The Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard should take a page from Pat Riley’s book and trademark this term, as they took it from an obscure term to a staple of basketball lexicon in a single year.
For years, there have been talks that the NBA is considering a shorter season. But with no action, players and teams have begun taking the situation into their own hands. Leonard was inactive or did not dress for 22 of the team’s 82 games this past season, and that was by design.
The result was a fully rested Leonard when it mattered most. With Leonard leading the way, the Raptors rampaged through the playoffs and captured their first NBA title. Leonard was the NBA Finals MVP.
It was an overwhelming victory for load management.
Yet chances are you’ve heard some elder member of your family (depending on your age) preach about the good old days of the NBA, the days when every player played every game.
For over 50 years, NBA calendars have required teams to participate in an 82-game schedule. They did it when the league only had 12 teams, and they still do with 30 teams.
Although it has been said that today’s group of players are far superior athletically then those who preceded them, the truth is that it makes sense to shorten the season. The owners may be very hesitant to do so, as fewer home games means less revenue, but they also must consider the quality of the product.
When the regular season is so long that superstars are now regularly sitting out games and few are batting an eye, it devalues the sport. And even with “load management” becoming increasingly normalized (at least for a select group of superstars, veterans, or superstar veterans), more players are suffering serious injury than ever.
What’s so magic about 82 games, anyways? Here’s the formula that gets you there:
- Each team plays four games against the other four teams in their division (16)
- Each team plays four games against six out of division but in-conference teams (24)
- Each team plays three games against the remaining four out of division but in-conference teams (12)
- Each team plays two games against every team in the opposite conference (30)
How that formula might look different with a shorter season is up for debate, but the benefits that would come from it are not.
From ESPN staff writer’s Baxter Holmes’ excellent feature on injuries in the NBA:
In 2017-18, the number of NBA games lost to injury or illness surpassed the 5,000 mark for the first time since the league stopped using the injured reserve list prior to the 2005-06 campaign, per certified athletic trainer Jeff Stotts, who has cataloged the careers of more than 1,100 players since that point and is considered the most authoritative public resource for tracking injuries in the NBA. This past season, in 2018-19, the league topped the 5,000 mark again. In 2017-18, players who had been named to multiple All-Star teams missed an average of 14.63 games due to injury, the second-highest such figure that Stotts had recorded. That figure jumped this past season to 17.02.
That’s right—multi-time All-Stars only played an average of 65 games last season, anyway.
You can make the argument that a shorter season would also enhance the entertainment value, too.
Should the NBA decide to shorten their schedule to between 62-70 games, starting the season during the Christmas holidays, the league would then not have to compete with the start of the NHL season or potential World Series games.
With the absence of 12-20 games, the season would still end around the same time as the current schedule. Playing fewer games per week would also allow for a build-up in anticipation for games.
For the average fan, trying to find time every night of the week to watch games is a challenge, but if the league were to commit to something like a Tuesday and Thursday then a Saturday or Sunday schedule, there is a chance more fans will find a way to tune in or attend live games.
This would also reduce the chance of a star player taking a “load management” game off while on the road, something that has angered fans more and more as of late.
Picture this: a young fan in Phoenix (or some other city associated with an NBA bottom-feeder) is a diehard fan of “X” superstar player. That player is coming to Phoenix for a road game. But due to the heavily loaded schedule and the cupcake match-up, his team decides to give him the night off. So much for that young fan seeing their idol in action!
Major league sports have always been a superstar-driven business. Fans may cheer and support the journeyman at the end of the bench, but nobody shells out money to buy tickets in hopes of seeing the 12th man get garbage minutes.
If the league were to shorten the season, superstar players would not only miss fewer games, but hit the court with more energy.
“Unfortunately, we’ll never really see what these guys can really do,” former Los Angeles Lakers head trainer Gary Vitti told ESPN in 2016. “Because they’re tired all of the time because of the schedule.”
Kobe Bryant agrees, adding that fewer games would allow players to “give the fans a greater show. If guys were able to get more rest and were healthier and all this other stuff, you wouldn’t have players sitting out games, back-to-backs and all this other s—. So everyone would get a maximum performance because players would be extremely well-rested and coming in looking to kick ass every single night and looking to put on a show for [the fans] every single night. The product that the fans would get would be better.”
But again, the most important priority here is the players and their health.
With the increased amount of AAU leagues/tournaments plus their high school season, young players are often dealing with workloads comparable to pros. As youth basketball players are increasingly feeling pressure to make the sport a year-round commitment, young bodies are no longer able to recover from the same movements and muscle usage required day after day. ACLs, MCLs, meniscus, Achilles and back injuries are becoming common injuries for youth, high school and college players, and there’s reason to believe the incredible amount of young NBA stars being plagued by injuries can be traced back to such a youth sports career.
Although it wouldn’t be fair to put the blame entirely on youth sports, there are many medical professionals and fitness experts who have stated that the constant wear and tear is likely to result in overuse injuries.
Would this mean current players like Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Kristaps Porzingis would have evaded serious and potentially career-altering injuries before their 30’s? Maybe. While you can easily injure yourself falling at home (see John Wall), the demand that athletes and teams are putting on themselves appears greater than ever, and that demand starts early.
While Father Time is undefeated, shortened seasons would better allow young players to stay on the court, superstar players to stay in their prime longer, and veterans to retire on their own terms more frequently.
Playing a shorter NBA season may also make playing for one’s country in international play more attractive. Consider this: the NBA Finals finish at the end of June. International competition starts in August. Then NBA training camps kick off in October.
If NBA players knew they would have more than four weeks or so to recover, they may be more enticed to play for their country. Take notice of the recent World Cup teams for USA and Canada. Names like James, Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Davis, Lillard and others passed on playing for the Stars and Stripes, while Wiggins turned down a spot on Team Canada. Throw in Ben Simmons’ absence from the Australian program and various others from their respective countries, and you had a competition largely devoid of stars and excitement. A shorter season could provide a much-needed boost to the rosters for these International competitions.
So what would my ideal NBA calendar look like if the league were to shorten their schedule? This:
- Each team plays every other team in their division four times (16)
- Home and home games against each non-division team in their conference (20)
- Each team would play a home and home versus each team from the opposite conference (30)
This 66-game season would help meet the players’ desire for a shorter, more meaningful season and limit the chances of seeing multiple “DNP-old” in the box score.
Yet it remains a dream. The NBA recently released all the matchups for their 74th season, with 82 games for each team. Wonder what the Vegas odds are for the first player to take a “load management” day?
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