It may be No. 7 this season, but Adam Silver, Michelle Roberts and their relationship could be the No. 1 story of 2017.
This story started back in February, when in an orderly transition Adam Silver took over as the Commissioner of the NBA from long-time benevolent dictator (well, sometimes) David Stern. In his 30 years in the big chair David Stern had left his distinct mark on the NBA and his authoritarian style was how the league was run.
Silver is a CEO for a modern era and instantly there were some changes just in transparency and how things were done. The most noticeable at first was more transparency in regards to officiating — the memos referees were sent became public, the admissions of mistakes by the official became more common. Also, Silver never heard an idea he wouldn’t consider. While the overall direction of the NBA was not about to change — Silver had been Stern’s right hand man for a decade — the style was different. There felt like inclusion.
Silver knows a commissioner keeps his job by making the owners rich(er), and with that he helped negotiate a new television deal for the league that nearly doubles the league’s broadcast revenue. The owners liked that and the players — who will get about half of that money — liked it as well.
Then Silver got his first real test — Donald Sterling.
Tapes of a private conversation Sterling had with his… whatever V. Stiviano was leaked to TMZ. (Likely from her camp, it was a power play to get Donald’s wife Shelly Sterling to drop a lawsuit against Stiviano.) For years the League had been embarrassed by Sterling and both his business practices and the way he ran the team (at least up until the last couple years) but owners get a wide lane to drive.
Not this time. Not from Silver. The NBA’s new commissioner banned Sterling for life and said the league would take over the team and sell it if Sterling didn’t. Then he helped orchestrate a Machiavellian move by Shelly Sterling to grab control of the Sterling Family Trust and sell the Clippers out from under Donald to Steve Ballmer for $2 billion.
Through it all Silver looked decisive, particularly when compared to how NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell was handling that league’s legal/public relations challenges. Silver was well liked by players, listening to their concerns, too, and making moves like giving the NBA a week off around the All-Star Game in 2015.
Nearly equally big news in 2014 was the National Basketball Players Association — the NBPA, the players’ union — hiring Michelle Roberts to be the executive director of the union. This was a radical hire in a lot of ways — a woman, an African-American, and someone who comes more out of a litigation than a labor background. The family (read: nepotism) atmosphere of the NBA players union was gone.
In its place is a leader in Roberts taking much more aggressive stances — she said the premise of a max salary offended her, that she would fight a raising of the age limit (something very high on Silver’s wish list), and she said that players matter more than owners.
This talk rankled some fans and some owners, but Roberts came in and did exactly what a labor leader should do. The players union has lost the last few Collective bargaining Agreement negotiations and from the start Roberts wanted to change the narrative, something a lot of players and agents thought the league controlled the last time around. She wants to put the owners on the defensive. What’s more, she wants to move where the center is — which is exactly what the owners did in the last negotiation. At that time Stern and Siver came out talking about a hard salary cap and other things they knew they would never get at the bargaining table, but if they put those things out there it moved the needle their way and when they took those things of the table the givebacks from the players moved things more to the owners’ liking.
Already, both Silver and Roberts are trying to do that in anticipation of 2017 (when either side can opt out of the current CBA and one will).
By then the influx of new television money will be on the table and while you’d like to think with all that cash there the players and owners would be careful not to kill the golden goose. However, we know that’s not usually how things go.
And in the summer of 2017 whether or not we see basketball that fall could come down to the relationship between Silver and Roberts.