David Stern and the Aging Emperor-CEO Syndrome

NBA Commissioner David Stern recently fined the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 and severely chastised them for the decision by Gregg Popovich, their near-legendary coach, to rest his aging stars at home rather than fly them to Miami for a meaningless (but nationally televised) tilt with the defending-champion Miami Heat. Is Stern losing his grip? Does he need an intervention and/or a forced retirement as he reaches his managerial dotage? While I haven’t heard of Commissioner Queeg–whoops, Stern–clicking steel balls in his hand or searching for the keys to the strawberries, a Caine Mutiny scenario may be approaching if he continues to deteriorate. Other firms with long-term, successful “emperor” CEOs have found their later years to be problematic. See Eisner, Michael (Disney) or Olson, Kenneth (Digital Equipment Corporation) or maybe Cizik, Robert (Cooper Industries).

Here is the entirety of the NBA’s official justification for this bolt from the blue:

The NBA announced Friday that the San Antonio Spurs organization has been fined $250,000 for its decision to send four players home prior to the Spurs’ Nov. 29 game in Miami. The Spurs’ actions were in violation of a league policy, reviewed with the NBA Board of Governors in April 2010, against resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA.

NBA Commissioner David Stern stated: “The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case. The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team’s only regular-season visit to Miami. The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”

Forget that Popovich, reigning Coach of the Year, three-time champion, and longest-tenured helmsman in the league, might have built up enough credibility with players and fans for them to accept such a decision. Forget that the Spurs’ backups nearly won the game against the Heat, so no accusation of tanking can be made. Ignore that the Spurs had been subjected by the league to a ridiculously taxing road schedule, with five away games in seven days, capped by the “marquis” Miami contest on TNT. Pay no attention to the Spurs’ subsequent ability to win a tough game in overtime two nights later against the younger (and surprisingly Western Conference-leading) Memphis Grizzlies, a more important contest for the Spurs’ championship hopes.

The bigger issues here relate to Stern’s increasingly out-of-touch “l’etat c’est moi” attitude and his seeming insulation from sensible advice. Does the commissioner really think that he has the authority to dictate internal team management issues? As one of Popovich’s colleagues put it :

Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, whose team entered a half-game ahead of the Spurs for the best record in the Western Conference, said Popovich has a right to manage his team however he wants.

“I don’t say it’s bad. I don’t say it’s good,” Hollins said. “That’s Pop’s decision. I do what I do with my team and he does what he does, and the 28 other teams do the same thing. Each coach has a responsibility to his players and his team.”

How far does Stern’s new power reach–why wouldn’t it be against “the best interests of the league” for the Houston Rockets to bench casual-fan favorite Jeremy Lin, for example? If the league is allowed to have veto power over each team’s roster in order to maximize (its estimate of) TV ratings and media interest, then the integrity of the game has really been compromised. By imposing this new, arbitrary, and ex post facto interpretation of a vague “best interests of the league” clause, the commissioner’s office is now implicitly responsible for every coach’s decision about playing time.

Does Stern not realize that by treating the NBA season as if it were a Broadway show rather than an athletic competition (the NBA’s public rationale for his sudden and erratic decision stresses that this was the Spurs’ only regular season trip to South Beach) he only reinforces the cynics and conspiracy theorists who believe that the league office manipulates the game to maximize drama, a la professional wrestling? The notion that the league office manipulates draft lotteries, refereeing, and other levers in order to favor certain teams (the mediagenic, glamorous ones) and hurt others (small-market, non-tabloid outfits like the Spurs) is rife among the sports fan base. Stern ought to be bending over backward to emphasize the separation between the league’s procedural authority on the one hand and the teams’ competitive decisions and results on the other.

This episode recalls last year’s fiasco where Stern’s office unexpectedly, improperly, and irrationally blocked a trade of then-New Orleans Hornet Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers. The league owned the Hornets after buying it from financially troubled former owner George Shinn. They had promised that the franchise would be managed independently and in its own competitive interest, proclaiming the decision-making independence of its handpicked general manager. Instead, Stern big-footed in  to block the favorable deal for New Orleans, which ended up losing Paul to the Clippers anyway for less compensation than it would have received from the Lakers. Evidently, the commissioner just can’t resist tampering with teams’ roster decisions no matter how much he dilutes the credibility of the NBA and its product.

It’s natural for aging and egotistical CEOS with strong track records to lose touch with reality or to believe that they are infallible. It should be natural for the fiduciaries who oversee them to pull the plug when their excesses become progressive embarrassments.

2 Comments on “David Stern and the Aging Emperor-CEO Syndrome”

  1. […] meilleurs joueurs à l’occasion d’un match diffusé sur une grande chaîne nationale. Steve Postrel y voit la manifestation d’un syndrome qui veut que les grands dirigeants vieillissants […]

  2. I’m really impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one these

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