Today marks Adam Silver’s 10-year anniversary as NBA commissioner. In honor of the milestone, The Ringer assembled 15 writers to examine the biggest challenges facing Silver over the next decade.
We spend a lot of time in sports fixating on legacy. We obsess over stats and awards and rankings. We counttheringzzz. These things define an athlete’s career. Compile enough of them, and people might call you an “all-time great”—and maybe even Photoshop your face on a fictionalized Mount Rushmore.
But grading commissioners? Well, that’s a far more fraught and subjective exercise. What exactly constitutes greatness? What even constitutes good? Is it just about revenue growth, franchise values, and Nielsen ratings? Is it all just a game of dollars and decimal points and popularity? Or is it more about the health of the sport itself? The state of the association?
On Thursday, Adam Silver will mark his 10-year anniversary as NBA commissioner, and the general consensus is that he’s been excellent. All the capitalistic metrics (which we won’t bore you with here) say so. Silver is also broadly liked and respected by fans and media, as well as by all his key constituencies: players, owners, coaches, and so on.
But the legacy of a commissioner is far more complex than any of that—and, I’d suggest, not even entirely within their control. A commissioner can lead and prod and persuade, serving as chief negotiator and chief spokesperson, but they are ultimately beholden to the über-wealthy owners who employ them. They’re also beholden to circumstance, to the economy, and to the trends of their time. Like a U.S. president, an NBA commissioner probably gets too much blame in tough times and too much credit in boom times.
And in truth, the job is far more reactive than proactive.
Consider the dramatic events that have most sharply defined Silver’s tenure: the banishment of Donald Sterling in 2014, the decision to shut down amid the pandemic in 2020, the suspension (and subsequent departure) of Robert Sarver in 2022. Silver handled each crisis with a sense of clarity and conviction, earning praise for his leadership. But these defining moments were foisted on him by fate, not sought out.
Or consider the 30-year tenure of the late David Stern, Silver’s predecessor and mentor. Stern is fairly credited for steering the NBA through tumultuous times, especially in the early 1980s, when drug use was rampant and the Finals were televised on tape delay. Stern’s steady leadership and savvy marketing were critical to the NBA’s renaissance. But that renaissance never would have happened without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, without the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the ’80s, or without Michael Jordan in the ’90s. Stern might have been the best person to leverage all that talent and charisma for the league’s benefit—but he didn’t create any of it.
In Silver’s first 10 years on the job, the NBA has seen its revenues nearly triple (to a projected $13 billion) and franchise values grow eightfold (to an average of $3.9 billion), and again there’s some degree of business and marketing savvy at work. But none of it would have happened without LeBron James and Stephen Curry, without the Heatles, without the Warriors dynasty.
We can point to some clear wins for Silver: a decade (and counting) of labor peace, the success of the COVID-19 bubble and the play-in tournament and lottery reform, a more efficient schedule and a kinder, gentler leadership style that’s endeared him to players and strengthened that critical partnership. There have been notable missteps, too, including failed attempts to fix the All-Star Game, failed experiments like the NBA Awards show, and conflicted messaging on China and social justice.
How will we ultimately assess Silver’s stewardship? That likely depends on the unforeseen crises that lie ahead, as well as on the initiatives and experiments that Silver pursues.
Expansion is looming, with new teams likely to land in Las Vegas and Seattle; can the league support 32 teams, financially and competitively? A new media rights deal is in progress; what if it’s not lucrative enough to support the league’s ambitions (and skyrocketing player salaries)? Can the league survive all the cord-cutting? Can the streaming services make up the difference? Will the influx of gambling revenues be the answer? And what happens when a player, coach, or referee is caught in a gambling scandal? What if franchise valuations are just a bubble? What happens if it bursts?
What of the game itself? Scoring and efficiency have boomed over the past decade, generating lots of excitement. Has it gone too far? Are we due for a course correction? All-Star Weekend has lost its luster; can Silver revive it? Is the in-season tournament here to stay? Is it worth the hype and investment? A two-day draft is coming. Will anyone watch? What about load management? Silver initially styled himself as a “player-friendly” commissioner who embraced such measures; now he’s backtracked amid fan and owner backlash, but his latest initiatives have made nominal impact. Will the league finally consider a shorter schedule to fix this issue for good?
To examine that and more, The Ringer assembled 15 writers to identify the biggest challenges that Silver will face in the next 10 years. Let’s start with perhaps the most critical question of all … —Howard Beck
Who Is the Next Face of the League?
Beck: LeBron James is 39 years old. Stephen Curry turns 36 in March. They’ll surely retire within the next three to five years. It’s impossible to overstate their impact—or how impossible they’ll be to replace.
LeBron and Steph haven’t just dominated the better part of the past two decades—they’ve changed the game. They’ve set the standard. They’ve defined the debate. They’ve combined for eight championships and six MVPs since 2009. Eleven of the past 13 NBA Finals involved at least one of them, including a four-year stretch when they met every June.
The league is bursting with young talent, yes. But it’s a mistake to equate “talent” with stardom, or stardom with superstardom. Because becoming the next LeBron or the next Steph—assuming the mythical role of Face of the League—requires way more than just basketball dominance.
Michael Jordan didn’t just rack up championships and MVP trophies—he inspired us, moved us, left us awestruck. He was positively electrifying. Off the court, he had the charisma, personality, and charm to match. You can’t become the Face of the League without all of it.
Allen Iverson had the sizzle, but not the equivalent success or charm. Tim Duncan had the success, but not the personality (or even the desire to engage). Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal each had the requisite talent and charisma, but they were too polarizing to become Jordanesque. (There’s a reason the league spent a decade-plus desperately searching for “the Next Jordan.”)
Nikola Jokic currently holds the title of Best Player on Earth, but he’s almost as publicity averse as Duncan. Reigning MVP Joel Embiid has yet to make a Finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo is both dominant and charismatic, but he hasn’t won enough or captured the zeitgeist the way LeBron and Steph have.
Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker have the talent, but not the hardware or the pizzazz. Luka Doncic doesn’t have the success—or any apparent interest in marketing. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant were supposed to be saviors, but they can’t get out of their own way.
Maybe it will be Victor Wembanyama, with all that mesmerizing size and skill. Maybe it will be Anthony Edwards, who shows Jordanesque flashes on the court and an impish charm off it. Or Tyrese Haliburton, who’s just now flirting with stardom and seems ready-made for advertisers. Or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Or Tyrese Maxey. Or Scottie Barnes.
The league might need them all, too, because in the next half decade, it’ll also be losing Kevin Durant (35), Russell Westbrook (35), Jimmy Butler (34), Damian Lillard (33), and Kawhi Leonard (32).
The truth is that the NBA, for all its marketing savvy, can’t simply conjure a Next Jordan or a Next LeBron or a Next Steph—these guys are self-made. But it doesn’t mean that Silver and Co. won’t try. Indeed, they have to.
The Regular Season
Seerat Sohi: Here’s a simple theory for why the NBA’s regular season has become so boring: The participants learned how to beat the game. Blame the avant-garde San Antonio Spurs, whose sports scientists ushered in the idea that rest correlates with winning. Duncan averaged less than 30 minutes per game in his final six seasons, and the Spurs averaged 58 wins and won their fifth championship in his second-to-last season. As he hoisted his final title, the rest of the league had to admit the virtues of load management—fines be damned.
Think of the regular season like it’s a video game: Once the majority of players learn to manipulate the rules to the point of obfuscating the rewards, the developer has to adjust the rules or infrastructure to create new challenges—or be doomed to irrelevance. The NBA won’t touch the most obvious solution, dramatically reducing the length of the season, which would immediately inject each game with stakes—even as it negotiates a new media rights deal across from streaming giants who should understand the dangers of oversaturating the market with content better than anyone.
Instead, the NBA has tried to juice the regular season with the in-season tournament and the play-in while introducing a new player participation policy, 65-game minimums for major awards, and—as those measures have failed—another memo to teams suggesting that load management isn’t reflective of playoff success. It’s a dubious strategy: trying to convince people obsessed with winning to abandon a winning strategy.
Even if players didn’t rest, everyone who watches, plays in, or cares about the league would still know that the 82-game regular season is just a preamble to the playoffs. In the past decade, it’s become an exercise in information gathering, habit building, and refinement. It’s a test, beyond all, of attrition—and attrition is not very interesting.
While the in-season tournament wasn’t a ratings bonanza, the quality of the competition highlighted the problem it was meant to solve. Silver wants the media to talk about on-court strategy more than off-court fluff. Sure, but X’s and O’s absent stakes won’t grip your average fan. That’s where the IST, as well as the Lakers’ suffocating defense, was a rollicking success. Its winner-take-all single-game structure provided what the regular season no longer does: a reason to care.
Michael Pina: NBA defenses are complex systems embedded with strict principles that are followed by some of the largest, fastest, smartest athletes in the world. And right now, they’re getting absolutely shredded. The league’s average offensive rating is 116.3, the highest it’s been since we started tracking play-by-play data, up a seismic 3.8 points per 100 possessions from the 2021-22 season.
As the league’s age of efficiency burns white-hot, Silver might want to consider the impact it’s having on the historically bad defense teams are teeing off on. The basketball games—as both a competitive enterprise and an entertainment product—are still very enjoyable, but it feels as if we may be approaching some kind of tipping point.
The extremely favorable whistles that ostensibly protect shooters just bail them out. Defenders’ inability to stay in front of speedy ball handlers on the perimeter or touch them as they race downhill toward the rim creates unvarying, predictable sequences.
These complaints have always existed, but they’re being exacerbated by a league that’s fully embracing pace and space. Recently, they’ve been getting a little louder: Steve Kerr, Mike Brown, Darko Rajakovic, Anthony Edwards, and everyone who watched Indiana’s defense from October to December has had an issue.
The game now features hordes of unfettered 3s and free throws and long stretches when the sport might as well be played in an open gym (or on a track) without any impeded progress. It’s increasingly tiresome and, in the regular season, strips the action of tactical adjustments that just might elevate the on-court drama and off-court discourse. Like, nothing personal against any of the participants here, but who enjoys watching this on repeat?
Of course, an NBA that favors explosive offense is an NBA that can mass-produce star power. Almost every team has someone you’d buy a ticket to see. That’s awesome, and great for the league. But high point totals against defenses that don’t stand a chance are less important or memorable than they could otherwise be.
There might not be a solution. The 3-point line is a variable that isn’t going anywhere. Players understand its value, along with the massive advantages that come with playing fast and avoiding half-court hassles. But tweaks to some of the rules, along with a shift in how referees currently call what they see, could help. I’m not advocating for hand checks, but fewer whistles after marginal contact would be cool. Maybe turn a three-second defensive violation into a five-second violation? Or maybe adopt one of FIBA’s best rules and allow defenders to tap shots off the rim once the ball bounces off it? Maybe severely curtail the definition of continuation or clarify what it is?
Overall, the NBA is in a great spot. But it’d be even better if every well-crafted defensive game plan weren’t useless before each game even begins.
Bryan Curtis: In his first decade, Silver didn’t change much about the NBA’s TV product. You’ve got the same network partners: ESPN and Turner. The same announcers: Mike Breen, who’s about to call his 19th straight Finals this spring. You’ve even got the same song, “Mr. Big Stuff,” taking us to a commercial break. I think that started when oldies radio was still a thing.
Today, Silver is like a showrunner who’s rebooting his own series. Under the NBA’s expiring TV deal, which runs through the 2024-25 season, the league makes about $2.7 billion a year. It has become a badge of negotiating honor—blame the NFL—to try to double that number. To get anywhere near that, Silver will have to add more partners. That’s where things get interesting.
The current thinking about Silver’s next NBA deal—and here I rely on the well-sourced predictions of Alex Sherman and John Ourand—is that ESPN and Turner will still have a piece of the pie. ESPN has a hungry app to feed. Without the NBA or Charles Barkley, TNT’s main selling point is Star Wars movies that run for three hours with commercials.
Silver could negotiate a deal in which ESPN and Turner share rights with Apple, Amazon, or NBC. Or maybe two of those three. One overlooked part of the NFL’s success is that most of its games are on free network TV. Bringing in NBC could ease some NBA games off cable—something we’ve already seen happen on ABC after the Hollywood strikes. Working the other side of the technological street, Apple or Amazon would help Silver carry the NBA into the age of streaming.
The downside of sticking NBA games in three or four different spots is that it’s confusing. See Major League Baseball’s travails or the recent NASCAR deal. But where you watch games, for me, is less interesting than what they look and sound like. Silver could use the next deal, unofficially, as a way to freshen up the way the games are presented. Breen hardly needs a pick-me-up. But what if, as Ourand predicts, ESPN starts rotating Finals coverage with NBC every other year? Imagine adding Mike Tirico and Noah Eagle to an NBA play-by-play roster that’s already enjoying something of a golden age. Bang!
Logan Murdock: Earlier this season, Silver oversaw the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament, which served as an unofficial preview of what expansion could look like. The spectacle was successful, bringing in buzz and ratings and promising a fruitful future in Las Vegas, while starting an arms race for who will own a slice of the future franchise. Over the last decade, Silver has mostly shut down the notion of adding more teams, citing a need for a new TV deal. But the rise of gambling, and a decline in revenues, could lead to action. The decision could define Silver’s place among the sport’s greatest commissioners.
In the modern era, the NBA has produced a spotty record on expansion. During the ’90s under Stern, the league found gold in Toronto, capitalizing on interest in Canada and helping grow the league’s next wave of stars. It also failed in Vancouver, as ownership struggles doomed any chance of success. And as the turn of the century arrived, the NBA was known more for its organizational transiency. The Grizzlies moved to Memphis, the nation’s 50th media market. Even more heart-wrenching, the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City, and ever since fans have had an urge to repopulate the largest media market without an NBA franchise.
Now, with Seattle and Las Vegas reportedly the front-runners to get an NBA team, Silver has the chance to do something Stern never could. It won’t be easy expanding to 32 teams, and an uncertain future for linear television could derail his vision. But if the league’s latest Sin City soiree was any indication, Silver is off to a great start.
The Viewing Experience
Tyler Parker: Instant replay is rule no. 13 in the NBA Rulebook. It’s just north of 4,600 words, split into two parts, and comes directly after fouls and penalties and right before coach’s challenge. It is riveting. It says things like: “NOTE: If the Replay Center Official did not trigger instant replay in accordance with Section I-b(1) above, the on-court game officials retain the right to independently trigger instant replay (See Section I-a(6)) within the time constraints set forth in Section II-f(1) below.”
There are 15 potential triggers for instant replay. That’s so many ways you can end up watching a ref watch television. If “officials are not reasonably certain as to which player should attempt free throws on a call,” you’re getting a review. If “officials are not reasonably certain whether a personal foul called at any time during a game met the criteria for a clear-path-to-the-basket,” you’re getting a review. If “officials are not reasonably certain whether a personal foul called at any time during a game met the criteria for a flagrant foul,” you’re getting a review. In way, way too many instances, we’re getting reviews when we should be moving on. The game should be over, and instead we’re listening to someone try to explain to the scorer’s table the ways in which they’ll embrace debate and extend these games further.
And perhaps this has happened to you? Perhaps you have been watching a game, even a good one, and there’s a flow and rhythm to it, and it’s a good time. And in that goodness comes hurtling a turd, a pause of such grotesque length and timing that the game’s momentum is left wanting, writhing on the floor, gasping for air.
Too often a great game is soured by a final minute that turns into 20. Reviews and TV timeouts band together to stretch the running time out. A balance must be struck. It needs to be important to get the call right, but not paramount. If the be-all and end-all is getting the call exactly correct at any cost, it hurts the game. Mistakes shake through existing litigious cracks, and we are left with the league apologizing for shit it refuses to take back anyway. That’s what the Last Two Minute report is, an attempt to either paper over mistakes or lie about their existence in the first place. All in the name of transparency. Silver and his merry band of competition committee members need to figure out a way forward that does not end in a game that devolves into a stop-start slouching toward Bethlehem review fest. The kids won’t put up with it. Adults barely do anymore.
Wosny Lambre: It seems obvious, with the lag in ratings and a general malaise around the regular season, that something has gone amiss with the viewing experience for NBA fans. Over the past decade-plus, basically since The Decision, the most highly charged conversations around the NBA have had nothing to do with what’s actually happening on the court.
Trades, rumors, cap restrictions, pick protections, and agents’ influence have sucked up all the oxygen in any NBA-related discussion. Whether the chatter is happening online, in print media, on social media, via group text, on podcasts (cough), or even during the pregame and halftime shows of nationally broadcast games, it’s rarely about the NBA’s actual product. The bulk of what counts as coverage these days centers on the transactional nature of the league. And at a certain point, we’ve got to consider at what cost.
When the most exciting NBA occurrences drive people to Twitter or Instagram and not games, we have to wonder whether the NBA has lost the plot. When the league’s own media partners spend valuable coverage and airspace discussing topics that drive viewers to Elon Musk’s product and not Adam Silver’s, maybe there ought to be a reappraisal of who this type of coverage ultimately benefits.
A Potential Financial Reckoning
Justin Verrier: Before Mark Cuban was omnipresent on your TV screens, yelling at referees from the sideline of NBA games or fielding pitches from his high chair on Shark Tank, he was known as the guy who got out at the right time. Cuban sold Broadcast.com—or, radio on the internet—to Yahoo in 1999, for $5.7 billion; within a year, the dot-com bubble burst. Now, after selling a majority stake in his beloved Dallas Mavericks, some wonder whether Cuban has flashed the same crisis-avoiding foresight with the NBA.
On the one hand, Cuban sold only a controlling interest in the Mavs to casino billionaire Miriam Adelson. He retained a 27 percent stake, as well as oversight of the team’s basketball operations. Practically speaking, he isn’t going anywhere—at least for the time being.
On the other hand, the value of the franchise came in below Forbes’s recent estimate of $4.5 billion, seventh-highest in the NBA. ESPN reported a valuation of more than $4 billion, while the AP came in lower, in the “range” of $3.5 billion. The latter would still be higher than the $3 billion at which the Charlotte Hornets were valued when Michael Jordan exited over the summer, but lower than the $4 billion for the Phoenix Suns (and WNBA’s Mercury) last year.
Maybe Cuban’s personnel gig and ongoing efforts with Adelson to legalize and then build casinos in Texas were factored into the final price. But the sell-off from one of the league’s longest-tenured and most high-profile owners certainly triggered lingering anxieties about the future.
The NBA is expected to cash in on its next national TV deal, but experts worry that such a windfall could be the last of its kind. The demise of Bally Sports has left a void beyond this season for several teams’ local broadcasts, leading some—including the Mavs—to try out over-the-air cable. The NBA had hoped to lure bidders for its new in-season tournament, but Netflix, for one, is reportedly not interested. And while expansion would put money in every existing owner’s pockets, it’d also add more mouths to feed in revenue sharing.
Upon selling a hunk of the Mavs, Cuban leaned on one of his go-to Shark Tank phrases: “27 percent of a watermelon is a whole lot better than 27 percent of a grape.” But the unspoken truth baked into this clever line is that he’s no longer selling the same fruit; indeed, Cuban now sees the Mavs as a part of a bigger real estate and casino play. It remains to be seen whether the basketball side of the basketball business will be as fertile.
Rob Mahoney: NBA players are more visible now than at any point in the history of the league, which is a complicated development for the body attempting to govern their behavior in every walk of life. A superstar was suspended 25 games earlier this season for something he posted on Instagram in his free time. Online rumors about an inappropriate relationship with a minor sparked a police investigation into an up-and-coming player. One of the most popular stars in the league was barred from his team until he completed a return-to-play checklist for apology and educational purposes—specifically because he appeared to endorse an antisemitic film.
These sorts of quagmires are popping up with increasing frequency, and they’re only going to get more common and more complicated from here. Part of Silver’s job in the coming years will be learning how to manage these new sorts of crises. Part of it will be deciding how, when merited, to go about punishing players under a mandate that’s fuzzier than ever.
It’s never been easy to dictate how many games a player should be suspended; there’s some bizarre, unnerving calculus in literally quantifying the difference in punishment between a player who uses a performance-enhancing substance and one who commits domestic assault. That’s likely why the league office has leaned so often on the framing of indefinite suspension in its trickiest cases in the past few years—a more nebulous ruling that suggests serious consequences but doesn’t expose the league to as many uncomfortable questions. So far, the NBA has gotten away with that tack. It won’t last. Muddying the league’s judicial system isn’t really a viable option for the Players’ Commissioner in the long term, and it’s only a matter of time before the NBPA and fans at large push back.
We live in an age of public accountability—or really, the appearance of it. Silver is navigating that as much as anything, and the next decade of player-league relations could be defined less by what infractions get punished than how.
Isaac Levy-Rubinett: Unlike many of the other items on this list, gambling represents both a challenge and a potential lifeline for the NBA. Amid long-term questions about media rights and the league’s bottom line, sports betting arrived on the NBA’s doorstep with a massive bag of cash. Beyond its formalized partnerships with FanDuel and DraftKings, the league stands to gain eyeballs and financing from the explosion of this already-billion-dollar industry. Look no further than the NBA’s idea for in-arena sportsbooks. Or Mark Cuban’s recent sale of the Dallas Mavericks to casino mogul Miriam Adelson, after Cuban has spoken openly about his vision to build an arena-casino resort in Dallas—where, it’s worth noting, gambling isn’t legal yet.
The relationship between the NBA and the gambling industry is poised to become even more intertwined over Silver’s next half decade, bringing a host of thorny logistical and ethical questions to the fore. As the league relies more on gambling, it will have to contort itself to accommodate it. We’ve already seen small-scale examples of this, with updated policies requiring teams to give more notice for injury-related absences. Down the road, what will happen to fandom as consumption of the NBA is increasingly mediated through betting? How will the NBA address conflicts of interest that arise within the league, among players, and in the media? As betting becomes more accessible, what guardrails will the league install to avoid scandals? There is a good reason gambling has become a bigger part of the NBA during Silver’s tenure, but there are equally good reasons to be concerned. It may not seem like the most pressing issue now, but gambling comes with a host of unintended consequences.
Lindsay Jones: There are plenty of reasons the NBA should be the king of the American professional sports landscape. No league has done a better job in the past 10 years of marketing its stars, engaging with pop culture, and cultivating a younger generation of fans. And yet, the NFL continues to crush the NBA in the most important metric of all: eyeballs.
The NFL dominates the NBA (and every other sport) in traditional TV ratings, and has come for the streaming markets too. (This is your reminder to cancel the Peacock subscription you bought to watch Dolphins-Chiefs in the playoffs.) During Roger Goodell’s tenure as commissioner, the NFL has come for the NBA calendar every chance it could, and has won—most notably in asserting its dominance on Christmas.
I’m interested to see whether Silver can level this playing field and cut into the NFL’s stranglehold on viewership. (Has he considered courting Taylor Swift?) Goodell is not going to give an inch. It wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere in the NFL offices in New York City, Goodell has employees trying to figure out how to market something like Minicamp Madness to pull some attention away from the NBA Finals in mid-June. I do think the NBA has a fighting chance here; as youth football numbers dwindle and the NFL continues to face existential crises and ugly headlines, the NBA could position itself as a perfect foil, if Silver is up for taking on Goodell’s Goliath.
The Death of Dynasties
Zach Kram: Monarchies are bad for national political systems but good for sports leagues. Teams that win lots of titles produce the most popular players. (Either LeBron James or Steph Curry has led the NBA in jersey sales in each of the past 10 seasons.) They attract more casual audiences. (Finals ratings tend to be higher when familiar teams are involved.) Like any good, gripping story, they provide compelling characters and story lines in which viewers can invest.
More than any other sports league, the NBA loves its dynasties. Just think about how often the league celebrates Jordan’s Bulls and Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, compared to any of the teams that won just one championship apiece in the mid-to-late 1970s.
But we’re in a fallow period for repeat contenders, with five different champions over the past five seasons, for the first time since 1977 to 1981. No team has made consecutive Finals since Kevin Durant left the Warriors half a decade ago. This might be the new direction for the league, as more widespread talent increases competition and more punitive cap rules make it more difficult for teams to stack stars.
That’s not to say that dynasties are definitely over: The Nuggets are well positioned to win another title or two, and contenders like the Celtics and Thunder could very well reel off a few Finals trips in a row. But they’re much less of a guarantee than the 2010s Warriors or the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers or any of the 20th-century dynasties that still stand tall in NBA legend. On the level of an individual game or series, more leaguewide parity might increase uncertainty—but sports are an entertainment product, and a lack of Finals regulars means less engagement in the broader NBA narrative.
Danny Chau: Silver has always fancied the league as an exemplar of soft power, made fully apparent after his unprompted Henry Kissinger hero worship in a recent televised interview with Pat McAfee. Before the 2020 bubble, Silver told Time that he saw the league’s plans to forge ahead during the pandemic as “a model for other industries, and a model for broader society.” There is an arrogance in that line of thinking—wherein the NBA’s influence would have the power to supersede cultural and political issues—that informs both the successes and failures of Silver’s first 10 years.
The past decade of the NBA’s world-bridging efforts were largely centered on building global bases: academies were founded in China, India, Australia, Senegal, and Mexico. The latter three have produced success stories in the league (including first-round selections Josh Giddey and Olivier-Maxence Prosper) but the programs built in the two most populous countries in the world—and thus with the most staked interest from the league—have not gone to plan. The India academy is apparently changing its model to address both a lack of reach and infrastructure. The China academy has seemingly shuttered, marred by unsafe living conditions, accounts of abuse, and its former presence in the notorious Xinjiang region, where numerous human rights groups report crimes against humanity are being committed against the Uyghur ethnic minority. (In 2020, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said that the NBA was “reevaluating” its program in China. As of today, it is not listed as one of the existing NBA academies.) Simply slapping the NBA tag onto different global initiatives with vastly different resources has not guaranteed success.
But as evidenced by the overwhelming breadth of talent emerging outside the States, there is much to gain from exploring new possibilities with leagues and players that exist just beyond the NBA’s auspices. In an interview with basketball Hall of Famer Tony Parker, Silver seemed confident that there could be more games played between NBA and EuroLeague teams—as soon as the EuroLeague brain trust gets its shit together. And should that day come, could a more integrated vision of professional basketball be possible? The in-season tournament was partly inspired by the long-standing FA Cup in English football, but what if it were taken a step further? Could a globalized FA Cup of sorts exist across leagues? These might all be questions for either Silver’s next contract extension—or the next regime entirely. But the game is growing in ways the best league in the world cannot predict nor control. Perhaps the next stage of the NBA’s soft power can be expressed with the rising tides elsewhere, rather than over.
Kevin O’Connor: This year’s draft will officially be a two-night event. Teams will have more time between rounds to strategize, which could lead to more trades and a less chaotic broadcast, as well as more time between selections in the second round. Can we also now have players wearing the proper hats when they cross the stage? Please, Adam. It’s silly and confusing for anyone not feverishly watching social media as a guide.
But alas, Silver has a much greater challenge ahead than draft attire with the ever-changing route that prospects are taking to the NBA. The G League Ignite was created to provide an alternative path for prospects, a system that enables the league to control player development to a degree. In some regards, it has worked: There is a long list of Ignite players who have recently entered the league. But the idea isn’t necessarily panning out. The team isn’t good. No one attends games. And it’s not in any clear way more beneficial of a route than others, such as the standard college basketball path, going overseas, or even upstarts like Overtime Elite. Will players continue going to the Ignite? The NIL ruling has made college basketball a more attractive path for athletes than in recent years. Does Silver view the NCAA as a friend or foe, and how will that influence the debate to allow high schoolers to go straight to the NBA? Lottery reform has already been installed, and now the draft process itself has changed. In the years ahead Silver must continue to navigate the sprawling, global paths to the NBA and keep the league’s best interests at heart.
Matt Dollinger: It’s hard to recall a smoother transition of power in this country than when Silver took over for David Stern a decade ago. Stern’s longtime protégé was tabbed as the successor more than a year before taking over. He was a natural extension of everything Stern did right, while also representing an improvement in areas Stern was found lacking (with bedside manner topping the list). There was no questioning the decision. And there was no questioning the direction the league was headed. “I could not be happier sitting here to know I’ll be succeeded by Adam,” Stern said when he announced the decision.
You’d have to imagine that Silver wants to follow the same blueprint when he steps aside. His new extension will take the 61-year-old through the end of the decade. Stern retired when he was 70. It’s possible Silver will follow the same timeline. Maybe he’s even started grooming his heir apparent.
Silver was the obvious choice to succeed Stern. If there’s a clear favorite this time around, it would be Mark Tatum, the 54-year-old deputy commissioner, who is widely respected and has taken on increasing responsibility (and visibility) in recent years. Tatum also would be not just the first minority commissioner in the NBA, but of the four major sports. The league could look elsewhere and skew younger, particularly if Silver hangs on for another 10 to 15 years. How about Commissioner Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the current president of the G League? Or Commissioner Ujiri? Commissioner Dumars? We won’t know Silver’s successor for some time, but if history tells us anything, we’ll know the answer before he steps aside.