NBA commissioner Adam Silver is getting his competitive balance, but will it come at a cost?

NEW YORK — David Stern loved to lord over the NBA during his time as commissioner, waving his imperial wand and illustrating who was in charge — and Stern’s league often followed suit, with dynasty upon dynasty setting the tone for everyone to chase.

“Lakers versus Lakers,” he was known to say as his dream finals — and he was only being slightly sarcastic.

Adam Silver is a different type of commissioner, in a different type of NBA, in a different time. Silver is more diplomatic, more prone to listen to his constituents, less stubborn and, in terms of how the NBA looks, wants parity — or at least the appearance of it.

And with a week left in this regular season, one could argue it’s his biggest achievement this season. Of course, he has the Jontay Porter situation to adjudicate, with the Toronto Raptors forward under a gambling investigation that could produce dire consequences and an example for all who dare try to beat the system.

A Stern warning, if you will — “a cardinal sin,” Silver called it.

But aside from the issue the league will have to get in front of for years to come to ensure integrity, Silver can look at the standings and smile.

He couldn’t keep his grin to himself when the question wasn’t even finished being asked. A whopping 13 teams have between 44 and 49 wins. Only the Boston Celtics have their seeding wrapped up, and the only playoff matchup that seems likely to be set is the L.A. Clippers and Dallas as the Nos. 4-5 in the West.

“I'm thrilled with the level of competition, and I think what fans ultimately want is to see great competition across the league,” Silver said following the Board of Governors meeting in New York on Wednesday afternoon.

“As to dynasties, I'm not anti-dynasty, but you want dynasties to be created to the extent possible with a level playing field. So, if teams draft well, developed players well, trade well, but in essence operate roughly within the same number of chips, so to speak.”

It's a shot at the cap spike of 2016 that enabled the Golden State Warriors, in a somewhat embryonic stage of a dynasty, to cement it with the signing of Kevin Durant. Silver probably wasn’t so much against that on a personal level, but when he has owners to answer to that’s a company line he has to present.

Owners not only want to make money, but they want to be able to compete at a reasonable level. Silver’s task with the last collective bargaining agreement was to come up with a way to spread the wealth of a financially solvent league but also satisfy the franchises who want a chance to win.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - FEBRUARY 17: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 17, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, speaking to the media at All-Star Weekend, was at the league's Board of Governors meeting in New York on Wednesday. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) (Justin Casterline via Getty Images)

Thus, the luxury-tax aprons were created — the more a team spends, the fewer mechanisms it has to get better incrementally.

What’s resulted is not only teams that are up against it this season, facing the pressure to win — the Minnesota Timberwolves, facing looming tax penalties, and this year’s all-in squad, the Phoenix Suns — but they could also wind up being cautionary tales as well.

The regular season has games that matter with precious few days remaining, with torch-bearers LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant thanking their lucky stars the play-in tournament was created.

The litmus test for Silver’s dream, though, will be the playoffs.

The genius of Stern at the time was knowing the American fan needed something bankable to follow, even if beating Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics and Michael’s Bulls proved to be little more than fantasy.

Not everybody had a chance to win, but if you did things right, you at least had a turn, a shot at the impossible.

Now, there is no behemoth, even as the Celtics have run away with the East and so many smart people believe the champion Denver Nuggets are the easy choice to make it out the West again.

There have been five champions the last five years and, honestly, only the 2022 Milwaukee Bucks had a reasonably strong chance of repeating after their 2021 triumph, and even they were knocked out in the second round.

The connective tissue has helped build the league, create history and sustain a level of imagination. Silver hopes he isn’t ripping from the fabric of it, but adding a layer of complexity — while balancing the needs of the overlords.

“I get it, we have a tax system that creates some advantages for some teams, but I think then you want to see that management skill, the collective activity of those players rewarded,” Silver said. “That, to me, is a different kind of dynasty because then ... and you then can appreciate what’s happening on the floor and you don’t necessarily want to set out to artificially break up a team that’s been built that way.”

The Celtics have been a mainstay, making the Finals once and the conference finals five times over the last decade. Players have been developed and swapped out, coaches too. The Nuggets finally reached a point where drafting and development fully paid off, starting with Nikola Jokić in 2014 and then with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — their health being a catalyst for their title last spring.

In a way, that’s something that can be sold to every team. There are breaks, but there is opportunity within that, that a team doesn’t have to be perfect or the ultimate anomaly to still be standing come June.

What’s yet to be seen is how the fans and the marketplace will react to the idea of NFL-like parity. Hopefully the casual fans will stay around when and if James and Durant and Curry are sent home, and they’re left to wonder about this Shai Gilgeous-Alexander fellow, or even the Anthony Edwards guy their kids have been showing them highlights of all season long.

With the shorter season of professional football, there’s more ambiguity, more mystery when the playoffs come. The difference between an 11-win team and a 12-win one could be massive, but it’s hard to tell.

The difference between a 48-win NBA team and a 44-win team leaves less to the imagination, at least that has been the case in the past. What could be parity in one person’s eyes could be legislated mediocrity to the next person, and punishing potential greatness — because of finances — before it reaches full bloom helps no one.

“To me, you can never predict what’s going to happen with the competition,” Silver said. “But what we set out to do, both with our collective bargaining system and frankly our revenue sharing system was to give all 30 teams an opportunity to compete, and if well managed, to have an ability to make a profit as well … that’s then what allows them to reinvest in the organization, build new facilities and grow the franchise.”

What’s unsaid in that is the upcoming media rights deal. There’s only so much NBA inventory to squeeze out to the public, only so many Warriors vs. Lakers games that are on the docket. The balanced schedule means the marquee matchups happen four times a year at the max before the playoffs, so the league wants as many marquee games as possible — or at least the appearance that every team is important, and every team has a star.

Selling the games, one would hope, won’t come at the expense of selling the game, or growing it. The league used to be able to sell illusions, now it’s trying to create possibilities.

What makes star teams and players so special is knowing there’s only so many to go around, and that having one means no matter the day or circumstance, you have a better chance than most.

Silver isn’t trying to eliminate that, per se, but it’s a very fine line the league is walking — and just because it hasn’t fully worked in the past doesn’t mean it can’t work now.