NEW YORK — The NBA has stopped tap-dancing around the scourge that was ripping away at its simplest element, addressing load management in a way that was both necessary and almost embarrassing.
There was already a Player Resting Policy, but the new and improved Player Participation Policy aims directly at stars who sit during nationally televised games. It doesn’t demand All-Star and All-NBA players eschew injuries to go out and perform for the betterment of television, but it makes it harder for marquee players to find reasons to sit.
This is in addition to the NBA schedule, which limits back-to-backs and tries not to put teams in that predicament with national TV games on the back end.
Either way, this policy is a significant step, even if it won't eliminate load management completely, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver was clear that this policy doesn’t want unhealthy, injured players going out on the floor.
“I mean, this is an acknowledgment that it’s gotten away from us a bit,” Silver said following the Board of Governors meeting at which the motion was passed. “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.”
The last part is telling — that it almost feels cooler to sit than to sweat.
The responsible party won’t truly step forward. The players will say it’s the teams, that players have to be pulled off the floor because the most natural thing for them is to play and perform.
The teams will point to science, citing that players need rest based on the minutes and often rigorous travel that can leave bodies weary. At least, that’s what the media was always told when players would sit — particularly in places where a star would visit only once a season, and everyone would fold their hands, bury their heads and behave as if powerless.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr actually apologized to New Orleans fans in November when sitting Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins due to rest.
Because of the science.
And he even called for a shorter season, as if that would rectify matters.
It wasn’t a nationally televised game, mind you, and only Curry would technically fall under the purview of this updated policy, but it was a terrible look.
“Honestly, that’s what I’d been told as well, that it was the science,” Silver said. “I think it may be why the league didn’t become involved maybe as deeply as we should have earlier on. Part of the discussion today was about the science, and frankly, the science is inconclusive.
“I think in the case here, that part of the commitment here from the league office is we are putting together a group of team doctors and scientists and others and trying to better understand it. One thing I want to make clear: The message to our teams and players is not that rest is never appropriate. And realize, there’s a bit of an art to this, not just a science.”
Is it a game, or is it a business?
Is it competition at the highest level, or is it a TV show? Or a partnership?
“I just think, lastly, that even though the teams are highly competitive with each other, they shouldn’t be competing when it comes to health and the science of performance and care for our players,” Silver said. “Especially since contracts have gotten shorter, players move from team to team. I think we’re declaring, also, there’s more to be learned here.”
Silver has to walk a very fine line as commissioner; he has to propose as much as demand. And players will still get injured and be careful about their rehab and returns, balancing the obligations to their teams and the league at large.
“You know, a lot of older players — by that I mean now, at this point, retired players — when I first came in the league, used to believe that they were more likely to get injured if they took nights off, that they would get out of rhythm,” he said. “In some cases, maybe [they] played fewer minutes, but they played. That’s something we want to look at as well.”
Which means he has been consulting and probably listening to those old guys who are often dismissed as bitter when they clearly have valuable insight here.
Unlike with his predecessor, David Stern, who took over when the league was in dire straits financially and needed partnership to help grow the NBA into the monster it is today, the players today don’t have to “play ball” with the commish.
Individual salaries are getting bigger and bigger as players age, so they want to stay as great as they can for as long as they can to max out, which is fair.
But there has to be some acknowledgement of leaving the game, its product and its relationship with the fans in a better place than when one inherited it. It’s hard to say that has gotten completely lost, but it feels fractured or at least temporarily put on the back burner compared to other worthy agendas.
Don’t discount the timing of this, either. The pie is big and getting bigger. The NBA is in the midst of an exclusive negotiating window with its television partners and is certainly hungry for more as the landscape changes.
That means there will likely be more nationally televised games in a couple of years, outside of ESPN and TNT, its two partners right now. The in-season tournament is one thing, but the NBA can’t increase its 82-game schedule as a selling point, and any prospective carrier who could have a Tuesday night or Saturday night package would love to know going in that the NBA’s stars will be available — to sell ads, to draw eyeballs to whatever network or streaming platform it’ll be on.
And, oh yeah, there's also the paying customer showing up among the 18,000 shelling out decent money, not wanting to see their favorite athlete in this week’s edition of league fits.
The never-ending culture of basketball has contributed to this, creating almost a zero-sum proposition when it shouldn’t be. Chastising players for underwhelming playoff performances after ceiling-raising regular seasons meant there would be a backlash of some sort, with the playoffs being the only thing that mattered — and apparently, bodies must be as fresh as possible for April, May and June.
What got lost in the muck was the fact that all the pieces matter, the weaving of stories that captivate the fans from year to year but also from October to April, the value of an 82-game season.
There’s a way to thread the micro and macro, with each able to serve the other in concert, not conflict. By the time the playoffs roll around — and this is largely due to the television schedules — individual series come fast and furious.
Games are every other day, and sometimes the off day is just for travel from one venue to the next. The playoffs are an arduous grind, but there’s an ease to it, the consistency of the calendar, because it’s not tougher than the regular season.
But if so much effort has gone into making the regular season as stress-free as possible, the playoffs will produce conditions that haven’t been prepared for — conditions science can’t protect the players from.
Some things are out of the player’s control, at least in regard to history. They come into the NBA younger but with just as many, if not markedly more, miles on their bodies than ever. And they’re not load-managing when playing for free at the AAU level and, traditionally, collegiately.
The NBA doesn’t want to pay the bill for games not accrued on its time, nor should it. Not when paying top dollar, increasingly so, and that's known publicly.
It’s a covenant between all parties here, and whenever the pendulum is swung too far in one direction, particularly in this sport, it looks ugly — whether that’s team control over players, a league’s control over teams and players or “player empowerment,” the phrase du jour.
Silver has the duty of balancing all of this while leveraging influence and still being a friend to the players because he knows they are the show.
And the show must go on.
“I think one of the things that we’re all learning with data and science is not to take anything for granted,” Silver said.
A lesson for all involved.