CLEVELAND — Adam Silver, like a lot of Americans, is longing to get things back to “normal.”
That new normal likely will not be the same as the pre-pandemic normal — nor, necessarily should it be in every aspect — but as the NBA Commissioner addressed the media, he focused his remarks on returning the NBA to its traditional footing. That is his goal now.
“In terms of a post-pandemic NBA, we’re looking for something very much closer to the normal that we are familiar with, and we are beginning to see that already,” Silver said. “As most of you know, with the exception of a portion of the season in Toronto, we’ve seen full buildings. The regulations vary from city to city, state to state, but the teams have all managed to work through those issues, and fans have been eager to come back.”
When asked what this new normal specifically meant, Silver talked about the return to international games, preseason and regular season games played overseas or in Mexico. It’s about the global footprint of the NBA, which is where most of its growth in the coming years will happen.
“One of the things that we look forward to begin doing again is international travel,” Silver said. “We’re very much a global league, and the opportunity to bring teams to other continents, to other places in the world is part of how we believe we grow the sport because we can have, I think, a dramatically larger impact by showing up in those cities creating a lot of excitement around those teams. That’s one thing in particular.
One thing the new normal will not include, at least next season, is Silver’s desire for a mid-season tournament. That idea has fallen flat with fans and many players, but Silver said the success of the play-in tournament at the end of the season should open the players’ eyes to the possibility.
“Now with the in-season we’re thinking not for next year,” Silver said. “But roughly within the same footprint we operate now, maybe we can create some new competitive opportunities, find ways to enhance competition within the season, create a new cup, trophy that players are competing for.”
Here are other topics Silver discussed in his annual meeting with the media.
• Silver was asked multiple questions about the long-term fallout from the Ben Simmons/James Harden trade and situation. While the story certainly generated a lot of headlines for the league, the narrative of one All-Star player refusing to play for his team (and getting fined for it), and another top player passive-aggressively forcing his way off a team (he did eventually ask to leave) was not a good look for the league.
Silver said there is no one simple, straightforward answer to that question.
“I don’t think there will be a time in the future, at least while I’m involved in the league, where society is going to change so much that players aren’t going to express their views on where they want to play or don’t want to play,” Silver said. “But I think there’s a sense around the league that there are improvements we can make to our system…
“Again, it’s no secret that I’ve expressed my unhappiness with public trade demands. In the case of Ben Simmons I don’t think — I can’t think of a change to the system that to the extent you have a player that is willing to sit out and not be paid, which is the scenario we have right now. I don’t want to speak for Ben, but that was the posture we saw that case of a player saying that, I’m unhappy in the city, and I’m not going to play, and you had a team saying we’re not going to pay you, and there’s going to be discipline. There’s a stalemate. Ultimately, he got traded. I don’t want to pretend standing here that I have some secret idea that I know can fix that problem.”
Silver also said no other team has lodged a formal tampering complaint with the league about Philadelphia reaching out to Harden while he was under contract to another team. He said right now there is no league investigation into the situation. He also hinted, since Brooklyn and Philadelphia found ground for a trade, the tampering issue may not be as successful in this case.
Again, Silver said there is no simple one-size-fits-all answer here.
“I think it’s a problem when players are paid not to play,” Silver said. “In some cases, that’s by mutual agreement with the team… and it’s a hard line there because if it truly is by mutual agreement, I’m not sure the league office should be interfering.
“On the other hand, this goes back to my pay-for-performance point earlier. You have an aggregate hard cap in essence. They’re 50% of our system, the money is paid to the players. For every dollar that goes to a player that’s not producing on the floor, that’s $1 less that’s going to a player that is performing. That shouldn’t be ideal for either players or teams. Do I have a ready fix? No. I think, again, I’m hoping that those are the kinds of issues that when we sit down with the players, we can approach collectively.”
• Silver also talked about diversity in the NBA front office ranks. He said while progress has been made, there are still steps to take at the top decision-making levels with teams.
“We’ve made more progress in other areas. And in terms of CEOs on the business side of teams, we would absolutely love to see more progress there,” Silver said. “One of the things that I have learned that not only do you have to talk about it all the time, but the actual numbers, you have to speak very specifically about it and share that data, talk about it collectively and set targets and move forward there. I think that, no doubt, that’s an area we can do a better job.”
• One area of change Silver suggested — which became a debate on Twitter for a while — was reporters returning to the locker room. Reporters being allowed in locker rooms to talk to players during specific windows (pre- and post-game) were written into the rules pre-pandemic, but went away with health and safety protocols as COVID raged. Silver said he wasn’t sold the practice should return.
“I also think it’s a bit of an anachronism to have reporters in the actual room where players are dressing,” Silver said. “I think it’s different now. I think there are different expectations of privacy, but at the same time I recognize we have to create an environment where you all can do your jobs. I think it’s something, there is an association that you are all members of, that we should sit down and work together.”
Silver focused a couple of times on media watching players dressing and there was quick pushback to the league on that front — trust me, nobody is in there watching players dress. Nobody cares about that, it’s about game and other stories. Silver later walked that part of his comments back in a clarification.
At its heart, this is a debate about teams and players trying to control narratives, especially ones they don’t like. It’s also not a debate that should be litigated right here, right now, but this is going to be an ongoing issue under the surface of the league for a while.