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NBA Pre-Playoff Conference Transcript
April 7, 2004
David Stern, NBA Commissioner
Russ Granik, NBA Deputy Commissioner
Stu Jackson, NBA Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations
Opening Statement: Thanks for joining us. This is our annual pre-playoff press conference. We are feeling pretty good about the state of the league today. As we speak there are lots of playoff positions that have not been decided. My statisticians havenít given me the rundown, but I think itís as many as weíve had in a lot of years. At our board meeting next week, which happens to be on the last day of the season, a dinner meeting Ė we have assured the owners that we will eat dinner very early and it will be a working dinner. Then we will have something in the neighborhood of 14 television sets set up in another room bringing the feeds in because we expect ties and actual playoff positions to be decided on the last evening. It has been rewarding for us to see teams like the Cavaliers, the Heat and the Nuggets, who havenít even contended for the playoffs of late either be in the playoffs or still contending for them, and to see the impact that player movement, rookies, trades have had. We think that the increased ratings on TNT and ESPN and our increased attendance are a reflection of that. We expect that although our ratings on ABC are down about 10 percent, we are anticipating a very nice bump in the playoffs and Finals based upon the competitive nature of the season.
Q: Do you have any concern that part of the reason that the ABC ratings last year were off compared to the previous ratings on NBC was due to fewer games and the early rounds not on broadcast TV and that the league migrating more of the earlier postseason games to cable has limited the audience interest leading to the final round?
Stern: I donít think so. Our ratings on ABC for the playoffs were up last year. I think that in fairness to our fans and viewers they didnít find that particular competition at that time as inspiring as we had hoped they would. We actually think that if it happened again today it would get higher ratings. But we have to do a better job generally of promoting the Finals, and we are working on that together with ABC, ESPN and TNT and the other assets we have at our disposal.
Q: Was there anything that was lost by the league in your view migrating more of the playoff games from broadcast to cable?
Stern: No, we donít think so. I would say that in the first year, it might be a little bit harder for people who didnít exactly understand our configuration. But actually we are up 17 percent this year on ESPN and 15 percent on TNT. The networks continue the erosion that prompted us to forecast that that erosion would continue. The future of most regular season sports is increasingly mid-week on and given the economic model that cable has, you are going to increasingly see it winning more events. With respect to other aspects, obviously the Internet has become a much bigger factor in recent years. Our visitation continues to improve. As a result we think that although networks will continue to garner important groupings of fans, the inexorable march to cable is underway.
Q: People who know these things say that a dozen or more high school kids are going to turn pro, and that maybe seven of them are first round picks. What does that say?
Stern: It says that about a dozen kids are going to be turning pro, and about seven of them are first round picks.
Q: What does it say about where the league is going?
Stern: I guess it says if it happens our teamsí view that there is more talent on a long-range basis among 18 year-olds who are going to make themselves available than amongst other people. I donít mean to be sparring with you. I just donít understand what philosophical conclusion you want me to draw.
Granik: I think it also depends on where these individuals end up getting drafted and how well they perform once they do get drafted. Itís a little early to project what is going to happen long-term.
Stern: And there will be more international players as well. I mean, that is the reality of the current system. But I am holding out against 14 year-olds.
Q: Do you still hold any hope of installing a 20 year-old age limit?
Stern: I certainly will say that it is an item for negotiation with the Players Association. Whether it emerges from the Collective Bargaining negotiations, I cannot say. I have been heard in recent days to talk more about the development league because my broader concern is that to get kids coming in younger and younger in normal course of events, we will have the usual percentage of players who donít make it and that weíd like to have a developed philosophy for what to do with them and how they can deal with the rest of their careers. So weíd like to make sure that the development league is there to serve them.
Q: I know you touched on the 20 year-old age limit a minute ago, but some people think that argument has been weakened a bit with the play this year of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as 19 year-olds. Could you please talk about that in light of how James and Anthony have played?
Stern: I have never said that the 18 year-olds canít play in the league. I just said that I donít think itís a good idea for us to have them in the league. And I never said that they shouldnít come into the league because they should go to college. Because I am not sure that college is necessarily for everyone. What I have said is that I donít think that we should be setting an example for kids to be planning the rest of their lives around basketball, because itís not a very good thing to do. You stopped at Carmelo and LeBron, but one could talk about the long list of Jermaine OíNeal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady Ė a veritable All-Star team.
Q: It seems like those guys took longer to make an impact in the league than Carmelo and LeBron. Any reason why they are making a quicker impact at this younger age?
Stern: I donít have a basketball opinion.
Jackson: I think every so often you get special talents that come along and it just so happened that the two of them this year happened to be 19 years of age. Typically it has not been the norm that players that young have been so productive in their first year. Even in the case of other players that have come into the league out of high school or one year out of college, they normally or typically havenít been as productive. But I think the message is donít be fooled, this doesnít happen very often. Fortunately for us and all of the fans, we have two players this age that perform wonderfully.
Q: ESPN and TNT have aired a lot of Cavaliers and Nuggets games because of LeBron and Carmelo. What do you think of the impact of LeBron and Carmelo as players, and how theyíve carried themselves this season? What impact do you think theyíve had on the league in general?
Stern: Well, I would just say that they have been positive across the board. I think the important thing from our perspective was that they had great success. They carried themselves wonderfully and seem to be generally nice young men. And most importantly, really, they and Dwyane Wade have kept their teams in the playoff hunt. That is important because they have meant an enormous amount to their cities. But we have lots of stories Ė when you focus on Hubie Brown and the Memphis Grizzlies Ö there are a lot of teams that have been doing quite well both in their cities and on national ratings. But clearly Carmelo and LeBron are a great story, and especially by their teams competing for the playoffs.
Q: What about the image that they seem to project? Over the years there has been some negative publicity projected by some players and now you have two players who seem like they are going to be around for a while.
Stern: I never took the negative too seriously, so I donít want to gloat in the positive. They appear to be very well grounded, sophisticated beyond their years in recognizing the responsibility of the fame that theyíve gotten and are handling it quite well. But you donít actually expect a 19 year-old to do as well as theyíre doing, so it has been a very pleasant surprise in terms of how they are handling the pressure.
Q: It is quite possible that you will have four or five sub-.500 teams making the playoffs in the East. Is the preponderance of these kinds of teams in the playoff hunt a concern? Is the competitive imbalance between the conferences a concern?
Stern: I have no problem. Russ, do you have any problem?
Granik: I donít have any problems. I think based on the number of teams that make the playoffs you are going to have one or two that are below .500. I think the good news for us is that we have had a very competitive season in each conference. Based on the fights that have gone down to the wire here on both sides. I think in terms of the imbalance East and West, there have been some strides made this year. I think I just read that Indiana has the best record against Western Conference teams Ė including other Western Conference teams. So theyíve had a great season, and Detroit had come on very, very strong here. So I think that most people would say that both of those teams have a real shot here. Itís not just going through the preliminary rounds, but that either one of those two teams could conceivably win the Finals. So we are feeling a lot better about that situation than perhaps the earlier part of the season.
Q: There is a young man, a 17 year-old Russian, whose attorney/agent has said that if you install a minimum age requirement they are going to sue. If you reset the age requirement to 20 years-old, is this still worth your while?
Stern: If we can get such an age limit with the players, we would go ahead and agree to it. We would expect that Clarett not withstanding, it would stand legally. As you have heard me say before, I think that Clarett was wrongly decided. Right now all it is is a lower court decision, which I think is sort of an island in a sea of other cases which go the other way.
Q: Do you believe the line between winning and losing teams is any finer these days with the reactions you have seen as far as coaches getting fired and the trades like the Knicks-Suns deal?
Stern: I could tell you only as a fan that there are a lot of GMs and owners who are much quicker to make a change based upon the belief that what we tell every new owner is true, ďthat they are only one player awayĒ. The problem is that player is Shaq and he is playing in L.A. You see the continued upheaval with trades, coaches, draft picks, international signings always in search of that one player. I think it indicates that the line has gotten a little thinner or the patience level has gotten thinner based upon whatís at stake. My guess is itís a combination of the two.
Q: Why has the league not made the unprotected list (for the expansion draft) public in the past?
Granik: The sense has always been that teams put players on the unprotected list for a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they want to get rid of them. The feeling is that in the end if the player is not going to be moved, then what is the benefit to the player or the game to have his name thrown out there. In terms of a team that is going to keep that player, if itís not out there publicly thatís probably a good thing. In the end, of course, it does tend to leak, but the sense has always been that we should not be the source putting it out there.
Q: If this information is going to come out anyway wouldnít it just be easier to come out and say it?
Granik: Itís the same thing with player salaries, we donít publicize those because we donít think that is the right thing we should be doing. In the end somebody always gets the reports and you all have it, but it doesnít seem like the appropriate thing for us to do. If it happens, it happens.
Q: Would you predict that in the next few years Michael Jordan will own an NBA team and is this something you want to happen? Also why is Michael Jordan good to have as an owner specifically?
Stern: Yes, I would predict that in the next few years Michael Jordan will own an NBA team. Sure, it is something I want to happen. Whenever I see former players who contributed so much to our game get a chance to participate in ownership like a Magic, a Larry, a Michael, thatís great. As Isiah did in Toronto, I just think those are wonderful for us, both at an executive level and at the ownership level. I think that nothing is as good and as an advertisement for the openness of the sport at an ownership level than having its most recognized figure be an owner. I think that sets an extraordinary example for kids and to other players. It also indicates that there is an opportunity for players to participate across a broader area than just playing such as coaching and front office. There has always been a sense that ownership was illusive. But to me to make ownership not illusive and to have it in the hands of perhaps the most well-known player to ever have played our game is just an exclamation point on that and very good for business.