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Decoding Adam Silver’s State-of-the-NBA Address

The commissioner had a lot to say about competitive balance, the age limit, and the start time of free agency at his annual press conference in Las Vegas. Here’s what he really meant.

Adam Silver stands at a lectern Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The state of the league is Kevin Knox. But Knicks-Lakers was already underway at summer league by the time commissioner Adam Silver started his annual press conference in Las Vegas following a Board of Governors meeting. Silver covered the hottest non–Knicks rookie topics, like competitive balance, the NBA’s age limit, and the start time of free agency. Some changes could be instituted before the current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2023-24 season. (Both sides can also opt out of the CBA in 2022-23.) Here’s a decoder showing what Silver meant, and what might be on the horizon for the league.

On Competitive Balance

Silver: “I’m not here to say we have a problem, and I love where the league is right now. [But] I think we can create a better system.”

Translation: Silver is pandering a bit here to Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players union. Roberts is adamant that there is no issue with competitive balance in the league, rehashing her case to The New York Times on Monday: “We exist to enhance the lives of the players. … The fact that one of the 30 teams, at this moment in time, is having its own moment, doesn’t trouble us or make us question the merits of our system.”

Roberts’s side of the argument traces back to 2015, when the union rejected the NBA’s proposal to gradually increase the salary cap, instead preferring the money from a historic TV deal to hit all at once during 2016 free agency.

Silver: “I don’t necessarily think it’s, per se, bad that the Warriors are so dominant. As I’ve said before, we’re not trying to create some sort of forced parity. What we really focus on is parity of opportunity. And a fair point could be made in the tax system, when certain teams are spending significantly more than others, that that’s not parity of opportunity.”

Translation: Silver is suggesting the league might try to allow for more parity by capping how much a franchise can spend in luxury taxes. If an owner’s bank account will go there—Clay Bennett, chairman of OKC’s ownership group, is on the hook for a historic $310 million in payroll and luxury taxes this season until Carmelo Anthony’s departure is finalized—they are effectively playing on a different field.

Silver’s focus on luxury tax didn’t begin when DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Warriors for just $5.3 million. Five years ago, the commissioner said that “for the long-term health of the league, we would rather do more to level the playing field among our teams, so the teams that have disparate resources are all competing with roughly the same number of chips, so to speak.”

Adding a more punitive luxury tax after the 2011 lockout has proved an effective deterrent for some franchises. But you could argue that even the repeater tax isn’t enough to keep a franchise rolling in cash like the Warriors, even after revenue-sharing, from paying big to keep its All-Star core. By instituting a hard cap, everyone would be flying economy. Like Kevin O’Connor wrote last week, this won’t necessarily fix everything. (According to Roberts, there’s nothing to fix.) It won’t stop superstars from taking pay cuts.

But Silver’s term, “forced parity,” suggests that the league isn’t interested in anything that would restrict who teams can sign. Cousins’s deal with Golden State sparked a few alternative suggestions: Maybe only a certain number of All-NBA players could be signed, or maybe a team could sign no mid-level exception or veteran’s minimums the season following a championship. For now, it doesn’t sound like Silver wants to go there.

On the NBA’s Age Limit

Silver: “My personal view is that we’re ready to make that change.”

Translation: Currently, domestic players can enter the league when they are both 19 years old and a year removed from high school, and international players can enter at 19 years old. The one-and-done rule was born in 2005, two years after LeBron James was drafted right out of high school.

Last November, Silver said the one-and-done wasn’t “working for anyone.” The commissioner has also become increasingly outspoken about the NBA offering an alternative to college after the pay-for-play scandals came to light this past season. At All-Star Weekend in February, he said that despite being “outside of our cycle of collecting bargaining right now, which is when we generally address an issue like that. But Michele Roberts and I also agree that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be discussing it right now.” The statements were followed by an ESPN report in March that the NBA was considering a path where 18-year-olds out of high school could get “meaningful salary” either from an NBA team or through a scaled-up version of the G League.

Another interesting alternative would be forming an academy system, not unlike the model used by European soccer clubs. But that’s also AAU’s ground now, and I doubt what reign shoe companies have over it will be given up to the NBA. A plan involving the G League appears most probable. Overall, a reversal of the one-and-done rule appears certain.

On the Start Time of Free Agency

Silver: “I’ve not only heard from my friends in the media, but as I get older and the people I grew up [with] in the NBA get older, I think we’re all tired of all-nighters. I also heard from several teams, ‘Does this really have to be at midnight?’ I think that’s something we need to find agreement on with the Players Association, but I think we can change it for next year.”

Translation: Free agency opens July 1 at 12:01 a.m. ET. Considering all of the My Next Chapters, players jumping ship, and bad signings, opening night is dramatic enough. Does it really need to happen on Cinderella’s time? The start of free agency has already become an event, with ESPN’s The Jump analyzing the updates, and the media following it all. Imagine the viewership if it were to open at prime time.