While the world will stop to fete David Stern when he leaves his position as NBA commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, the actual business of the NBA will not pause. The $4 billion business is a machine for which crises are matter of fact, and Stern won't be short of major decisions over the next 15 months. Neither will Adam Silver get a free pass in his early days: he will meet immediate, constant challenges.
The biggest labor issues, specifically the potential expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement with players, won't be a major problem before or immediately after Stern's retirement. Either owners or players can opt out of the deal in 2017; expect to start hearing the rattle of sabres at the 2016 All-Star Game, Silver's third. But the issues on the front burner are pretty serious, too.
ARENAS, RELOCATION AND EXPANSION
Stern had to talk about this a little on Thursday, and it's perhaps the most impactful issue the league office will have a direct role in going forward. In short, there is no shortage of cities in desire of an NBA team, including Seattle, a top-10 market just about everyone agrees got screwed in 2008. But there is a shortage of teams wanting or able to move.
The Hornets are locked in down in New Orleans, thanks to Tom Benson (and, frankly, Stern, who blocked Larry Ellison's attempt to take the team to San Jose). The Grizzlies are re-committed to Memphis under Robert Pera. The two teams most frequently mentioned in relocation talks are the Kings and Bucks.
The problem, of course, is that Sacramento put together an arena plan that everyone except the Maloofs loved. Stern loved it, and was as critical as he's been in years toward an ownership group when the Maloof family tore the handshake deal apart. To abandon Sacramento in order to make Seattle whole would be highly absurd: Seattle lost its team largely because its politicians wouldn't play ball with the NBA. Sacramento did everything the NBA asked. The redistribution would be somewhere between ironic and disgusting.
The Bucks are embarking on finding a local solution to replace the Bradley Center. Herb Kohl, the team's owner, will retire from the U.S. Senate after the election, and plans to dedicate his time to finding a solution. Milwaukee is one of the NBA's most historic markets, and it'd be painful to see it lost, even to Seattle's benefit.
This is why we're talking about expansion. Back in August, I argued it wouldn't be long before the subject was discussed widely, and ... welp. Here we are. Stern mentioned it Thursday and, while it might take another year to be seriously considered, I have a feeling it'll be at the top of the list of Stern's final wishes by the end of 2013. Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Friday that Stern wants a team set to return to Seattle before he retires. If he can't convince the Maloofs to sell or the Bucks to move, he might put expansion on the fast track. Everyone in Sacramento, Seattle, Milwaukee, Anaheim and Edson, Kan., has their fingers crossed.
DRAFT AGE MINIMUM
One of the major issues the NBA and players' union punted in the 2011 lockout deal was that of the age minimum for the draft. A committee of players and owners was supposed to deal with the subject this offseason, but it's been quiet, which makes me believe that Stern wants to keep it at 19. Word was that he pushed to extend it to age 20, which would turn "one-and-done" into "two-and-through," or something. The fact of the matter is that the age minimum solves nothing for anyone. The league says it helps teams make more informed decisions in the draft, yet the rate of busts in the top 10 has not changed noticeably. (I present to you Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson, Joe Alexander and ... you get the point.)
The league also likes that it keeps NBA teams from devoting scouts to AAU circuits and high school gyms. The sentiment underneath the public eye is that right now, with the age minimum in place for seven years, no team is staying away from the AAU circuit or high school gyms. They are just being more creative about how they scout 15- and 16-year-old prospects.
The age minimum can't flap in the wind forever, and Stern will have to answer to it before he retires. If it doesn't change, Silver will be tasked with revisiting it -- and either extending it or rescinding it -- in 2017. But it's currently unresolved, and it needs to be addressed.
The NBA has an expanded but fairly well-hidden new revenue sharing system in place -- reports have suggested the Lakers, for example, will have a $50 million payment due this season, and that teams like the Kings can survive financially off of their intake. Stern has to remain diligent that it's not abused by the small-market teams or overly punitive to the teams that print money. As it's a brand new system for all intents and purposes, it needs to be monitored and tweaked.
Luckily for Stern and Silver, it spawned from a deal between the owners -- not the owners and players. That gives the league the freedom to make changes before 2017. With far less centralized financing than the NFL and a far greater impact of income inequality on teams' performance than Major League Baseball, this is a particularly special challenge for the NBA. The league absolutely has to get this right to protect both ends of the spectrum.
Under Stern's watch, the NBA has made serious outreach efforts into China. (I'm surprised President Obama and Governor Romney haven't ripped Stern for outsourcing basketball, frankly.) The league needs to do more. The NBA's strength relative to the other major American leagues remains international audiences. The NBA is far more popular than the NFL or MLB in Europe and Asia, but the market in the latter is still relatively untapped. Until every 12-year-old in Beijing has a favorite NBA team (and that team's jersey), the league's work is not done. This is where Silver can best leave a fresh imprint on the league from Day 1. It'll take creativity and investment, but Silver's almost assuredly the right person to tackle this topic.
There will likely be no shortage of other small crises or opportunities for Stern to head up in the next 15 months, but stunningly, the major ones have to do with money. Go figure.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.