There’s well-meaning, and then there’s meddling.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s letter to owners, urging them to get more involved in the decision to rest key players and warning of “significant penalties” for teams that flout league rules, will do little to stem the growing problem and might only create new ones.
Coaches and general managers are entrusted to decide what is best for their players and teams, and asking owners to overrule them puts everyone in dangerous territory. So, too, the possibility of pitting owners against each other when a fan base is incensed that all it saw of LeBron James was his suit game.
But the time to address it was before the new TV contract that added 21 nationally televised games started this season. Not now, when there’s only a month left in the regular season and being ready for the playoffs is the priority.
No one is questioning that the NBA has to find a way to manage the physical demands of an 82-game schedule and the interests of the fans and networks paying for it. Research has shown a link between fatigue and injury, and ESPN’s Kevin Pelton found that, since 1978, teams that lost the NBA Finals suffered 2½ more injuries to key players than the teams that won.
Wearable technology has made the decisions on when to rest someone all the more clear-cut, giving teams sophisticated and detailed data on fatigue levels, sleep patterns and reaction rates for each player.
But the NBA is in the entertainment business, and those watching – be they in the arena or at home – want to see the big names.
“I just have to think about what my job is,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr told ESPN.com this month. “My priority is my players’ health and being ready for the playoffs. That’s my job.”
It was one thing for James to get the occasional night off or Kerr to rest Steph Curry and Klay Thompson at the end of a long road trip. But when the Cavaliers sat James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for Saturday night’s game on ABC a week after Kerr gave Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguoudala the night off of another ABC game, it became too much for Silver, who just last month at the All-Star Game had preached understanding.
“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,” Silver states in the memo, first reported by ESPN on Monday night and later obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
“With so much at stake, it is simply not acceptable for Governors to be uninvolved or to defer decision-making authority on these matters to others in their organizations.”
It is not as if this is a problem that snuck up on Silver or the NBA. Players have been complaining about this for years, and former commissioner David Stern once fined San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for sitting his stars.
The NBA has acknowledged the issue, limiting back-to-backs and all but doing away with four games in five nights. It will go a step further next season, starting a week early to space games out further.
But the NBA should also consider protecting the teams that play on Saturday’s ABC games. The weekday TNT games, too, for that matter. Just as NFL schedule makers build in allowances for teams that play in London or on Thursday night, the NBA needs to ensure teams playing Saturday night are not doing so after an extended road trip.
When Kerr sat his players, the Warriors were playing their second game in as many nights and fifth in seven days. All but one had been on the road. Not seeing Golden State’s stars might not have been a good look. But neither would have been seeing them when they’re exhausted and out of gas.
Silver is right to want to find a solution to the NBA’s scheduling problem. He’s just picking the wrong time, and the wrong way, to do it.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.