In his time as NBA Commissioner, David Stern became one of the most recognizable sports commissioners in the world. He was progressive and forward-thinking in his decisions and policies, never afraid to voice his opinion or ruffle some feathers. Infinite stories float around NBA circles, many of which have turned into folklore, about frozen envelopes, terrifying private meetings, and collusion. By the time he retired in 2014, his reputation had grown to that of legend.
David Stern passed away yesterday, January 1, 2020, as a result of a brain hemorrhage he suffered early in December. The news came somewhat suddenly. It was known that Stern was in critical condition in December, but there had not been an update on his health since then. Then, in the afternoon on New Year’s Day, before the NBA tipped off the beginning of another decade, the league announced that Stern had passed away at the age of 77. His family was with him at his bedside when he passed.
There has been an outpouring of love and remembrance from around the league
Lebron James said it was a “dream come true” to shake Stern’s hand when he was drafted. Ted Leonsis called him the “best leader in sports history”. Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that “David Joel Stern conquered it all”. It cannot be overstated the impact that Stern has had on the league and the sports landscape as a whole. This outpouring of support also reminds us of how impactful he was on the lives of people he knew.
Commissioner Stern laid the foundation of the NBA as we know it today. He was always full of big ideas. Some worked, some didn’t. But what is undeniable is his relentless pursuit to continuously push the league forward and make it better. The league grew exponentially during his time as commissioner, evidenced by the increase in the league’s popularity in Asia and the incredible television deals he was able to secure.
There are a few moments in particular that had a particularly profound impact on the landscape of the league.
Instituting the modern-day salary cap
In the 1984-85 season, Stern’s first as commissioner, the salary cap was introduced in the NBA. The idea of a salary cap is commonplace in American sports now, but that was not the case in the 80s. The goal of the salary cap was to create a profit-sharing system between team owners and players, which would help level the competitive balance in the league.
Stern preferred that the league’s biggest stars play in the biggest markets. And prior to the salary cap, teams could spend whatever they wanted on players, which favored teams in larger markets. But the salary cap leveled the playing field. In the 1984-85 season, each team was limited to $3.6 million in total payroll. That makes the current cap, $109.14 million, all the more staggering.
Stars will always be drawn to larger markets. That will never change. But instituting a salary cap gives well-run teams in smaller markets the chance to compete.
1992 Dream Team
Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics, NBA players were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. This forced USA Basketball to scrap together teams of college players. Despite this, the USA was still competitive internationally. However, many other countries, namely the USSR, were using full-time professional basketball players. The US took bronze in 1988, its worst finish ever.
That all changed forever in 1992. The Dream Team fielded the NBA’s best players: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird to name a few. They ran the table and held their opponents to an average of 44 points. Many call it the greatest sports team ever assembled, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find an example which disproves that.
The NBA owns a team and the Chris Paul trade
In 2010, the owners of the New Orleans Hornets decided to sell the team. Oftentimes, this would lead to a new owner coming in and relocating the team. But New Orleans had already lost a team once, losing the New Orleans Jazz to Utah.
Stern didn’t want to abandon this city again, so he stepped in. The NBA actually purchased the team, and the league office was put in charge of all decisions. This was, and remains, an unprecedented move in the NBA. Over time, the league placed actual front office personnel in New Orleans, and essentially let them run the team without interference.
That all changed in December 2011. New Orleans had agreed on a deal that would send Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers to play alongside Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had won 5 NBA Titles since 2000, and this move would’ve poised them for more.
Before the ink could dry
Less than an hour after the deal was agreed upon, Stern called the New Orleans Hornets and vetoed the trade. Stern and the league did not immediately explain the decision to the public. It also was unclear if Stern was who vetoed the trade. Eventually, it came out that the call did indeed come from Stern. The league offered no explanation for the veto, beyond saying the league declined to allow the trade for basketball reasons.
Many have fairly speculated that removing Chris Paul from New Orleans would’ve tanked the value of the Hornets’ roster, thus plummeting the value of the team. That’s another possible reason the move was vetoed. Paul was traded to the Clippers a few days later, which ushered in the Lob City era.
It’s interesting to think about the ripple effects of this trade (and non-trade). Paul is traded to the Clippers, which sets up about 5 years of success in LA. Paul is eventually traded to the Houston Rockets for a sizable haul of players and a first-round pick. A few years later, Paul George demands a trade out of Oklahoma City to the Clippers, which leads to Russell Westbrook getting flipped to Houston, sending Chris Paul to the Thunder.
If Paul had been allowed to play for the Lakers, the Lakers could have continued their run of dominance for… who knows how long. They would’ve been set up much better than they were at the end of Kobe Bryant’s career. Instead, they were basement dwellers for many seasons before Lebron James decided to relocate. On the flip side, the Clippers might not have the current powerhouse that they’ve built with George and Kawhi Leonard were it not for the downstream effects of this trade.
Stern fines the Spurs in 2012 for load management
Gregg Popovich, forever ahead of the curve, has been resting players long before load management became a hotly debated topic. In a nationally televised regular-season game, against the defending champion Miami Heat, Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Danny Green, all of which were healthy. This was the Spurs’ fourth game in five nights and the second night of a back-to-back, which is the justification Popovich gave for resting his stars.
The NBA responded by fining the Spurs $250,000. Stern explained that the Spurs “did a disservice to the league and our fans” by resting these players without notifying the league or the Heat beforehand. Had the Spurs notified the league, they could’ve avoided this fine.
This was not the first time Popovich rested his starters like this. But Stern deemed it unacceptable to do so in such a high profile matchup. Load management is obviously not a new idea, but it has become a talking point recently as many stars will sit out games just to rest. Many fans are still split on whether or not this is an acceptable practice, but Stern made his feelings very clear.
All-in-all, David Stern was an incredible commissioner for the league, and he endured many difficult problems and decisions during his tenure. Most would agree that he handled his time with decisiveness and purpose, which is what allowed him to drive the growth of the league to such incredible heights. He laid a strong foundation for Adam Silver to take over and continue pushing the league to success, which is what separates a great leader from a good one.