3 In The Kiy: 82 Games Is Too Many

On resting players during a condensed NBA schedule

On Saturday, the San Antonio Spurs went into Oklahoma City for what was supposed to be a marquee match-up – one that was penciled in by basketball fans throughout. It turned out to be a semi-competitive game, the superstar duo of Westbrook and Durant combining for 60 points while dismantling the Spurs’ B squad.

Popovich opted to press the decelerate button, resting LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Resting players in key stretches is nothing new under Pop – he’s done it before. Heck, he’s even paid for it before; but he’s going to continue doing it, and no one really has a proper answer surrounding the ethics of these decisions – ones that deprive paying ticket-holders and drooling league pass junkies who tune in to what is supposed to be a colossal heavyweight match-up.

And really, do ethics matter? Maybe not in this context – even if it may seem like the entire planet is against the idea of resting healthy players.

The fans and the league have no interest in seeing a bunch of reserves get punched multiple times in said scenario, but the Spurs could care less. They have success and respect to back-up what they’re doing, and I’m not sure if the league can truly address it. Even if they could, it’s hard to see them implementing policy changes surrounding the idea of depriving a team the option to rest its players.

The ever-fun and candid Jack Armstrong chimed in on this through a blog post on Sunday.

Adam Silver, it’s on you now; this is disgraceful. My advice to NBA fans: think twice before you purchase tickets to Spurs games in late March through the end of regular season.

Gregg Popovich has started a trend in the league with this nonsense of sitting guys who are healthy enough to play and don’t. Why are we paying guys based upon 82 games, and fans paying full price, and healthy guys are getting ‘Maintenance’ Days?’ I’m sorry. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but Game Night is supposed to be special and more importantly, the fans and corporate partners are supposed to be valued parties.

If the player is not injured, he should be dressed and playing. Simple as that. The standard has been lowered and some fans are stupid enough to think this is acceptable. Let’s just play guys for 70 of 82 games and see how fast they fight like crazy for their other 12 checks. Some might get miraculously healthy. A coach like Popovich should be fined to the max for this nonsense.

If guys are injured, I totally respect them not playing. No way should they be expected to play. Fatigue? C’mon. Travel, practice facilities, health care and accommodations are first class and better than ever in the NBA. The system has gone soft. The whole thing needs to be addressed, but I doubt it ever will. Buyer beware.

There is enough data to suggest that resting players should be allowed, and that providing systematic rest throughout the season is no-less strategic than limiting a player’s minutes in a game due to match-up conflicts.

Nylon Calculus breaks it down better than I ever could, but essentially, teams that play on a back-to-back tend to take lower-percentage shots. Less rest leads to fatigue; fatigue leads to deep-contested jumpers.

At the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference which gathers GMs, coaches, players, and media, there were analytics which touched on this issue, and there are now strategies coaches can take to calculate the timing of resting players before an injury manifests itself. My guess is rather than seeing anything done to discourage resting players, more coaches will follow suit as these analytics gain momentum.

Around the league, coaches won’t chastise Pop for his methods, even if they don’t adopt them immediately. The world is head-over-heels in love with the Warriors who have zero interest in sitting their stars – and that’s just fun for everyone. Mind you, they also have more incentive to burn through minutes. Steph Curry gets plenty of rest throughout the season in fourth quarters as Golden State plows through opponents in record time, and the Warriors are chasing 73 wins – doing it all with a younger nucleus who can afford to play more minutes than that of San Antonio’s ramshackled roots.

In a sense, the Spurs accept their mortality more than the Warriors do. They are detached from setting records and are comfortable where they are. Catching up to first doesn’t seem worth the energy expenditure that’s required, and they won’t slip far enough to drop to third in the West. Even a potential undefeated home record may not deter them from resting their players against the Warriors in April – and that’s coming from Tony Parker himself.

From Eric Freeman’s piece published last night:

I think no one will play (versus the Warriors). To Pop (Gregg Popovich), the most important thing is that the players are rested for the playoffs. As for first place, he does not care.

For us, the end of the regular season is a good time to rest. That’s why we play hard throughout the season, trying to win the most games possible, to find ourselves in this situation of “luxury,” we are sure we will be the second seed and we can all rest before the playoffs. […]

I think the most important thing for him (Popovich) is to win the NBA title. The record at home or games against Golden State, is not what interests him.

Resting players is sound, and no one should be fined for it. It’s clear though, that it’s not conducive to the NBA’s T.V. ratings – so what changes can be made that make sense for everyone?

Perhaps the solution lies in a shorter NBA season.

Switching hats here, but I cover European football daily for a couple publications, and a recurring thought always pops up: Footballers have matches once a week – two to three tops if the schedule is condensed enough – and even they run into fatigue issues. For NBA players, playing 82 games before the playoffs even start in a staggeringly condensed NBA season is actually mind-blowing. What would the sport look like if teams played one-three times per week? There would be more excitement per game, and if the NBA is concerned about lost revenue due to less games, perhaps they might consider raising ticket prices. That seems cruel, but at no point is any solution going to be ‘one size fits all’.

It might work.

Let’s be blunt – NBA interest tends to wane at this time of the season. March Madness tends to lead some fans astray, and it’s around this point where the league gets a bit repetitive, the alpha-dogs start coasting, and players get fatigued.

LeBron James, Blake Griffin, and Dirk Nowitzki have been vocal about this issue in the past – they feel that 82 games is condensed, at best. Nowitzki’s comments also point to another issue – that those dreaded back-to-backs have deep physical implications. The lack of sleep shouldn’t be underplayed either.

“I think that you should never have to play at the highest level there is two consecutive nights and flying in between. You obviously make it work. We have the best athletes in the world, we feel, but I think it hurts the product some. Last year, some teams get here for the fourth game in five nights and we’ve been sitting here on rest and just blow them out.

Still, as noted above with Jack Armstrong’s comments, there are opposing opinions. From one old-school dude to another, Michael Jordan feels the same, which begs another question – are there too many babies in the NBA today?

If I wasn’t playing 82 games, I still would’ve been playing somewhere else because that’s the love for the game I had. As a player, I never thought 82 games was an issue.

But if that’s what they want to do, we as owners and players can evaluate it and talk about it. But we’d make less money as partners. Are they ready to give up money to play fewer games? That’s the question, because you can’t make the same amount of money playing fewer games.

Jordan’s comment speaks to the ultimate intangible – love. Can love for the game really be a counter-argument to the anti-82 debate? Certainly, what MJ says can be backed-up by the longevity of his career. At the age of 40, he was playing 37 minutes per game – on par with his ’90-’91, ’95-’96, and ’96-’97 seasons.

Jordan might be an anomaly though – as he typically is in everything that he did. Bill Simmons has an interesting counter to this.

“I wonder if the guys just play harder from game to game now,” Simmons said. “I was watching [old games] and I was just watching how casually they played defense in the ’80s. They would turn it up in the last six minutes of playoff games, but for the most part you just played offense, kind of half-heartedly jog around guys, maybe in the low post you shove people. But you can’t do that in 2015, and everybody plays really hard and you have to run out on shooters all the time, more ground to cover, and if you don’t give a crap and you mail in a possession or a play, you end up like Otto Porter standing there like a jackass while his guy runs away and you’re on ‘Shaqtin’ a Fool.’ So there is this pressure to just go [all] out all the time … It’s not sustainable. You’re going to lay in the runway. You’re going to fall on your wrist. Your knee is going to act up. You’re going to be playing through some injury and pretend you don’t have it, and I just wonder if these guys go too hard and do we have to reduce the season now.”

We’re criss-crossing here, but there’s enough noise surrounding the scheduling issue that the NBA needs to treat it seriously and come up with some solutions. If an 82-game approach is essential for the Association to be lucrative, then perhaps the best option would be to make the season longer – start it in August or September and thin it out.

Alright, I did have some thoughts on Kyle Lowry and and DeMarre Carroll, but Blake’s got you covered pretty good on that front. Other than the quick reflection that Norman Powell has looked fantastic, making the DeMarre Carroll injury pill a tad easier to swallow, I don’t have anything else for you in this week’s column.

We leave you with the traditional Tankathon standings. With both the Knicks and Nuggets picking it up a bit in the past week or two, the Raptors’ pick has ‘dropped to 10th’.


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