The 15 Biggest Challenges Facing Adam Silver in His Next 10 Years

Silver’s first 10 years as NBA commissioner have gone pretty smoothly, but treacherous waters lie ahead. We break down the biggest issues facing the NBA’s future, from the regular season to expansion to saving defense.

 

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.

 

Like a U.S. president, an NBA commissioner probably gets too much blame in tough times and too much credit in boom times.

 

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.

 

Here’s a simple theory for why the NBA’s regular season has become so boring: The participants learned how to beat the game.

 

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.

 

Saving Defense

 

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.

 

Media Rights

 

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.

 

 

Gideon Canice

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