For the past several years it has not been clear if the NBA fully understood the damage that the league and players were creating as a result of the load management that was becoming more and more fashionable.
Teams and players were “following the science.” Anyone who complained too loudly on behalf of the fans was dismissed as a curmudgeonly dinosaur who didn’t understand the advancements in research and data that have come along in the last decade-plus.
It appears as if, finally, a reckoning has arrived.
When commissioner Adam Silver stood behind a podium last week to discuss the league’s new fight against load management, it was a recognition of the precarious position the league finds itself in with fans and television partners about a product that has, too often in recent seasons, left the two most important outside stakeholders feeling slighted during the regular season when a star or multiple stars sat out.
NBA board of governors approves new star rest policy
“There’s a sense from all the different constituent groups in the league that this is ultimately about the fans and we’ve taken this too far,” Silver said. “This is an acknowledgment that it’s gotten away from us a bit, and that, particularly I think when you see young, healthy players who are resting and it becomes maybe even more a notion of stature around the league as opposed to absolute needed rest, or it’s part of being an NBA player that you rest on certain days.
“That’s what we’re trying to move away from.”
It was quite the populist stance for Silver to take. Fans have belabored the practice of resting healthy players for years, gnashing their teeth when they purchase tickets for a game only to find out shortly before tipoff that a high-profile player was sitting out to rest. Though the conversations have not often been public, one would assume executives for ESPN and TNT weren’t happy either when those players sat out games in which they paid billions to broadcast.
Silver has said in the past that load management was an issue for the league, But in February, at the All-Star game in Salt Lake City, he defended the practice and said there was “medical data” to support teams giving their most important players a day off here and there.
“This year we’re going to likely break the all-time record for ticket sales,” Silver said at All-Star Weekend. “We’re likely going to have the all-time record for season-ticket renewals. So our fans aren’t necessarily suggesting that they’re that upset with the product that we’re presenting.”
Seven months later, he is singing a bit of a different tune.
“Everyone is acknowledging this is an issue,” Silver said after the league’s board of governors approved a new star rest policy that is aimed at curtailing the resting of healthy stars for nationally televised games, “and it’s an issue for the fans.”
Everyone is acknowledging this is an issue right now because the landscape appears to be rapidly changing around the league. For more than a year, team executives have been putting together long-term salary cap strategies that operate under the assumption that the cap will continue to rise dramatically, especially after the NBA agrees on a new television contract. The NBA’s current $24 billion deal with ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery (the parent company of TNT), is set to expire at the end of the 2024-25 season.
When the current contract was agreed upon in 2014, the sheer size of it came as a shock to many. Conversations in league circles over the last couple of seasons have included estimates that the new deal could triple in size as live sports become more and more important to networks that are trying to keep viewers’ attention in the modern content consumption business.
That doesn’t feel quite so certain anymore after a recent standoff between Charter Communications and Disney that led to more than 15 million cable subscribers losing access to ABC, Disney, ESPN and many more channels earlier this month. The issue was resolved, but it was the first real sign that the seemingly boundless leverage ESPN could exert over its distributors was being challenged for the first time. Add to that the crumbling of regional sports networks and the shift of viewing habits to streaming and there is volatility under the league’s feet when it comes to how to get their games in front of more eyeballs.
So now that the NBA is taking multiple steps to address one of the most scrutinized aspects of its game, it is doing so out of necessity more than epiphany. The board of governors adopted this new rest policy that states that teams must ensure star players are available for national television and In-Season Tournament games and must maintain a balance between the number of one-game absences for a star player in road and home games, with a preference for such absences to occur at home.
The NBA also put into its new collective bargaining agreement a clause that requires players to play at least 65 games to qualify for MVP and All-NBA honors. This is to incentivize players who can trigger escalators in contracts by winning those awards to appear in as many games as possible.
The advent of the In-Season Tournament is yet another sign that the league knows its regular season needs a jolt. If the NBA is going to command enormous money from TV partners that are no longer as bulletproof as they once were, it can no longer get away with some of the resting practices the league was employing.
“There’s an acknowledgment across the league that we need to return to that principle, that this is an 82-game league. … There’s a statement of a principle that if you’re a healthy player in this league, the expectation is that you’re going to play,” Silver said.
That just has not been the case in recent years. Last season Boston’s Jayson Tatum played 74 games. He was the only player on the All-NBA first or second team who played at least 70. The 15 players who made up the three All-NBA teams played in 1,002 of a possible 1,230 games. In 2021-22, those 15 players appeared in 1,010 total games. In addition, there were scores of games missed by other All-Star players who were not All-NBA.
Many of those games were missed for legitimate injury reasons, but the steps the league has taken this offseason suggest that it believes the optics of healthy players sitting out is a serious issue. Silver said the league understands that some players need to rest so that they are healthy for the playoffs, which is the NBA’s most important product. Older players, including LeBron James and Stephen Curry, might need games off so that they can preserve their bodies for the deep playoff runs they hope to make. But the league doesn’t want Anthony Davis sitting on the same night as James with the Lakers or Klay Thompson and Draymond Green sitting right next to Curry in street clothes, which is something the Warriors have done.
Sports science has exploded throughout the league in recent years, with teams hiring more people in the field to examine how players are eating, training, sleeping and, yes, resting. The motivation is noble. More than any other league, the NBA has grown in popularity across the globe on the strength of the allure of its star players. James, Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić and so many more faces are the primary attractions. They are bigger brands than the teams for which they play.
In the interest of preserving the moneymakers and extending their careers, teams have expanded their medical and athletic training staffs to find new and innovative ways of keeping their players on the court.
The 82-game season is an incredible grind on players, which can chew up their bodies before the most important time of year for the league: the playoffs. Home-road back-to-back games, stretches of three games in four nights or four in seven are taxing, not to mention arriving at a hotel at 3 a.m. to play a game later that night. Add to it the absurd workload that so many of the league’s players experienced in the relentless AAU circuit as kids, and it’s challenging for teams to keep them on the court and on television.
Interestingly, Silver said last week that “frankly, the science is inconclusive” as to whether load management keeps players healthy over the long haul.
“The correlation isn’t there,” he said.
Let’s talk load management: Is it a problem? How do we know it works?
But there is no doubt that many teams think otherwise, or there would be no reason to institute policies like the one adopted last week to try to discourage teams from either resting a star in nationally televised games or resting multiple stars in any game. Silver said the NBA is not trying to infringe on teams’ game-to-game strategies, saying there would be a gradual application of the new rules to allow teams time to adjust. He also made it clear that the league can no longer sit idle, too.
Shortening the season is not an option. That would cost too much money. So it’s time to lace up.
“We’re trying to deal with some of the most egregious examples,” Silver said. “We’re letting down the fans, we’re letting down our partners by doing that.”
Some players, including Curry, have said that the load management trend has been something instituted and dictated by teams, not the players. Silver said last week that there is a belief in some circles that a certain segment of players see it as a symbol of status that they are worthy of being rested on a given night. Either way, the league and the players have a lot to lose if they do not find a way to reduce the frustration of fans and television partners on this front.
Years ago, the late Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders would often speak about the league missing the bigger picture as load management became fashionable. In the never-ending pursuit of a competitive edge, Saunders believed that the league was risking alienating fans and television partners and forgetting that, first and foremost, NBA basketball is in the entertainment business.
“No doubt we are a business and part of the issue, in some cases those (television) partners are a proxy for fans. … In terms of the scale of the audience we’re reaching when we’re a network game, don’t rest your players on that night and don’t rest multiple star players on any night,” Silver said.
As the league negotiates a new television rights deal with traditional networks and also considers options from tech giants like Apple and Amazon, it appears that the bigger picture is finally coming into clearer focus. If the league wants to continue to maximize revenue, the product it is selling has to feature its headline acts as often as possible.
(Photo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)