The uproar over star NBA players taking nights off became a topic again this weekend when the Cleveland Cavaliers decided to rest LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love during a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Not only were the fans and ABC robbed of a chance to see three of the NBA’s biggest stars, but they were also robbed of a potentially good game between two of the league’s best teams. Instead, they got a contest that turned into a laughable 30-point win for the Clippers.
While people argue whether or not players have an obligation to the fans to play, this also adds more fuel to the growing sentiment among people in the NBA that the season is too long.
On one of his final ESPN podcasts, Bill Simmons explained why the NBA season is too long which could also explain why today’s players need more rest. He argued that the season may be the same length as it was in the 1980s, but it is not the same game, and the toll it takes on players today is far greater.
“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 jack— 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.”
Of course, resting players isn’t new. During the 2014-15 season, James took a two-week break in the middle of the schedule and Gregg Popovich, long known for resting his Spurs players in-season, began resting his players earlier and more often than ever before. This is a problem for a league in which fans and TV networks pay a lot of money to see the best players.
Prior to that season, the NBA toyed with the idea of shortening the length of games. At the time, James was adamant that the real problem was the number of games.
“No. It’s not the minutes, it’s the games,” James told ESPN.com. “We can play 50-minute games if we had to. It’s just the games. We all as players think it’s too many games. In our season, 82 games is a lot.”
The counterargument is that the NBA has been using an 82-game regular season since the late 1960s and a four-round playoff format since the mid-1970s, and it wasn’t a problem for great players in previous generations.
Simmons’ comment can certainly be nitpicked. Many people believe Larry Bird had his career cut short because he played hard all the time instead of picking his spots and late in his career was often seen lying on the court when he wasn’t in the game. Others may argue that Simmons is not giving previous generations enough credit for their defense.
But the overall explanation remains valid.
Nowadays, every game is on television and more games than ever before are seen by a national TV audience. A player who does something foolish on the court is one YouTube user away from being seen by millions and shared everywhere on social media.
Just ask Jahlil Okafor.
There are also more stats to judge how valuable a player is. In the 1980s, a star player need only worry about getting his 25 points or 10 assists. Steals and blocks were the only way to measure defense.
In today’s game, a player’s entire performance is judged every night, and it affects not only their highlight reel, but also their salary.
And then there is the new style of play, with record numbers of 3-pointers taken. This season, teams are averaging 26.9 3-point attempts per game. In 1984-1985, that number was 3.1 per game.
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This means, as Simmons points out, there is a lot more court to cover on defense, which means players are moving and running farther than they used to.
This all adds up to an NBA in which there is probably more physical demand on a player’s body than ever before, something that could be remedied with fewer games.
Of course, before the NBA shortens the season it needs to figure out a way to make up for the corresponding loss in ticket and television revenue. One way would be to sell the television rights to a midseason soccer-like tournament. But until that happens, the season will remain 82 games long.
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