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The Lame Duck Commissioner

US Presswire

Michael Shagrin is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. Michael is a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, a frequent contributor to ClipperBlog of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network and a sports columnist for The Dartmouth. Follow him on twitter @MShaggy to find out more about the frequent intersection of his two passions, basketball and politics.

Gregg Popovich’s remarks on the $250,000 fine incurred by his San Antonio Spurs were businesslike, indicating only his disappointment and the inevitably differing perspectives of coaches and the league office. “That’s that, and we move on,” Popovich concluded. But can San Antonio just “move on”? The 2012-13 season is barely a month old and the Spurs’ Big Three are certainly not getting any younger. If Tim Duncan (36), Tony Parker (30), and Manu Ginobli (35) require a day of rest or a division rival is looming next on the schedule, Popovich wouldn’t hesitate an instant to sit his stars. Thus, the prospects remain high of once more offending the Commissioner’s sense of integrity.

While David Stern’s tenure at the helm of the NBA should be celebrated as nothing short of spectacular, he is still susceptible to the trappings that accompany any major power transition. In characteristically theatrical fashion, Stern announced that he would retire on February 1, 2014 almost a year and half in advance of the date (which is neatly 30 years to the day after he started as Commissioner). While the prolonged gap between announcement and action provides the Commish with a healthy interval to finalize the arrangements for protégé Adam Silver, Stern has rendered himself a prolonged lame duck.

The phrase lame duck should conjure an image of a feeble looking President waiting by the Oval Office door for the entrance of his newly elected successor. When a President becomes a lame duck, however, he only need experience the psychological torment of relinquishing such immense power for less than three months. The painstaking powerlessness that stares Presidents dead in the face rarely leads to hasty executive action because Congress inhabits the same lame duck limbo as the President. But in the blink of an eye, a new President is inaugurated, Congressional seats change hands and Washington gets back to work (or at least its supposed to). Lame duck periods are short for a reason—a representative doesn’t necessarily have a mandate to govern from the people. In spite of this democratic reasoning, its the problematic incentives that accompany any lame duck period that actually prove far more damaging. When an official sees his expiration date, there’s an inevitable paradigm shift from forethought to hindsight. “What can I accomplish today?” becomes “Who the hell is trying to fuck up my accomplishments today?

For David Stern last Thursday, that someone was Gregg Popovich.

The Commissioner’s empire is more than impressive. The NBA is reaching heights nobody could’ve dreamed of before the arrival of Stern and the prospects for continued growth are as strong as ever. It is this unprecedented, pioneering success however that can lead Stern to shun innovation in favor of preservation. The greater the legacy, the greater the pull to preserve it. As demonstrated when TNT broadcasted Stern’s knee-jerk, woolly apology to NBA fans, the Commissioner’s Office will be viewing the best interests of the game through Stern’s long-angle lens until February 1, 2014.

The inappropriateness of the $250,000 fine to me is not in question. Across the basketball community, people much smarter than me have broken down the circumstantial evidence and framed the Commissioner’s decision in an unflattering light. But whether this was a nationally televised game or an example of bad scheduling, or even the fact Stern has consistently allowed Popovich to rest his players in the past—all seem pretty inconsequential given the marrow of the issue. The Commissioner should be nowhere near individual team’s personnel decisions.

Interference with a coach’s competitive evaluation doesn’t invoke a slippery slope argument—it gets you all the way down the mountain. The Commissioner can already punish a player without any real substantive check. Now Stern can enforce his judgment on coaches so that those he wants on the court, stay on the court. If the “best interests of the game” clause allows the Commissioner to discipline coaches for roster movements, there really is no power left to grab.

I have a nagging feeling that when David Stern looks back on the Restgate episode, he’ll see the error of his verdict. Even though Stern will probably remain quite comfortable with the broad, dictatorial powers vested in the NBA Commissioner, he’ll realize that he overreacted to a borderline anomalous circumstance. Stern tossed aside the wide-angle lens and saw TNT as a more important partner than the corps of head coaches who orchestrate the beautiful sport Turner has the privilege to broadcast. But just as importantly, Stern’s edict recouped no damages for TNT. It may or may not deter coaches from strategically resting their players during nationally televised games, but more than likely coaches will do whatever they think is best for the team, sanctions be damned. Ultimately, in an attempt to taxidermically preserve the institutional legacies he helped construct, Stern hastily attempted to undermine the integrity of his coaches (and one distinguished coach in particular).

Here is the part where we enter the realm of virtual reality. A place where a lame duck executive is innovative and forward thinking, where administrative incentives aren’t skewed toward conservative, risk-averse policies, where the status quo represents the foundation for progress not the perceived concrete embodiment of all greatness. The answer to just about every problematic undercurrent in Restgate can be found in Bill Simmons idea for the “Entertaining as Hell” Tournament. Simmons recapped his suggestion at Grantland during last year’s lockout:

“[T]he top seven seeds in each conference make the playoffs, then the other 16 teams play a single elimination tournament to “win” the no. 8 seeds. This would discourage tanking for lottery picks, reward late-bloomer teams and generate extra interest because, again, this tournament would be entertaining as hell. All 14 games would be televised—eight in Round 1, four in Round 2, then a double header at Madison Square Garden (author’s note: or Staples Center) to decide the no. 8 seeds—over a week as the other 14 playoff teams regrouped and rest up.”

Is the “Entertaining as Hell” tournament really a panacea? It just might be. The tournament would allow the NBA to cut from the already bloated regular season schedule. Recouping the revenue from the lost games can start with the “Entertaining as Hell” tournament, which should pull in an audience significantly larger than that of any regular season games. Single elimination tournaments by their very nature are incredibly unpredictable, and, as the title suggests, entertaining as hell. Furthermore, much of the action could be concentrated in a single location yielding a larger audience for advertisers and correspondingly larger revenues. Moreover, a shorter schedule would  lead coaches to sit their stars’ less often, not just because they would already have more rest time between games, but also since the the result of each contest would be endowed with greater significance come April. The NBA, taking the longview, would be filling its coffers by putting out a better basketball product.

Throughout the larger discussion of Stern’s prerogative to fine the Spurs, basketball thinkers have bumped up against the paradox of wanting to keep the Commissioner away from a team’s roster choices while simultaneously leaving space for the NBA to issue a ruling on tanking, one of the true blemishes on the league. Though the character of Popovich’s choice to rest his best players against the defending champions is nothing like an organization choosing to tank, the theoretical basis for punishing Popovich certainly sets a precedent that would allow Stern to take action against willful tankers. Still, if there is a “free-market” solution to the tanking issue, one where incentives aren’t shaped by heavy-handed punishments but basketball-related inducements, that route should be taken. The “Entertaining as Hell” Tournament does exactly that. When a spot in the playoffs is always a mere three wins away, tanking would become an anachronism.

David Stern should openly consider laying the groundwork for innovations in the game like alternative playoff structures and creative new revenue sources. While it may be difficult for the lame duck Commissioner to see at the moment, pursuing the next great basketball idea wouldn’t diminish his legacy—it would only enhance it.

  • Jhary Kenshura

    Part of the anger towards Stern is because he seems like such a hypocrite about this. Every spring teams sit players out, if not for tanking then for rest before playoffs, and it’s met with a shrug of the shoulders, even if the games are on TNT. This just looks like a lame duck Commish trying to show he’s not a lame duck.

    • Ian Levy

      I agree, the whole thing seemed like a big pissing match. There’s no doubt that the fine was completely hypocritical, but Popovich seemed to really relish putting Stern in that position and watching him explode. Usually he is so calm and collected and this seemed like such a bizarre overreaction for him.

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