MIAMI – He’s a short-timer now, with less than eight months remaining in what will be a 30-year run as NBA commissioner, but David Stern came on like anything but a lame duck Thursday night before Game 1 of the 2013 Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
In his last official Finals state-of-the-league address (part of an ongoing series of “lasts” that began Feb. 1, one year out from Stern’s official retirement date), the league’s chief executive was vibrant, engaged, enthused even. This wasn’t the man who came out of the rancorous lockout in 2011-12 tired and cranky. It wasn’t Stern unplugged, either, though more and more of his duties are shifting to deputy commissioner Adam Silver, his heir apparent.
This was Stern tackling topics big and small, ranging from anti-flopping rules to nuances of the current collective-bargaining agreement in both its financial and competitive impact. This was Stern looking and sounding as if he could re-up for another term but who, most likely, is into his finishing kick because he can see the end line now.
Stern’s opening comments were brief and not unlike the business-is-good things he has said now, twice annually (All-Star Game and Finals) across three decades. Questions followed, many focusing on issues in play in this championship series, such as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich‘s decision back in November to sit out star players on his team’s visit to Miami. And a suggestion that the Heat’s SuperFriends approach might be good for the league overall, despite the CBA’s new provisions to block such star-hogging roster maneuvers in the future.
Asked if San Antonio’s presence in The Finals vindicates Popovich’s decision a month into the season to “rest” Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as a way of staying fresh for the long NBA season and postseason — which earned a $250,000 fine from the league — Stern said: “He wasn’t resting Danny Green. It was a game that was being played. I know it, you know it and he knows it.
“I would never, never tell a coach that he shouldn’t rest a player that needs rest. We understand that completely. And that’s not what he did.”
As for the luxury-tax penalties in the CBA that will make teams loath to carry three stars earning $20 million or more annually — as Miami’s LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh soon will — Stern said, no, the Heat’s success and popularity doesn’t justify the tilt that has on other teams’ ability to compete, given the shortage of game-changing stars.
“Yeah, as a promoter, absolutely,” Stern said. “But there are 29 other bosses I have that think [the new CBA discouraging that] is a great system. … We have owners who want very much to compete. And they want to be able to tell their fans they can compete.”
While this Finals pits teams sporting multiple stars, future Hall of Famers and a combined six championships since 1999, it features two markets that aren’t exactly New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. And it came very close to being a showdown between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers.
That sort of small-market clash in flyover land is presumed to be bad for the league, its television partners and fan interest around the globe. And that thinking frequently leads some extreme critics to veer into conspiracy theories that the NBA, through shady officiating, dictates outcomes according to the league’s commercial interests.
Stern didn’t have to pull out his standard “that would be a felony” rejoinder. But he met head-on the issue that market-size considerations drive what fans see on the floor or even what the suits at Olympic Tower prefer.
“It’s not us. It’s our networks, it’s the people who attribute views to us that we don’t hold,” Stern said. “It’s just a fixation that the media around us has because as I see it one more time, ‘Well, the people in the league office’ — never an attribution. No eyewitness accounts.
“We love the fact that we’re here with Miami and San Antonio. If it were Memphis and Indiana, and they had fought their way through to be in the championship, that would be great, too.”
Among other topics Stern touched on Thursday before Game 1 tipoff:
- The league’s attempts to reduce or eliminate “flopping” are a work in progress. The fines involved aren’t stiff enough to eradicate it, but the penalties intentionally were kept light. “We could end that immediately if we decided to suspend players, but that might be a little bit draconian at the moment,” Stern said. The competition committee and Board of Governors will consider stricter enforcement.
- Similarly, the replay rules currently in place will be reviewed themselves and possibly broadened to include “off-site” review, in which the actual game refs aren’t the ones who review plays and affirm or reverse calls.
- Miami, which has not hosted the All-Star Game since 1990, will be considered as a site for the event in the near future.
- Stern’s greatest accomplishment, in his view? He wouldn’t go there. “You look at the body of work and you say that he steered the ‘good ship NBA’ in a productive way,” Stern said. “We’ve dealt with the crises to protect the motherlode. We’ve dealt with the opportunity to take this league to a place we not only couldn’t have anticipated, we couldn’t have imagined.”
- His greatest regret? “No regrets,” the commissioner said, though he mentioned the respect accorded the league’s players. “We have to work hard to make sure they succeed in life, not only when they are players but when they retire,” Stern said. “That requires a much closer collaboration with the union about that and we’re very much into that phase of it now.”
As for the home stretch, Stern said: “It is not in my nature to stop and savor,” he said. “We’ve got too much to do. I will remain committed to the continued success of the NBA. That’s the thing I think about more than think about looking backwards.”