Weekly Countdown (cont.)
More rules changes? The style of the NBA is far more attractive than it was 10 years ago, when boring isolation plays dominated the league. "I used to say that it used to be one guy dribbling the ball into the corner and the other four would go to the parking lot," Stern said. "The traditional answer had been, 'Well, what you should do then is get the coaches to coach differently.' And I said, 'That's never going to happen. We're going to have to change the rules and enforcement so that the game is played differently.' "
The 2001-02 mandate to allow a limited form of zone defense raised complaints from team executives that Stern was shoving the rules changes down their throat. "Well, that's democracy," he said. "We appointed a committee. As I recall, it had some people I was close to, like Jerry Colangelo, Stu Jackson, Bob Lanier, Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta. These were real basketball people, and they loved the game. The advice was to open it up."
The rules changes have created a more entertaining game. By doing away with strict man-to-man defenses, GMs began to replace one-on-one defenders with shooters and scorers whose defensive weaknesses could be shored up by zone principles. An ensuing rule change to eliminate hand-checking on the perimeter has helped raise scoring to an average of 99.2 points per team through the first month of this season, a 4.4-point increase since 2000-01, when zone defenses were prohibited.
"We've seen coaches play 'small ball,' put five guys on the court who can rebound, pass, shoot -- they're interesting attributes for basketball players to have, and it works," Stern said. "People love ball movement; it shows what our athletes can do, including driving and the like.
"The beauty of this is that the debate is not over."
With that he raised the possibility of doing away with limits on zone defense altogether, which would enable centers to stand in the paint all night long and guard the rim. Stern acknowledged he is warming to the idea. "I think there's going to be a movement afoot -- the league is split 50-50 -- where we should just let them play any defense," Stern said. "It's funny, I started out on the side -- and I'm still there, by a foot or so -- that if you put three 7-foot-6 guys in the paint with their hands up and they don't have to move, that that might not be conducive to the game. But there's a strong body of work by many of our coaches and basketball gurus who say you can coach your way around that and it will take care of itself.
"But there's never a consensus on that, and I don't have an agenda there. It's just fun to discuss."
As long as the elimination of zone restrictions -- with no defensive three-second violation -- wouldn't choke off driving lanes to the basket, the change would help the NBA's pursuit of a wider global audience. Anything that simplifies the game and makes it more universally understood is a good thing. "It's moving in that direction," said Stern, noting that FIBA has decided next year to narrow its trapezoidal lane to mimic the NBA's rectangle and extend its three-point line out closer to the NBA distance of 23 feet, 9 inches.
Stern hinted that the next major rule change in the NBA may allow any player to touch the ball after it has hit the rim, even if the ball is above the cylinder. "My favorite, the offensive interference," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, FIBA has it right: It's in play and the only thing the referee has to judge is, Did it hit the rim? That's it. To me, that's a sensible rule, and it would make foul shooting more fun too." Because then you would see players from both teams attacking the rim, either to tip in the ball for two points or to bat it away for none, which would add a new dimension to free throws in the last seconds of a tight game.
The Donaghy scandal has inspired the NBA to further analyze the decisions made by referees. "It is the notion that officiating can be a little bit more of a science than an art," Stern said. "Each of the leagues is busy doing its own statistical charting -- whether they tell everyone they are or they're not -- to help them develop their officials and their game. And if you're trying to keep faith with your fans and protecting the integrity of the game, you have to open yourself to more transparency, particularly to the issue of video replay, where it doesn't shut your game down but your fans know you're trying to get it right."
In the years ahead Stern expects his coaches to follow the NFL's example and push for the right to challenge one play per game or per half. "The problem with that is fascinating, because if you're a coach and you know how to use it, you can stop the play and that takes away something," he said. "The other side gets the ball, and where does the challenge come? So the competition committee has been very, very judicious in moving forward slowly."
A lockout in 2011-12? I asked Stern how the NBA was able to recover from the 1998-99 lockout, as well as the 2004 Detroit brawl. His answer provides perspective on the prospect of another potential lockout, in 2011-12.
"There's a fundamental dynamic, which is that no amount of management or mismanagement can screw up a great game," he said. "We've got a great game and it's always been a great game." He recalled talk over the years about how "we'll never survive the retirement of [Wilt] Chamberlain and [Bill] Russell, and we'll never survive Dr. J and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and you name it ..." And he went on to name 17 more stars.
The lesson being that the NBA can, and will, recover from another labor stoppage. Stern won't want to lock out the players, but many owners will expect him to pursue that course if he finds no other option to create a landscape for his teams (apart from those in the biggest markets) to succeed financially.
"There are a lot of hawks out there," an NBA team president said of the new owners who want major concessions from the players union.
This team president believes the new owners are less willing to endure operating losses because they -- unlike the previous generation -- cannot count on the value of their franchises to rise exponentially.
"Coming out of it, we worked very hard with our players to say, 'We're sorry, but we did it, it was necessary and we still love this game.' That was our slogan, and we did it," Stern said of the 1998-99 lockout. "Our fans were surprisingly forgiving, and things got back to normal fairly quickly. Although in fairness, you've got to say it wasn't immediate. It takes awhile. There's always an overhang, because when you're in so many businesses and you become unreliable as a source of supply, [you have] an important impact."
Stern noted that the NFL, MLB and NHL are also facing intensive labor negotiations. "Frankly, that's why the potential expiration of all four leagues at the same time should send shudders up the spine of lots of people involved with our industries," he said. "Everyone has a different set of relationships, and some require opt-outs and whatever. But that would be the apocalyptic scenario."
For one glaring example, how would TV networks handle a vacuum of football, baseball and basketball games? "We're all worried about that," Stern said, "and we're all working -- in our own ways, unrelated to the others -- to see whether we can make a deal this time."
Can the NBA be No. 1? I asked Stern if the NBA may be able to leverage its growth internationally to become the top sports league in the U.S. "No," he said. "I want to say that the NFL will always be the No. 1 sports league in America. As a domestic league, we have some growth left, but most of our growth against the big numbers is going to be outside the United States."
Stern's league has moved ahead of baseball in terms of national TV revenues, though MLB continues to outgross the NBA overall. But Stern insisted he isn't obsessed with outgaining the NFL or MLB at home. "Our competition is soccer -- that's the competition," he said. "And by the way, it isn't that we have to beat soccer. Our view -- and I say it oversimplified -- is that if eight young boys and girls out of 10 are kicking the ball outside the United States, if one of them flips to bouncing so that now it's only seven [out of 10], I think we've gone up by 50 percent. So the opportunity for growth against that audience is incredible."
After decades of international investment with little reward, the NBA is starting to turn the corner. "We're making money in China, we're making money in Europe," he said. "By comparison to how we do [overall], it becomes 5 percent or 7 percent; it used to be no percent. And in the not-too-distant future, it will be 15 percent, and then all of a sudden it will be 25 percent."
Stern continues to ponder expansion by the NBA to Europe. As I'll detail in next week's Sports Illustrated, my own hunch is that the NBA may seek a partnership with the Euroleague over the next decade -- an idea Stern would neither confirm nor deny.
"The more interesting thing," he said, offering another prospect, "and we have to focus on it, is maybe we do a D-league affiliation with Latin America. We take all the big soccer clubs who have buildings and membership lists and want to be in basketball, so the D-League has relevance in a different way. And then think [about potential expansion for the] WNBA. There are different countries -- there's no one size fits all."
How long will he remain in charge? "Talk to me tomorrow and the day after and the day after," he said.
In that case, I answered, you would have quit two years ago amid the Donaghy scandal.
"No, no, I wouldn't," he said. "And actually I never would quit when I was needed.
"I just read that Bud is going out," Stern added of Selig's retirement as baseball commissioner. "He's 75 now; he'll be going out at 78. I'm a kid. I'm 67."
With that, Stern listed the variety of topics that captivated his morning commute to the office. "I was on the phone the entire way in," he said. "The Nets are moving closer to the deal to go to Brooklyn; that's very exciting for the league. The Knicks are moving closer to spinning off the [Madison Square] Garden, and that's going to be a publicly traded sports asset. As a business matter, that's great. Our video replays, we're working out the bugs and that keeps you busy. We're in the midst of collective bargaining with the players, about to schedule the next meeting. We're in the midst of reforming revenue sharing, and that requires a restructuring of our approach. We just finished this year's rookie orientation program, but we're right in the middle of the teams' business awareness meetings and coming up with approaches for this year and already planning for next year. It never ends, but it's always something new and relatively different."
He did not come across as a commissioner looking forward to retirement.
"In some ways we're a mature business with an international and digital start-up," Stern said. "So it's a wonderful combination, because that start-up is infusing new life in a very good business to begin with."
NBA Truth & Rumors