We learned earlier this week that the NBA’s 2017-18 schedule has been designed to remove some of the most taxing stretches of teams’ slates. (Sayonara, four-games-in-five-nights!) The league hopes that reducing the number of preseason games, starting the season a week earlier, and more attentively reducing the number of back-to-back games will make it less likely that teams would rest players during high-profile nationally televised games, which became a significant issue — or, at least, major headline fodder — down the stretch of last season.
Now, thanks to Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports, we know that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s planning to go beyond just “hoping” that teams will chill out on the en masse resting of stars:
NBA owners are expected to approve player-resting rules in September designed to cut back on teams benching healthy players for regular-season games, a person with direct knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports.
The person requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly until league owners officially adopt the rules at their next Board of Governors meeting.
The rules will be in place by the start of the 2017-18 season, and there will be consequences for teams that do not adhere to them.
It’s a move that should please fans and the league’s business partners.
Chiefly, you’d suspect, partners like ABC/ESPN and Turner Sports. After all, when you pony up $24 billion in broadcast rights fees to air these games, it stands to reason that you wouldn’t much appreciate it when a Saturday night prime-time game between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors goes off without Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, or when a Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Los Angeles Clippers matchup features none of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, despite none of those players being officially injured.
The reported rules come after months of discussion about how to address the issue of NBA teams choosing — often on the basis of increasingly advanced biometric and physiological information on the health and well-being of their stars — to sit players for specific games.
Shortly after LeBron got the night off on the second half of a back-to-back on the road last November, Silver said that if teams were going to sit down their stars, they do so at home, so that fans who might only get one opportunity a year to see said star in their town don’t get shafted out of that chance. “Preference,” but nothing firmer than that.
A few months later, after James, Irving and Love sat for that March ABC game in L.A. — and, more to the point, after LeBron commented on the matter by saying, “I don’t think the NBA can do anything about it […] At the end of the day, it sucks at times where certain guys have to rest, but certain guys need rest” — Silver sent the NBA’s 30 teams a memo terming the resting of marquee players “an extremely significant issue for our league,” and warning of “significant penalties” to come for teams that don’t properly notify the league office, their opponents and the media that a player or players won’t suit up on a DNP-rest. Coaches and general managers largely responded to Silver’s saber-rattling by saying that, amorphous and uncodified “significant penalties” aside, they’d continue to make what they believed to be the best decisions for their respective teams and players.
Come April, Silver said there is “no more important issue for the league right now” than resolving the rest quandary, though he said the league wouldn’t be considering the possibility forwarded by some analysts, players and coaches of reducing the number of regular-season games from 82. From the commissioner’s press conference in the final week of the regular season, following the league’s Board of Governors meeting (emphasis mine):
Resting is a complex issue with a lot of factors to consider, but there was a consensus on the need to find the right balance between appropriate rest for our players on one hand and our obligation to our fans and business partners on the other hand.
There emerged from the meeting a shared view that teams should avoid resting multiple players for national TV games, and to the extent rest is possible, there should be a strong preference for resting players at home. We will continue to discuss this matter among our owners as well as at our Competition Committee meetings this summer. […]
I would say I’m certainly not of the mind that we need a new rule at this point. Having said that, there is an expectation among partners that teams are going to act in appropriate ways, find, as I said, that right balance between resting on one hand and obligations to fans and partners on the other.
One of the things we did discuss at the meeting is potentially issuing guidelines, but again, not necessarily at the point of enforceable rules. I only say this is a complex issue because many of our coaches have pointed out that as disappointing as it is for any individual fan on a night where a player is rested, I think if we all came to the point where we accepted the science, the medical data supports genuine resting as improving performance and prolonging careers and reducing injuries, I think we’d all have to agree that it does make sense at certain points in the season to rest players.
Silver offered a similarly “gotta-hear-both-sides”-y view before the start of the 2017 NBA Finals in June:
Here we are going into The Finals with a No. 1 seed in the West, No. 2 seed in the East, two teams that obviously had tremendous regular seasons, and every player is healthy. So I don’t necessarily think the fan benefits by somehow if the league could require a player who wasn’t injured but was banged up to play in a game when the trainers felt that player needed rest. I don’t think the fan benefits by requiring that player to play and then that player getting injured. […]
I think there is a recognition from teams that on one hand a certain amount of resting is just inevitable and appropriate to keep the players healthy, but that they shouldn’t be resting multiple starters on the same night. And, incidentally, wherever possible, they should rest at home. Because there, while I feel for the home fans, just as much as the away fans, the away fans may only get a chance to see that team once. And of course the home team home fans can see that team many times.
So, again: preference, yes; guidelines, sure; rules, not so much. But now, two months down the line, according to Zillgitt, the commissioner’s view appears to have changed, and his stance hardened.
How exactly the league would mete out those “consequences,” however, remains very much unclear. As noted by Reuters, Enforcing any rules regarding the resting of a healthy player may be difficult to do, starting with the problem of determining whether the player is actually healthy,” which would seem to open up a whole new can of worms.
Ultimately, even with an expanded schedule, fewer jam-packed weeks and more opportunities for in-season rest, the teams most likely to come under the microscope here — title contenders like Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, Houston and Boston — will continue to face difficult decisions about how best to manage the top talents on rosters expected to play at high levels not just for 82 games, but for nearly 100, over the course of eight months. Given the choice between running afoul of the league office or potentially endangering their chances of competing for a championship come mid-June, even with new rules and attendant penalties, I’d still expect those teams to err on the side of caution … or, at least, to just go back to saying their All-Stars have muscle pulls, hamstring tweaks and ankle sprains, rather than giving up the game. In an environment where you’re going to get penalized for telling the truth about why you’re not suiting somebody up, honesty might not be the best policy.
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