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Adam Silver’s NBA Isn’t David Stern’s NBA

Stern ruled the league with an iron fist — and made the owners millions in the process. As Adrian Wojnarowski explains, Silver is taking a different approach.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Former NBA commissioner David Stern turned the NBA into what it is today: a money-making machine. Nearly three years into the Adam Silver era, things are running a bit differently. As Vertical editor Adrian Wojnarowski explains on The Ringer NBA Show, Silver is more inclusive and open, and that change allows him to run things differently.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Adam Silver Listens More Because He Has To

Chris Vernon: Let me ask you about Adam Silver. We talked earlier about the situation he’s got with the referees and the owners dealing right now. Your overall thoughts on the job he’s done as commissioner, obviously got the deal done with [National Basketball Players Association executive director] Michele Roberts, and how Silver’s NBA is different than Stern’s. Or if it is [different]?

Adrian Wojnarowski: I think it is different. I think it’s a little more inclusive. Adam cares what a lot of people think. He’s very curious about other people’s ideas, their point of view. I think David Stern, as he got older and the league was changing around him, I don’t know if he adjusted. When Stern first took over, all these owners who bought teams for a few million dollars [saw] the value of their teams [go] through the roof with the great Lakers, Celtics teams, and the television money started pouring in, and then the Jordan era. There were a lot of owners who just followed whatever David wanted; they were fine with [it] because he had made them a lot of money. They could sell their franchises for significantly more than they bought them for. The value of everything went up.

[Then] there came a new kind of owner in the league, who paid a hefty price for teams, some [of whom were] struggling to make money on those teams, based on the old economics of it, and wanted a far greater say in how the league was run. I don’t know if [Stern] adjusted as well to that, where the days of him just pounding his fist and saying, “This is the way it’s going to be. This is what we’re doing,” were over.

I think Adam navigates all that much better. I think he’s able to deal with a lot of different owners, a lot of demanding owners, easier than Stern did, and yet still be tough enough with guys when he’s had to make decisions. Whether it was moving the All-Star Game out of Charlotte, I mean, there had to be some selling to some people in the league. Even the Donald Sterling [situation], publicly everybody in the league — there was no one who wasn’t publicly going to back Adam Silver. Privately, there were a lot of owners questioning him because they were wondering, “That could be me. Maybe I didn’t say that. Maybe I don’t have the history that Sterling has,” or, “You’re not going to find me on tapes saying that. But there’s something else out there on me maybe, and if that ever got out, if we set a precedent [I could lose] my team too.” He had to sell the Sterling thing internally too. I think he’s been pretty adept at doing that.

Silver Has Also Connected With Players More

Wojnarowski: I think one thing he’s done a really great job of [is] his connection with the players. The players, especially in the later years, saw Stern as the enemy. In the ’80s I think he had a different relationship with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. He was seen as sort of a partner in the building of the league. He was later seen by players as an enemy, a guy that they just fought in collective bargaining, a guy who put the dress code on them. Adam has a different rapport with players, a different relationship.

Guys will come through the city on trips to New York; star players will come in and they’ll just sit for an hour with Adam Silver and shoot the shit with him. He’s done a really good job of that, and so when he’s got something he has to sell to the players, whether his relationship with LeBron James and LeBron’s inner circle, or other star players, he’s got relationships with them. If there’s big stuff coming down the pipe and he needs to get players onboard with something, he can reach out to those guys in a way that Stern couldn’t do later on. I think that’s served him pretty well.