When speaking with players, coaches, executives, referees and even typically skeptical agents in recent weeks, their display of support for Adam Silver reveals a remarkable building of capital in his six years as NBA commissioner.
Under his leadership, the league and its partners have gotten richer. Silver has expanded support of players using their voices and platforms to make stands on social justice, and he has worked to open conversations and expand resources for mental health concerns.
In this uncertain and pressure-infused time, the currency Silver has developed could prove valuable. This seems to be particularly true with the players, as Silver must secure two deals with their union over the next few months that could test the limits of the relationship.
Silver has not been preparing for this exact moment, but he has been preparing for some big moment. He’s known for high character and compassion, but he’s also a savvy lawyer and negotiator. It is hard to be both, especially in such a public role.
First, Silver has to make a deal with the players to finish the season, to play in Walt Disney World this summer. That likely will include personal sacrifices and health risks on top of additional salary losses. Then the sides will have to move on to next season, which could necessitate a partial or complete renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement under the duress of evaporating revenue.
It might be the biggest task of any commissioner in the league’s history to navigate both in such a time frame. He’ll have to do it in a way that satisfies his bosses in the 30 owners. And he’ll have to do it while avoiding mutiny from players who could see large reductions in what were once guaranteed contracts. During a pandemic.
At the heart of this endeavor is the close relationship Silver has with the president of the union, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul. That partnership has developed over nearly 15 years of working on varying levels of projects behind the scenes.
Silver, Paul and union executive director Michele Roberts put together a tiring but relatively peaceful CBA extension after months of talks in 2016. In a signature moment for both, Paul won concessions for superstar players — clearly a goal — and Silver avoided a work stoppage. Considering two of the previous three CBAs put together by previous commissioner David Stern involved lockouts, this was not a minor feat.
At the time this was Paul and Silver’s biggest joint accomplishment but hardly their first. In 2006, when Paul was a second-year player and Silver had just been promoted to deputy commissioner, the young point guard called Silver to register a complaint about the synthetic leather balls that had been introduced. Silver later played a role in the decision to scrap the new ball.
Years later, in 2013, when Silver had been named commissioner-in-waiting and Paul had been elected to the union’s executive board, they worked together to get kinesio tape approved for use after the league had initially banned it, which had angered players.
So by last summer, when Paul called Silver to suggest implementing the Elam Ending to the All-Star Game, conversations yielding changes between these two power brokers had become routine. When Silver called Paul the day Kobe Bryant died to consult him on whether games should be played, it just showed how deep and important the issues they work on have become.
As the COVID-19 crisis has persisted, Paul and Silver have routinely been in touch. Paul recently told ESPN’s Royce Young that he makes sure multiple players are involved in talking with Silver during the suspension — that it’s not just him.
But as with so many issues over the past decade-plus, Paul and Silver have been at the heart of plans to restart the league, sources said.
When Roberts told ESPN last week that the players might not even vote on a plan to return to play, that statement caught some agents by surprise and left them reviewing the union’s bylaws, which do not require such a vote.
It’s not that Roberts, who recently has been holding calls with every team to provide information and receive feedback, is trying to hurry the process. It’s that Silver has made sure Paul and Roberts have had a seat at the table over the past three months as all this has unfolded. The union recently formed a players’ committee, led by Paul and joined by Kyle Lowry, Dwight Powell, Russell Westbrook and Jayson Tatum, to further consult with Silver and some of his top officials as the process unfolds. In this way the union has, in some respects, voted along the way.
One such example is the union’s preference to allow some family into a quarantined campus, which the league has made a priority for weeks as it has pieced plans together.
This is a contrast to what has happened in similar negotiations, like with Major League Baseball, in which the trading of proposals for a return-to-play model has been acrimonious. It’s possible the NBA’s talks could turn that way eventually — especially as matters of compensation come to the forefront — but Silver’s inclusion of the union along the way might give him a better chance of reaching an agreement despite the unpleasant nature of the issue.
When holding a call with all players several weeks ago, Silver listened to virus-related concerns and vowed to tell teams not to pressure players to return to facilities after it was raised as a concern. But he was also frank about the league’s financial position to prepare everyone for tough concessions ahead.
The league has the right to cancel the remaining 259 regular-season games, potentially wiping out more than $600 million in salaries (players are already having their paychecks docked to prepare for this). Yet despite having that hammer outlined within the current labor deal, Silver needs to get the union to agree to issues not covered by the CBA: playing games in the summer, entering a quarantine for weeks and adding some playoff play-in games for which there is no established salary structure.
A big reason Silver has been so popular is because the NBA has enjoyed massive revenue growth during his tenure in the wake of the $24 billion media rights deal he negotiated in his first months in the role in 2014.
When the NBA made that deal, rookies made a minimum of $500,000 and the most veteran players made a minimum of $1.4 million. Today the rookie minimum is $900,000 and the most veteran players make at least $2.5 million. By 2014, only two star players had ever earned over $30 million in one season: Michael Jordan (twice) and Kobe Bryant (once). This season, 20 players were contracted to earn more than $30 million.
In the same time frame, average team values have increased from $630 million to $1.3 billion, per Forbes. Three teams have sold for more than $2 billion and owners have seen borrowing power against their equity raise from $175 million to $325 million per team.
But now comes the pivot of how to manage money going out the door instead of coming in. The league might have to revamp how teams share revenue with each other and how players share money with owners. Silver might simply have to say no to some people. He might have to deal with players and their family members testing positive for the coronavirus because of an attempt to finish the season.
This is unfamiliar territory and a stress test to Silver’s way of doing business. By the time next season comes, if the relationships the NBA commissioner has cultivated with all parties comes away unscathed, it will be a minor miracle.