2021 NBA Finals

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discusses state of the league as The Finals open

In a typically wide-ranging press conference, the NBA commissioner discusses postseason injuries, social justice and more.

Commissioner Adam Silver thanks players and fans as he delivers opening remarks on the state of the NBA.

Even as the NBA commissioner was meeting with reporters in his traditional pre-Finals opener media availability Tuesday evening, the Milwaukee Bucks’ committee of medical staffers, coaches and player Giannis Antetokounmpo were busy determining whether the team’s two-time MVP would attempt to play in Game 1 against the Phoenix Suns.

The verdict? Yes, Antetokounmpo would, putting to the test his hyperextended left knee injured one week earlier in the conference finals.

The context: Silver was in an interview room in the Suns’ arena talking about injuries, a significant and unfortunate backdrop to the league’s 2021 postseason.

“It’s horrific,” the commissioner said, “and it’s something that, of course, takes away from the competition. These are players with relatively short careers, and keeping them on the floor is of paramount importance to us, to the fans.”

Antetokounmpo, who suffered his injury in the third quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta, became the 10th All-Star player to miss at least one game of the playoffs. Actually, he missed the final two games of the series, with the Bucks having to rally without him to eliminate the Hawks.

Antetokounmpo’s availability clouded the build-up to these Finals, with the announcement that he would start Tuesday coming at the last possible moment. It didn’t change the larger picture.

“I have no doubt that the additional stress, again physical and emotional, on [players] contributes to injuries,” Silver said. “None of it is an exact science. It’s something that even pre-COVID, as you all know, we were very focused on at the league. We put people in place to focus exclusively on injury prevention. Precisely why we have the injuries we do is still unclear to us. It’s something that we’ll continue to study in the offseason.”

Much was made of the NBA’s short turnaround from the end of the 2020 Finals in the Orlando “bubble” (Oct. 11) and the start of this regular season (Dec. 23). Silver noted that, while the frequency of games was up, the schedule was cut from a traditional 82 to 72. He added that 22 of the league’s 30 teams — those who didn’t qualify for the playoffs last summer or failed to survive the first round — still had four months off.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talks with reporters at his news conference before Game 1 of The 2021 NBA Finals.

The league and the players’ association collaborated as never before in working out logistics for this season. But injuries mounted on their own schedule, regardless of the partnership. In the playoffs, marquee names such as Joel Embiid, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul and others were waylaid at various times.

“The trend line, unfortunately, has been going up for the last several years,” Silver said, “and that’s despite the tremendous additional resources our teams have put into injury prevention, the brand new practice facilities located throughout the league, the state-of-the-art equipment.”

The commissioner added: “You would like to believe that with the investment, the level of sophistication, the number of doctors, the amount of analytics we look at, the data that we collect that we couldn’t in the old days, that putting the pandemic aside, we would have seen improvements. And we haven’t seen that yet.”

Silver addressed a variety of other topics during the question-and-answer session Tuesday:

• As open coaching positions get filled, Silver said teams need to stay mindful of black and female candidates both to work on the sidelines and in the front office. “We have historically made more progress on race rather than on gender,” he said, “but I think that’s beginning to change. It’s slow. It’s frustrating.”

• In gauging the financial hit taken by the league and its teams from the second pandemic-altered season, Silver suggested they did “somewhat better” than initial projections. The ability to welcome fans back into arenas late in the season and through the playoffs addressed a revenue stream that Silver pegged previously at about 40 percent of the league’s pie. As a result, he said cash flow would be down “roughly a third.”

• Ongoing COVID-19 restrictions in Ontario, Canada, make it unclear if the Toronto Raptors will be able to get back to business as usual in their own building to start the 2021-22 season. Silver said the league is hopeful conditions improve enough to allow that. The Raptors made their home this season at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

Adam Silver discusses the future of the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament after this season's initial run.

• Silver said he expects the play-in tournament to remain a part of the NBA’s playoff prelude. Of the four ninth- or 10th-place teams — Memphis, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte — only the Grizzlies actually played their way into a best-of-seven first round series. Still, the mechanism was seen by many to have added interest to some late-season games, diminished “tanking” by a tier of teams and provided single- or double-elimination urgency before the playoffs even had begun.

• Expansion remains somewhere on the league’s back burners. “We’re certainly not suggesting we’re locked at 30 teams,” the commissioner said. Apart from broadening the scope of the league’s appeal, expansion is a financial choice between the hefty fees new franchises in added markets would generate vs. splitting revenues among, say, 32 members rather than 30.

• Any resumption of the NBA’s global games, international events scheduled before or during the regular season, will wait until the 2022-23 season, at the earliest.

• Silver said the league’s relationship with China would continue, as far as televised games in that country. He also touched on the diplomatic role the NBA can play, in his view.

“It’s hard to divorce what’s happening with the NBA from larger geopolitical issues between the U.S. and China,” he said. “I do think it remains important, that particularly when tensions are high between governments, that we foster these sports, educational, cultural relationships. I’ve said that from the very beginning. It certainly doesn’t mean that we are blessing everything that happens in China by any means. We are at root an American company, and so we follow US government policy.”

Whether it’s future pandemics or issues of global climate, economics or human rights, Silver said, “We can play a productive role in helping the people of the United States and the people of China have a better understanding of each other, and see that we’re all human beings and that there is commonality between us.”

Adam Silver on social change: 'We are making progress'

• While he thinks it might take years to determine what the NBA got right or wrong in navigating the coronavirus challenges, Silver did see one lasting positive from the socially-distanced and cautious season: a deeper partnership with the players and their union.

“That sense of unity, I hope we can keep up and I see no reason why we won’t,” he said. “I think the players have a better understanding of sort of what we’re up against in trying to run this business. And I think we have a better understanding of the players and what it’s like to travel the amount they do and to the stresses they’re under, the emotional and physical burdens they’re under by competing at this level. Hopefully we can continue to build on that.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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