With everybody in the basketball world in Las Vegas for the Summer League, the NBA held meetings of both its competition committee and Board of Governors, and afterwards commissioner Adam Silver answered questions from the media. There were no bombshells, just a number of small but interesting changes or non-changes to the functioning of the league.
The NBA will likely move to straight 1-8 playoff seeding.
Currently, the three division winners in each conference are guaranteed a top four seed, along with the non-division winner with the best record. The logic of this rule was thrown into question this season, as the Northwest Division winning 51-31 Trail Blazers were seeded ahead of the 55-27 Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs.
Silver said that the competition committee recommended moving to straight 1-8 seeding regardless of whether a team wins their division. The Board of Governors didn’t vote on the proposal, but Silver said he expects it to pass before the start of the season.
This is a smart, overdue move. The Blazers shouldn’t be rewarded for playing in a garbage division, and the Spurs and Grizzlies shouldn’t be punished for playing in a difficult one. At a minimum, the Trail Blazers and Spurs/Grizzlies play 74 of the same 82 games; there just isn’t a big enough difference in scheduling to justify giving division winners a privileged position.
Left unmentioned by Silver was the future of divisions, and even conferences. If division winners don’t get any benefit, and if teams in the same conference play almost the exact same schedule no matter what division they are in, what is even the point of having them? And with the conferences remaining radically unbalanced, when is it time to get rid of them too? It would mean a bit more travel for teams on the coast, but during the playoffs last year the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors already travelled to “Western” Conference rivals New Orleans, Memphis, and Houston, which are all closer to New York than Oakland.
There will be no change to the intentional fouling rules to prevent Hack-A-Shaq.
People (maybe just basketball writers) complain endlessly about the intentional fouling of players like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, and Andre Drummond slowing down the game and making fans turn off the TV. After a playoffs that saw some terrible Clippers-Rockets games drag on due to intentional fouling, it was thought that maybe the NBA would have an appetite to change the rule.
There are plenty of easy solutions—adopt FIBA’s intentional fouling rule, let the team being intentionally fouled pick who shoots the free throws—but the NBA wants none of them. Silver said that both the competition committee and owners discussed the intentional fouling rule, and that there was no strong movement for change.
Small steps towards baseline safety.
For decades players have jumped over, tripped over, and ran into cameramen situated just a few feet beyond the baseline. If the NBA is ever shocked into moving cameramen back it will be because a star players gets seriously hurt, and that almost happened in the playoffs, when LeBron James got a camera lens-shaped injury on his head.
It seems obvious that the cameramen should just be moved back a couple of feet, but right behind them are (very high-) paying customers, so moving back means eliminating revenue. The NBA has come up with a compromise, and is looking into widening the currently existing “escape lane” on each side of the basket by a foot, and then adding an additional escape lane on each side of the basket. Here is the current basket configuration, with the escape lanes highlighted in red:
It’s not clear to me how much this will actually help. Sure, more empty space will reduce collisions, but most of the time collisions occur the players involved don’t really have control over their body to aim for an escape lane. The way I see it, a major injury to a LeBron, Durant, Davis, or Curry because they hit a cameraman will cost the league millions or tens of millions of dollars in revenue, far surpassing the lost revenue from a couple of baseline seats.
The awkward moratorium period will remain around 10 days long.
The league season begins July 1 each year, but while teams are allowed to begin negotiating with free agents at 12:01 a.m., they cannot officially sign them until a number of days later. This period is known as the moratorium, and exists so that lawyers and accountants from the league and players’ union can huddle together, fight over revenue, and determine what the next year’s salary cap will be.
That’s all fine and good, except that players agree to handshake deals during the moratorium, and then more handshake deals are predicated upon previous handshake deals. If everybody sticks to their word, no problem. But when DeAndre Jordan agrees to join the Dallas Mavericks and then four days later changes his mind and signs with the Los Angeles Clippers, the system falls apart.
Silver admitted that Jordan’s situation was not a “great look,” but said that the owners didn’t come up with a better alternative. I’ve read suggestions that by July 1 the league is capable of generating a very accurate estimate of what the salary cap will be, and should just let teams begin signing players, understanding that the final cap number might change a bit from the estimate. This makes more sense than the current system to me.
The league is doing great, but also a significant number of teams are losing money. Huh?
For the past year the league has tried to have its cake and eat it too. ESPN and TNT signaled extreme confidence in the league’s future by signing an incredibly rich new national television deal, the 2014-15 season saw record attendance, and teams are selling for bananas prices. By all public accounts the league is doing very well, and my inbox full of laudatory press releases can attest to the fact that the NBA is strongly pushing this message.
Yet in response to my article about how the Collective Bargaining Agreement is unable to prevent owners from shifting money among their assets and keep it away from players, the NBA asserted that “roughly” one-third of teams lost money this season. After saying the league is “very healthy”—and saying it a few other times in different words—Silver was asked directly about how many teams were still losing money, and said the number was “significant.”
The NBA would like to be seen as healthy, to have articles written about how well it is doing and how it is the sport of the future, to have sponsors believe they are buying into a product with a rocket-like trajectory. But come 2017 the players can opt out of the current CBA, and considering they were forced to give back billions of dollars during negotiations in 2011, it seems reasonable that they’ll argue “if the league is doing so damn well, we should get back some of the money we gave up.” Since the owners obviously don’t want to do this, Silver still has to sell the line that there are teams in dire financial straits.
Like all good businesses the NBA and its teams use skilled accountants that can make a balance sheet tell whichever “reality” they would like it to tell, which in this case means downplaying revenue and profitability. And even if teams are genuinely losing money, the NBA has never properly addressed why that should be the players’ problem. Donald Sterling could have lost money on the Clippers every single year, but he bought the team for $12.5 million and sold it for $2 billion, dwarfing any yearly losses. Since players don’t get any share of record sale prices, why should they pay for annual losses?
More so than the small changes above, the story of the NBA’s finances is the one to really pay attention to for the next 17 months, and it will be incredibly illuminating to watch how the NBA tries portraying its financial situation to different audiences.