Turns out that in his first major decision as NBA commissioner—President Barack Obama even referenced Silver by name during his comments on the matter from Malaysia, so no pressure—Silver will indeed have pretty broad leeway to dole out what, in his view, is just punishment. The first, and probably least effective, option is a straight fine. NBA owners have been subject to fines before: Mark Cuban, for example, got slapped with a $500,000penalty in 2002 for criticizing referees. Sternfined Sterling $6 million back in 1984, after Sterling moved the Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles without the league’s approval.
Silver doesn’t need the other owners to approve a fine. But Sterling is worth $1.9 billion, according to Forbes. Even some recording-breaking fine—say, in the range of $10 million or so—will be a pittance for Sterling, who has a documented history of loutish behavior.
Silver can also suspend Sterling, again, without a formal vote from the owners. Player suspensions are fairly straightforward: You can’t practice or play. But can an owner, who has paid millions for the asset, be kept out of his office by a third party, in this case, the commissioner? Yes. In 2000, for example, Stern suspended Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor from October 2000 through August 2001 because of a secret deal the team concocted with forward Joe Smith that circumvented the league’s salary cap rules. During that time, Taylor could not go to games, negotiate deals, or talk to reporters (ironically enough, Taylor is now interim chairman of the NBA’s Board of Governors).
Essentially, the owner still holds onto the asset, but can’t be involved in day-to-day operations. In baseball, then-commissioner Fay Vincent banned George Steinbrenner for life in 1990 for paying a gambler to big up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield. Vincent later allowed Steinbrenner to return for the 1993 season.
Slapping an indefinite suspension on Sterling would probably be Silver’s best tactic to force Sterling to sell the Clippers. Not that Sterling doesn’t already clear economic incentive to unload the team. He purchased the franchise for $12 million back in 1981. According to Forbes, the Clips are now worth $575 million, but even that figure is probably conservative: the small-maket Milwaukee Bucks, sans stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, just sold for $550 million. In the open market, the Clippers would surely fetch much more. As SI.com’s Michael McCann reports:
“The NBA’s constitution, which is confidential, reportedly contains language permitting owners to authorize the league to sell a team without an owner’s consent. The language, SI.com is told, only covers very limited circumstances and these circumstances concern league finances — namely, when an owner can’t pay his bills. There is reportedly no language authorizing the NBA to sell a team because of an owner’s hurtful remarks or embarrassing behavior. Even if conditional language could be construed to authorize a forced sale of the Clippers, NBA owners would likely be reluctant to do so given the precedent it would set.”
Sterling could appeal any kind of punishment and drag this mess out even further. The fact that the recording between Sterling and his ex-girlfriend could be illegal—in California, both parties to a conversation must consent a conversation being taped—may empower Sterling to put up a fight. The NBA’s best hope is that an angel investor—hey, like this guy!—swoops in and makes Sterling an offer too good to refuse, and that Sterling comes to a common-sense conclusion: His days as an NBA owner appear numbered.