CLEVELAND, Ohio — The NBA has a problem.
But it’s not stars missing marquee games, although that’s not exactly ideal because paying fans and networks that pay gobs of cash to broadcast the games continue to suffer.
The real problem is the taxing 82-game regular season schedule, its overall meaning and the plethora of back-to-backs that come with trying to jam games in.
The league knows this. NBA commissioner Adam Silver does too. It’s why the number of preseason games will be reduced and an extra week will be added to the schedule starting next season. Silver even addressed the issue about one month ago during NBA All-Star weekend.
“I do recognize that there isn’t an easy solution to that problem, and I’m sympathetic to fans who turn out — whether they buy tickets to games or watching games on television and don’t see their favorite player on the floor,” Silver said. “But we also have to be realistic that the science has gotten to the point where there is that direct correlation that we’re aware of between fatigue and injuries.”
Since Silver made those comments, things have changed.
Ten days ago, in one of the most anticipated regular season games this side of the two between the Cavaliers and Warriors, Golden State rested Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala in San Antonio. It was part of ABC’s Saturday primetime slate. The anger seeped out of the television.
One week later, the Cavaliers did the same thing. There were different circumstances — Kyrie Irving left the previous game with knee tightness and this gave him an extra day while Kevin Love was slowly working his way back after knee surgery — but the result was the same.
With Cleveland resting its three best players — LeBron James joined because Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue didn’t want to force James to carry too much of a burden without the other stars — the game turned into an ugly blowout. The conversation shifted.
The broadcast commentary no longer centered on the game itself. What was there to talk about really? The story of the night was the Cavs resting players.
Those decisions by Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and Lue led to Silver sending a memo to all 30 teams Monday about the league’s “extremely significant issue.” In the memo, first obtained by ESPN, Silver said there will be a “full discussion” of the practice at the April 6 Board of Governors meeting in New York and would like owners to be involved in the decision-making process moving forward.
But it’s hard for him to enforce any penalties, especially since one month earlier he admitted the correlation between fatigue and injuries. The science sides with players and coaches. Maybe the punishment eventually comes with not providing enough notice.
Lue’s primary responsibility is preparing the Cavaliers for another championship run. Part of his role is figuring out the best way for that to happen, trying to navigate the treacherous regular-season waters while making sure his team peaks at the perfect time. The Cavs have already cut down on practicing. Sitting out games is the next best way to manage the regular-season workload.
It’s not an easy balance and Lue has talked about how bad he feels for fans, even trying to avoid sitting players in front of the home crowd. But finding breaks in the schedule to get extra rest is part of the equation — even if it sends a bad message to fans about the regular season’s relevance.
The Cavs’ roster is plenty talented enough to win when the playoffs roll around. One seed, two seed, three seed, it doesn’t matter. The one thing that could derail another Finals trip is injury.
Already having played 12 sets of back-to-backs and with four more remaining, that’s a lot of mileage and plenty of added risk, especially with an older team, one whose core has gone to two straight Finals.
The night the Warriors rested their stars and received plenty of criticism for doing it, they were playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road and the eighth game in 13 days, a stretch that covered eight cities while missing star Kevin Durant, who was sidelined with a knee injury.
What seems more unreasonable in this scenario: The Warriors’ decision-making or the schedule?
The league invests a lot of time and resources in the schedule-making process and there’s no way to appease all parties. So what about cutting some regular season games?
Last season, the Warriors set records and made history with their basketball brilliance. It deserved to be celebrated. Then they became a footnote after failing to cap the journey with a title. This year, the Warriors, Cavs and Spurs entered as title favorites. After almost 70 games, little has changed in the NBA’s hierarchy (Houston has nudged into the conversation). That helps highlight the importance, or lack thereof, of the regular season. Teams are solely focused on winning the championship.
Still, as one Cavs player told me recently, he doesn’t see a path to trimming games. There’s too much money involved. And who would be willing to take less? As he put it, even taking away a pair of home games is a huge hit to the pocket book. One home game brings in ticket sales, parking revenue and concessions. Not to mention all the other activities before and after games that could be affected.
Everyone involved in this ongoing discussion has a strong case and it’s clearly on the NBA’s radar. But instructing coaches how best to prepare their teams to win a championship isn’t the best way to fix the problem. Neither is depriving paying fans.
That’s why the problem isn’t going away — unless the schedule gets shortened.