NEW ORLEANS -- A lot has changed about the National Basketball Players Association in the past 12 months. The union has a new president, Chris (not Cliff) Paul, several new executive committee members, and presumably will soon have a new executive director.
But the annual winter meeting at All-Star weekend showed that so much has not changed: The players, by and large, still don't care.
The union gathered on Saturday for its annual winter meeting to handle the fairly important business of presenting the two finalists for the job of replacing the ousted Billy Hunter. Other than members of the executive committee, who pretty much had to be there, only about 30 players showed up. There are more than 400 players in the NBA, and surely at least 100 or so have been in town for various All-Star activities.
It was no surprise. A year ago in Houston, the union gathered for the equally (if not more) important business of voting on whether to retain or dismiss Hunter after an extensive report detailing his failure to properly manage conflicts of interest and other mismanagement of the union. Approximately 40 players showed up for that one.
On Saturday, only two All-Stars other than Paul took time out of their busy schedules to attend the meeting and learn something about finalists David White of the Screen Actors Guild and New York corporate lawyer Michele Roberts: Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Trail Blazers. Props to them for caring.
Already, we're hearing from prominent player agents who are dissatisfied with the union's process for vetting and evaluating candidates. But it's the same old thing when it comes to that: How can agents be dissatisfied with the process when their clients don't care enough to participate in it? Perhaps they don't realize that all the problems that were found with Hunter's tenure might have been avoided if the players had paid a little more attention to what was happening right under their noses.
With Adam Silver taking the commissioner reins from David Stern, the stakes could not be higher for the NBPA. It needs strong leadership, someone who is creative, tough, principled and forward-thinking enough to protect the players' best interests while partnering with Silver to grow the game and the profits for everyone. But more than that, the players association needs something that has been missing for too long: players who care. Without them, it won't matter who is in charge.
Unless the union's new leader is able to engage the membership, apathy will rule and the new commissioner will continue to run the table against the NBPA as much as, or even more than, the old commissioner did.
With All-Star Sunday upon us in sunny New Orleans, here's what else is going on in the Big Easy:
• All-Star Saturday night was definitely in need of fixing, but the new format for the dunk contest somehow managed to make it worse. The team format was a flop, because it kept the two best dunkers of the night -- John Wall and Paul George -- from squaring off against each other. If you were watching at home and couldn't tell when the dunk contest was over and who won, you weren't alone. Dwight Howard's point that the dunk contest has gotten stale because "every dunk has been done" actually wasn't the problem. The dunks were good; the contest and the format were dreadful.
• Speaking of Anthony, it was refreshing to hear his voice and opinions ring out so loudly and authoritatively during media interviews on Friday. Anthony is one of the most interesting personalities in the NBA, and his voice was heard when he proclaimed that coach Mike Woodson would be back after the All-Star break and when he outlined what it would take for the Knicks to keep him in New York. Why the sudden outburst? When Anthony is in his environment with the Knicks, he's guarded so closely by PR people monitoring his every word and cutting his interviews short that fans don't get to hear anything close to authentic thoughts and opinions. First and foremost, Anthony should want to hear about a credible plan for the Knicks to contend for a championship with him as the centerpiece. But if I were advising him, I would tell him he should also demand that the Knicks and Madison Square Garden let him have his voice and personality back. If the Knicks spent as much time focused on trying to win as they do babysitting their most prized asset, none of this would be an issue.
• The NBA is three years into the collective bargaining agreement negotiated in 2011, with three more seasons left before either side can choose to opt out of it. Personally, I don't expect either side to walk away in 2017; much more can be accomplished by working together to grow the revenue than fighting in hotel conference rooms for a few more percentage points either way. But Silver, the lead negotiator of the deal, couldn't help himself when presented with the opportunity to stake out his future bargaining position just in case. When asked in his first All-Star address as commissioner Saturday night about the possibility of expansion, Silver said his goal is to have a healthy, 30-team league. "As powerful as the gains were that we made in the last collective bargaining agreement, we still don't have a league that has 30 teams that are financially viable," he said. With that seemingly innocuous statement, Silver moved the goalposts and changed the goals -- goals that he so famously characterized during the lockout as unwavering. During bargaining, Silver kept saying that the league had two goals: To create a system in which every team, if well managed, would have a chance to compete for a championship and also, if well managed, have an opportunity to make a profit. That is quite a different goal than having 30 teams that are financially viable. If all 30 teams aren't in the black in 2017, does that mean the NBA will ask for still more concessions from the players? Beware of this subtle but important shift in rhetoric from the new commissioner.
• Trade talk at All-Star weekend has been "as slow as it's been in a long time," said one executive who has not received a single phone call. A lot of teams have made it known which players they are open to moving, but the problem is finding trade partners. Very few teams are willing to part with premium draft picks or take on future salary, which are the two key drivers for trades.
• Prominent agent Bill Duffy has partnered with Crunch Fitness and Brain Bar in an effort to incorporate health and fitness into his clients' marketing opportunities and strategies for managing their post-playing careers. He struck up the relationship with Crunch via his friendship with Sacramento Kings co-owner Mark Mastrov, who sold 24-Hour Fitness for $1.6 billion in 2005 and started a new company that bought the Crunch franchise out of bankruptcy in 2009. With NBA players becoming more focused on health and nutrition, Duffy aligning clients with health-related brands could be a sign of things to come. The NBA star who drops his affiliations with brands like McDonald's and sugary drink manufacturers could find he has enormous opportunities to put his name and personal brand behind products that his fans should actually be consuming.