David Stern likes to say that he works for the owners. And on paper he does, but things are often different in practice.
For instance, in March 2009, as Marc Stein reported at the time, the league sent owners a memo making a request: Don't talk publicly about anything that's being negotiated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
Let's pause a moment to reflect on that.
The CBA is to the NBA roughly as the Constitution is to the United States. The current version of that document includes 45 articles, on topics as diverse as free agency, playing conditions at various facilities, the All-Star game, player conduct, length of player contracts, where players get to park at stadiums, drug testing, TV rights, agents, the D-League, procedures for the league to expand and a ton more, right down to the prize money in the dunk contest.
That entire document and anything else that might be in the next one are in negotiation right now. Sure, money's the main point, but everything from revenue sharing to the ban of high-schoolers, and possibly even how much to reward Krypto-Nate, will be discussed.
That memo directed thirty owners and their employees essentially not to discuss anything substantive about the business of the league they work in. That's a big request, especially to owners who have hundreds of millions tied up in such things, and executives who live in the world of the CBA and are on the record with reporters almost daily.
If it were a "hey, cool it, guys" kind of thing, then OK, point taken. But the league confirms that the Houston Rockets and their general manager Daryl Morey were fined an undisclosed amount -- one report put it at $100,000 -- in response to Morey talking about the salary cap, in blue-sky mode on Bill Simmons' podcast in February.
(Basically, Morey wants a hard salary cap, with no other rules, because he thinks that set-up would favor teams like his which are prepared to live and die with their own player valuations. Presumably that means removing things like rookie scale, maximum salaries and a cap on contract length, but Morey didn't even get that specific. These are the kinds of innovative ideas that have made Morey's annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference a hot ticket among NBA movers and shakers. The more smart people discussing this kind of stuff, in the long run, the more creative the ideas the NBA and the Players Association have to choose from to make a strong agreement.)
The reality of that fine, and if true, the amount, send a message.
But what is that message, exactly?
The default point is a tactical one: The NBA is determined to speak with one voice in bargaining with the NBA Players Association. That's just smart. Before that memo, all kinds of owners and front office personnel were talking about different things they'd like to see in the next CBA, from the elimination of the mid-level exception to much more aggressive revenue sharing. Loose lips sink ships, right? No need to hand the people sitting across the table a guide to your innermost thoughts.
But maybe the bigger message is that if you are an owner, or work for one, Stern can fine you just about whatever he wants, for any number of things you might say in the normal course of life. Who else in sports gets to make a rule so vague, and yet enforce it so severely? If you work for an NBA team think players don't get good enough parking at arenas, dunk contest winner doesn't earn enough or whatever else ... the rules that apply to the Rockets and Morey could, at Stern's discretion, be applied to you.
Is Morey bitter about the whole thing? There's no way to tell. He declined to talk about the incident even in the vaguest of terms, and who could blame him for feeling a little tight-lipped?