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Thursday, March 23, 2017

The NBA and Rest

The complaint is not necessarily the problem.  That's what a colleague once told me, and I think that there is a lot of wisdom in that comment. 

Is the complaint that players are resting?  Is it that they are not as tough as players were back in the day?  Jalen Rose didn't take days off, Michael Jordan didn't, neither did Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson.  Ditto for Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and quite frankly anyone mentioned in Kurtis Blow's all-time rap, "Basketball." 

It's not that, really.  Resting players makes all the sense in the world.  Okay, they don't do it in the NFL because the season is too short, but at times they do it in the English Premier League because with cup schedules and international schedules some players need a break.  They also do so in baseball, but then again MLB has a 162-game season and that's a lot of games. 

But the NBA has an 82-game schedule, and a lot of teams make the playoffs.  Analytics tell teams a lot more than they did even ten years ago.  And those metrics tell the teams that they should be resting players based upon their age, injury history, how many minutes they recently played, how many minutes they have played in their career and the likelihood the team can win (or not) without them.  All of that augurs well for the teams and for the longevity of players. 

The problem really is the integrity of the game.  Oh, I'm not talking about whether coaches might be prone to throw games in order to help bettors.  Heck, teams are throwing entire seasons to get better.  The 76ers turned it into a science, and now the Lakers are emulating the Process.  What the problem speaks to is that the league relies upon serious television dollars, and there's no way the networks ponied up the monies they did to see Lebron, Kevin and Kyrie all sit while their game was on prime time on Saturday night.  Likewise, fans are asked to pay serious sums to watch their teams.  Imagine the disappointment if they get a run of games where the visiting teams don't play their stars or the home team rests a few players.  76ers' fans anted up this year with the hope of seeing both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.  The former hurt his foot in pre-season and despite hints from the franchise that he would return after the New Year, he's out for the season.  Embiid played in 31 games with advertised "rest" games in between before being shelved this winter with a knee injury that wouldn't heal. 

Where does this lead us?  Well, for starters, the lucrative TV contract that is punishing ESPN (revenues are down at the worldwide leader) won't be as lucrative in the future if the networks aren't assured that the big names will be playing in games.  The competing bidders won't bankrupt themselves in a "got to have it" bidding contest against other networks if they cannot promise their advertisers that they will draw a certain market share, and how can they do that if they will not be sure whether the stars will play in most of the games.  Likewise, it's hard enough to ante up for a season ticket for most NBA teams, and it will be harder to push the button on the purchase if you aren't sure how healthy your team's young stars are (because there is a tendency to rest them) and if you cannot be guaranteed appearances by Cleveland's big three in your home game against them and appearances by Steph and the gang when the Warriors come into town.  If the resting trend continues, season ticket sales will drop, deservedly, and the market on sites like StubHub will become all the more dynamic.  Translated:  you'll wait to buy a ticket on the secondary market once you get a sense of who is going to play.  Why?  The tickets are just too expensive.

Sure, there are the businesses who entertain, the very loyal fans and the like whose demand for the tickets is inelastic.  But that's not most fans.  Most fans want to see the stars, they want to see them consistently and they demand to see them for the games where they have paid $200 per ticket to go watch.  Top that off with who you might or might not see on TV, and there is an integrity of the product problem surfacing, and it's ugly.

The NBA has a lot of smart people in its front office and in ownership.  What the coaches are doing does make a lot of sense; the numbers back them up.  That said, perhaps the answer is to shorten the regular season or space out the games more or something along those lines.  Change is definitely warranted.  If it doesn't happen, TV money, viewership and attendance will drop. 

People just don't want to pay NBA prices for D-League games.


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