketball because it was fun and graceful and part work of art. Then they could sell the game afterwards.

But Stern knew how to market those men and to lift the entire NBA by doing so. In 1981 four of the six NBA finals games were shown by CBS on tape delay, but a few years later the NBA was must watch television. Stern knew how to market his stars and while some complain about the NBA being star driven not team driven, the bottom line is that stars drew eyeballs.

If it had not been for Stern and his vision for the television product, the NBA would not be close to what it is today.

He was a marketing man, and that made the NBA owners a lot of money. You don’t get to keep your job as commissioner for 30 years unless your bosses are happy, and the owners have been happy. Franchise values rose with those television deals, which led to new arneas, which led to more and more revenue streams. He grew the league by adding team. He grew the revenue by pushing the league internationally

And the players benefitted, too — they get a cut of all of that revenue. Players’ salaries are required to be a part of the league’s revenue.

But any chase for money has unpleasant consequences.

It was how share all that revenue which led to Stern’s darkest hours — the two NBA lockouts under Sterns watch. His rich owners wanted more money and Stern was happy to be their bulldog and get it from the players. To take that profitable league he built and say how owners couldn’t make money any more came off as condescending, but it didn’t slow him down.

Stern was good was finding rich owners and not really worrying about what they wanted — which led to Seattle being screwed out of a franchise, and the five other cities that saw teams move while Stern was owner.

Even down to the simple things — the NBA’s dress code of a few years ago was aimed at softening the hip-hop image of players and making them more palatable to the older, more conservative, more suburban people paying for the ever-more-expensive luxury boxes and corporate seats near the floor.

In the end, that chase for the almighty dollar may have hurt some but it left us with a better game. It’s a game we can now see for free on our HD televisions almost nightly. The NBA’s rule changes — like the no hand checking on the perimeter — opened up the flow of the game and made it more entertaining. Even things like taking the three-point line from the old ABA helped space the floor and has led to a better product. David Stern understood how to get a product that fans want and could be more easily sold.

The NBA and basketball in general are better off and more popular because of Stern. His legacy is not without scars and tarnish, but in the end the league was better off because of his nearly 30 years in charge.

And through it all, David Stern was all business.

NBA lowers 2020-21 salary-cap projection to $116M

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The Knicks, Raptors, Hawks and Grizzlies project to have major cap room next summer.

Just a little less now.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The salary cap won’t be set until the summer it takes effect. So, there’s plenty of time for the exact number to fluctuate. But this projection was updated after evaluating how teams spent this summer – a key factor.

For perspective, the salary cap is currently $109,140,000. So, going to $116 million next offseason would still be a significant increase – just not as large as previously expected.

Next year’s free agent class is weak. It’s Anthony Davis then… maybe not a single other star. So, small shifts in the cap projection will create only minor ripples.

Everyone has their eyes on the 2021-22 cap. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could all be unrestricted free agents that summer. That amount of talent availability requires careful planning.

Magic exercise Markelle Fultz’s $12M team option

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Magic general manager John Hammond said he had “no idea” when Markelle Fultz will play.

A couple encouraging assessments and an uneventful video later, and Orlando is guaranteeing Fultz $12,288,697 in 2020-21.

Magic:

That’s the power Fultz still holds as a former No. 1 pick. Even Anthony Bennett had his third-year option exercised. (He just never made it to the third season of his rookie-scale contract, taking a buyout instead.) It’s tough to cut bait on premier young talent.

But Fultz’s NBA career has been so miserable so far. With the rookie scale increasing under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, he’s due a significant salary.

Because the 76ers drafted Fultz, Orlando had more leeway to decline the option without embarrassment. But the Magic are clearly committed to Fultz.

They had until Oct. 31 to decide on these options, which are for the 2020-21 season. These were easy calls on Jonathan Isaac ($7,362,566) and Mohamed Bamba ($5,969,040). But it’s nearly unfathomable Orlando didn’t evaluate the mysterious Fultz in training camp, preseason and even into the regular season before deciding on his future.

Perhaps, the Magic believe the early show of faith will give Fultz much-needed confidence. If so, this is an expensive bet on a player totally unproven at this level.

At least there’s major upside to it.

Rockets owner: Harden and Westbrook talk like brothers ‘instead of one thinking that he’s the mentor’

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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hasn’t hidden his discontent with Chris Paul‘s shortcomings.

Sure, Fertitta says plenty of niceties about Paul, whom Houston traded to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. But even Fertitta’s optimism about James Harden and Westbrook – who were friends as kids and played together in Oklahoma City – includes what sounds like criticism of Paul.

Fertitta, via Sam Amick of The Athletic:

James and Russ go back a long ways in California, so they can talk to each other like brothers, you know, instead of one (player) thinking that he’s the mentor. I just think it’s going to go well.

At the very least, it’ll be impossible to convince anyone that assessment is uninfluenced by seeing Paul throughout the previous two seasons. At most, it’s a deliberate shot at Paul.

Paul has always been the general. As he has gotten older, that has bended into being the mentor.

It’s often very helpful. Paul’s focus, discipline and intensity have generally served his teams well. His teammates have benefited from following his lead.

But Paul can also wear on people. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened with Harden, who’s better than Paul and had established himself as Houston’s franchise player before Paul ever arrived. Paul had never even gotten past the second round before teaming with Harden. If you were Harden, how much would you want to hear Paul telling you the right way to do things? There were clearly issues between the two.

Now, Harden and Westbrook get a fresh start together. They sound quite eager about teaming up.

But don’t assume it will definitely go better. It’s like friends becoming roommates. Sometimes, it strengthens the relationship. Sometimes, it ruins the relationship. It’s often difficult to tell which way it will go until moving in.

Remember, Harden and Paul were initially enthusiastic about their partnership.

Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperate was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A