A month ago, at the NBA All-Star game, commissioner Adam Silver was asked about the problem of seeing teams resting star players over the course of the season. He gave a measured answer, first acknowledging that it looks unfair to fans who buy tickets but don’t get to see some of the league’s marquee names.
But then Silver added, “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. And as tough as it is on our fans to miss one of their favorite players for a game, it’s far better than having them get injured and be out for long periods of time. So we’re always still looking to strike that right balance.”
Fast-forward a month, to yesterday, when a memo was sent out to all 30 league owners, in the wake of the embarrassment of having Cavaliers stars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sitting out for a nationally televised Saturday night game (which followed another embarrassment the previous week, when the Warriors rested Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for a Saturday national game).
In the memo, Silver urged owners to be more involved in the decision to rest players, saying, “Decisions of this kind do not merely implicate issues of player health and team performance on the court. They also can affect fans and business partners, impact our reputation, and damage the perception of our game.”
Pretty clear what happened there. The league office knew that the folks at ABC, which had to air generally worthless national games, were none too happy, and Silver then turned to owners, essentially requesting that they not allow coaches to rest players for high profile games, the ones that could cause the most obvious chagrin among national broadcasters and observers.
But this brings to mind a conversation with former Knicks and Bullets great Bernard King. Back in 2013, when King was being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame, he was asked the usual question about what might have been. As outstanding a scorer as King was, he is equally known for the ACL tear that sidetracked his career at its peak, in 1985, and his subsequent remarkable return from an injury that once routinely laid NBA careers to rest. King called it, “my legacy.”
“If we knew then what we know now as far as rest and taking care of your body,” King said, “who knows, that might not have happened.”
As the league is gripped with this resting crisis, keep King’s name in mind. Much of what we are seeing now in the NBA has been part of a league-wide push to learn ever-more about the biometrics of those on the court, in order to find ways to reduce major injuries to star players. It became a formal pursuit in 2011-12, with the introduction of SportVu cameras at some NBA arenas, but has proceeded apace since then.
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The league and its teams have set out to find ways to reduce the Barnard King kind of catastrophic injuries, investing heavily in biometric technology to learn as much as possible about the workings of an NBA player’s body. What has been learned is that resting players when fatigue is most likely at its peak is the best way to prevent injuries, and what’s more, it’s best way to ensure those players don’t suffer fatigue later in the year.
Teams like the Cavaliers and Warriors are simply taking the data compiled by their staffs and by the NBA’s own biometrics programs and carrying it out to its logical conclusion—even if it means pulling big-name players out of televised games.
“We have data showing that pulling a guy off a road trip and having him just stay home has all these benefits,” one general manager told Sporting News. “I mean, the league itself has looked at this, all the teams have looked at it. If you don’t bring him and he is able to stay home and get a couple of days of normal sleep, it has all these benefits. He doesn’t get hurt as much, you can reset his fatigue level, all that. If you go around and tell everyone around the league that, you can’t get upset when teams go out and act on the information you give them. It’s hypocritical.”
The league has tried to come up with ways to ease the need for players to be pulled from games. The schedule has been reconfigured to reduce back-to-backs, the All-Star break was extended, and there will be a week taken off of the preseason in order to stretch the regular season, cutting back further on back-to-backs.
There have been suggestions that the league should reduce the number of games in a season, but that means cutting back revenue and that’s almost certainly not going to happen. Besides, no change the league makes will be enough to erase the evidence that has already been collected, that resting players at strategic times has a long-term benefit. That will be true even if you cut down on back-to-backs or reduce the schedule to 70 games.
That’s not going to change, no matter the strongly worded memos from the league office, no matter the ticked-off ABC execs, no matter the bummed-out fans, no matter the observers offering up clichéd old-school complaints about the way it was in their day. It’s an intractable problem.
Rest has benefits to players, as the league has been telling teams for years. Considering the money teams invest in those players, their health and well-being is the priority. There might be some black eyes when stars miss big games, but if the choice is between a metaphorical black eye to the league and a very real ACL tear to an All-Star, the black eye is still the clear choice.