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NBA Commissioner for a Day: How would you make the NBA game better?

David Stern might be the guy NBA fans love to hate (lovingly?), but you'd also love to have his job for a day.

Jim McIsaac

Just like last summer, the SB Nation NBA network is running a series of theme days across the network. First up: what would you do if you were in David Stern's all-powerful shoes for a day?

My first question when I saw the "commissioner for a day" concept: do I get access to a time machine, too?

I don't generally consider myself one for grudges or conspiracies, but it's hard for any long-suffering Bucks fans to forget the lopsided foul differential in the 2001 Bucks/Sixers Conference Finals or the feeling of injustice after Scott Williams was conveniently suspended for the Bucks' game seven loss in Philly. The Bucks still had their chances in the series, but even 12 years later it's an understandable sore point for a Milwaukee franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since that spring. So while I'm not sure I'd go so far as to suggest Mr. Stern was in on the fix, it sure would be nice to go back and, you know, make sure everything was on the up-and-up.

Putting aside past injustices, there's still plenty that could make the game better looking forward, too. Ignoring the fact that the commissioner himself can't unilaterally change everything (there's that pesky collective bargaining thing and the whole "owners having a say" deal), here are some ideas for how to generally make the game better both on the court and off.

  • Diminish incentives for tanking. I'm not saying the Bucks deserve credit for fruitlessly chasing the eighth seed the past few seasons, but there's something perverse about a sport that punishes teams for attempting to win games, right? In the grand scheme of what sports should be about, it's kind of sad that Philly fans are celebrating their team laying down for the coming season, right? Part of the issue is the nature of the game: a single superstar simply matters more in basketball than any other major sport, so the temptation to be bad in order to get someone great is somewhat unavoidable unless you do away with the draft entirely.

    I wouldn't go that far, but I would be in favor of disincentivizing tanking by further reducing the odds that the worst teams get the first overall pick. That might seem kind of cruel given the worst team in the league has only a 25% chance of snagging the #1 spot as-is. But I'd have no problem balancing out the odds even further to further dissuade teams from choosing to be bad. To that end, I'd also suggest extending the lottery to every team that doesn't win a playoff series, or providing additional lottery combinations to teams for every game they win after being eliminated from playoff contention.
  • The hard cap. The owners made a hard salary cap their primary rallying point in the 2011 CBA negotiations, only to eventually settle for a more punitive tax system in order to get a deal done. The notion of a hard cap will forever be a boogieman to players, who despite guarantees that they receive a set percentage of basketball income will never like the idea of a hard cap hindering their ability to stay with or join up with big spending teams that might bump up against it. And that's precisely why a small market-centric person like myself is a big fan of the hard cap, even if I've been pretty happy with how the tax system is beginning to have an effect on big market teams' spending habits.

    So long as they have a mega TV deal, the Lakers and their like can afford financially to blow through the tax, but the cost of doing so--both in terms of dollars and limited flexibility to offer mid-level deals, sign-and-trades, etc--has begun to make the big spenders far more wary of their economic largesse. But given that the tax already acts as a de facto cap for 70% of the league, why not even the playing field in spending terms and make a single number the cap for everyone?

    A hard cap would create a follow-on issue in that the tax system is a key component of revenue sharing (which of course every Bucks fan should support), but there are plenty of ways to share revenues beyond the luxury tax system and revenue sharing itself becomes less important when no team can dramatically outspend the others.
  • Increase the max for the guys that deserve it. One of the obvious price distortions in the NBA is brought about by the notion of a maximum salary. In some cases, those rules helped save teams from themselves (How much would the Grizzlies have Rudy Gay if there was no such as a max deal? Yikes.). But for a select group of players the max undercuts their true contributions, which is why I'd bump the available max salary for guys that have won MVPs or made at least five all-star games by 30% above what it is now. Those numbers are somewhat arbitrary, but you get the idea.

    But it's not just about creating a salary structure that more fairly compensates the ultra-elite category of LeBrons and Durants--those guys making more money also limits the flexibility to sign other superstars a la the Heat. Many will argue that the league is more interesting for having a handful of super-teams around, but as a small market guy don't count me as one of them. The league would be more competitive if teams had to pay more for the league's true difference-makers and thus couldn't stack teams around them quite so easily, especially if it were paired with a hard cap. And honestly that's enough for me.
  • Shorten the regular season. Let's be clear: this is never happening. There's way too much money involved for players or owners to like the idea of fewer regular season games, and plenty of other stuff would be thrown off by reducing the NBA schedule by 10 games or so (statistical records for instance). But the NBA season would be a bit more interesting if the regular season wasn't *quite* so long, right? Every game would matter a bit more and we'd spend less of our lives bemoaning teams tanking.
  • Make the charge circle bigger. I appreciate the art of taking charges, but it's a problematic rule on many levels even with the improvements brought about by the existing charge circle. For one, the block/charge rule is difficult to call and can have huge implications in games, which only increases the importance of officials' decision-making (never a good thing). Moreover, there's nothing particularly inspiring about rewarding guys who slide in from the weak-side to undercut an opponent attacking the rim--it's an especially pronounced problem at the college level, where smaller guys are routinely rewarded for endangering themselves and high-flying opponents right under the rim. Offensive players should have to play with some self-control, but wouldn't we prefer defenders that actually, you know, try to defend? The easiest solution: lengthen the radius of the charge circle.
  • Allow guys to play the ball on the rim. Allowing players to touch a ball that's hit the rim might seem like a big change to some, but that's the way the game is played internationally and it's surprising how few times per game it actually comes into play (no, guys won't be able to sit around goaltending shots all night). The rule applies for both offense and defense, so for me the biggest appeal is that it takes away another judgment call officials have to make which can have a big impact on a close game. Who cares if it was in the cylinder? Whoever can get up to make a play should be rewarded for it, right?

OK, that's what I would do with 24 hours of NBA omnipotence. What are you doing with yours?