July 14, 2006
The Best Job in Sports
Okay, time's up. The most powerful person in sports is: David Stern.
It might not be evident on the surface, but David Stern is the NBA. Think about it. What changes have occured in the NBA over the last couple of years? The referees have let offense-minded players (and especially those who drive to the hoop) take over the game over the last year or so. In about the same timeframe, the most marketable players in the league changed from being big guys (Duncan, Shaq, KG) and are instead young, small guys who drive to the hoop (LeBron, Wade, Kobe). Coincidence?
Let's look at some of the other most important changes of the past couple years. Remember the dress code being implemented? Stern wanted a dress code. The players' union was furious, and they would not have a dress code. In the end, Stern got his dress code.
David Stern also wanted an age minimum implemented, which would force the best high schoolers to spend a year in college before going pro. The players' union didn't want it - many of them came straight from high school, and they didn't want the incoming young kids to get shafted. What happened? Stern got his age minimum*.
Remember the Artest melee in Detroit, when he got suspended for the year and just about everyone else on the Pacers served some sort of suspension? When they felt the suspensions were unfair and wanted to appeal them, who did they have to appeal to? David Stern. Guess what happened?
To borrow an analogy from ESPNRadio's Erik Kuselias, Stern is like Fidel Castro, and the NBA is like Cuba - nothing gets done without Stern's consent. It's the opposite of in baseball - while the MLBPA has most of the power and the owners usually get shafted (with the exception of the steroid testing), Stern always gets his way in the NBA, where the players association might as well not exist.
And that leads me into my second point - I would not be surprised one bit if Stern were to implement a rule in the near future that would help teams keep their young superstars more easily. Instead of signing the traditional five-year max contracts with their respective teams, LeBron, Wade, and Chris Bosh all opted to sign "three plus one" contracts - three years plus a player option for a fourth year. Since this leaves open the possibility of LeBron bolting earlier, I would expect Stern to soon give Cleveland all the help he can.
Why? Although I know Stern would love for the game's biggest star (LeBron) to go to a big market like New York, Chicago, or Boston, he's a very smart guy - he knows that if LeBron did bolt for New York, the conspiracy theorists would be all over Stern and people would complain that the league was too much in favor of big-market teams. LeBron is a big enough name to draw people anywhere, and if the Cavs could keep LeBron for the duration of his career, it would seem like a big victory for the little guy, and the parity of the league would go up. If LeBron were to leave Cleveland, it would make it seem like Stern is doing anything he can to make the game more marketable, even if it sacrifices the game's integrity. Stern is too smart for that.
(However, the downside to changing these rules for Stern is found in Chris Bosh. Bosh is a great player as well, but he doesn't have the big name that LeBron does, and while he would be a superstar in New York or Chicago, he's not going to get nearly enough attention up in Toronto. I don't know what Stern's going to do about that. Wade's already in a big market, and he's not going to leave Miami for a while, no matter what Stern does.)
By the way, most people think LeBron signed the deal so he could leave Cleveland after the 2010 season, because he thinks the team won't get much better. I don't think he was thinking about the competitiveness of the Cavs - in today's NBA, a team with one superstar always has a chance to go deep into the playoffs. In my opinion, LeBron's choice was purely a financial one - he can get more money if he waits for a couple years, because the new collective barganing agreement will raise the max contract value from the current $80 million up to a projected $150 million. I think that's the only reason LeBron chose that deal - Wade signed the same contract, and he's certainly in no hurry to leave Miami.
*Made you look.