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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The NBA Shamefully Devalues Its Product

The San Antonio-Golden State game last Saturday night should have created memories to last for decades but instead it was a travesty and a disgrace. It is unfortunate but understandable that legitimate health issues prevented Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant from playing but the decisions by San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich and Golden State Coach Steve Kerr to sit out the rest of their healthy starters with the number one seed in the Western Conference on the line is one of the most disappointing things that I have had the misfortune to witness in the decades that I have religiously followed the NBA. I was looking forward to that game all week--and, indeed, for the whole season, as were many other diehard NBA fans. When I was a kid, Philadelphia-Boston, Philadelphia-L.A. and Boston-L.A. were matchups to be anticipated and savored; those games foreshadowed the Eastern Conference Finals and/or the NBA Finals for every year from 1980-85. The big-time stars rarely missed those games and when they did sit out they had real injuries; no one was "resting."

Why should anyone take the NBA regular season seriously anymore? Clearly, the two best teams in the league do not think that the regular season matters, nor do they believe that homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Finals matters.

The NBA is walking on treacherous ground here. A game between bench players to potentially decide who will have the best chance to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals is even more damaging to the league than the farce known as the NBA All-Star Game.

Some people are just throwing their hands up and acting like there is no solution to this but that is the Bud Selig approach, made most famous when he shrugged his shoulders as the 2002 MLB All-Star Game ended in a tie. If David Stern were still the NBA Commissioner, Saturday's nonsense would have never happened--or it only would have happened once. When Popovich tried a similar stunt on Stern's watch in November 2012 (sitting out four of his top players during the Spurs' only visit to Miami), Stern immediately announced, "I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming." Stern was not bluffing. He hit the Spurs with a $250,000 fine and this verbal broadside: "The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case. The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team's only regular-season visit to Miami. The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans."

Worth noting is that Adam Silver--then Stern's right hand man--had publicly stated in April 2012, "The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams. And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess."

Stern was a strong-willed Commissioner and he could be condescending to the media at times, so it is not surprising that when Stern retired many media members piped up about how Silver would supposedly be a breath of fresh air. Silver is not the type to challenge a media member's question or a media member's command of the facts. I am not going to say that Silver has been a bad Commissioner but it is ridiculous to even put him in the same conversation with Stern, who is on the short list of greatest sports commissioners ever.

Commissioner Silver needs to step in immediately and decisively to make sure that Saturday night's fiasco never happens again on his watch:

1) All ticket buyers for Saturday's game should receive a full refund from the league, with the cost split evenly among the Warriors and the Spurs.

2) The NBA should refund whatever portion of TV money it received for selling the rights to the game to ABC, with that cost again split among the Warriors and the Spurs.

3) None of the healthy players who sat out should receive a game check; if they want to rest on company time, then they can do it on their own dime--and if they object to being unemployed for a day, then their union should file a grievance against the teams and/or the league for artificially manipulating the sport's competitive balance. The forfeited game checks should be pooled together and donated to help out people who are truly involuntarily unemployed.

4) Both teams should be fined at least $250,000 each, with the specter of larger fines looming if this offense is repeated.

Some will say that the Warriors and Spurs are acting intelligently to preserve the health of their players. If that is really the case, then the owners and players must immediately agree to shorten the season to however many games they deem to be safe and they must construct a schedule that eliminates "unhealthy" back to back or four game in five night scenarios. If health is truly at stake, then the schedule must be changed. Of course, that would mean less revenue for the owners and players but that is a small price to pay for the sake of players' health.

I think that health is just an excuse being used by these coaches to justify tweaking the league for its scheduling and/or to avoid having a showdown between the top teams until absolutely necessary. Players used to thrive on competition but, as we saw during the All-Star Game, that is clearly not the case now. It almost seems like these teams were afraid to put their best foot forward and possibly lose, so instead they made the game so farcical that no one can derive any meaning from the outcome.

Durability used to be a mark of pride for the sport's greatest players. Wilt Chamberlain once averaged more than 48 mpg for an entire season, meaning that he played every minute of regulation plus every minute of overtime (I think that he actually was ejected from one game and thus missed a few random minutes but he played enough overtime sessions to keep his average above 48 mpg). Michael Jordan played in all 82 games nine times, including in his final season as a 39 year old Wizard with at least one decrepit knee. He played more than 3000 minutes in 12 different seasons; the only times he missed that mark were when he broke his foot during his second season, when he played 17 games during his first comeback in 1994-95 and when he played 60 games as a 38 year old during the first season of his second comeback. My basketball hero Julius Erving played in all 84 games in four of his five ABA seasons and in his 11 year NBA career he played 82 games twice, 81 games once and at least 77 games four other times. Until his final season as a 37 year old (when he played a career-low 60 games), Erving's lowest total was 71 games in his second season, when he missed a few games due to a contract dispute that eventually wound its way through the court system--and he proceeded to average a career-high 41.2 mpg the rest of the way in that campaign.

There are many other examples of great players from bygone eras playing almost every game and averaging a high number of minutes while doing so. How is it possible that modern players who have the best possible diets, chartered flights and state of the art treatment/recovery options cannot play most if not all 82 games?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Wednesday, March 15, 2017 6:45:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

FWIW, the Spurs benched Leonard and Aldridge for legitimate reasons: Leonard was in the concussion protocol due to an elbow to the head in the previous game and Aldridge was held out due to irregular heartbeat - a condition he's had since his rookie season. Parker has a bad leg injury that really affects him.

As for the strategy of resting your stars, it was common practice at the end of the season after teams clinched a playoffs spot. Poppovich started the practice of resting his guys more than usual when they got into their mid thirties.

I'm not sure about resting healthy guys in their prime, but I suspect Coach Kerr benched his guys more of a protest than a face saying maneuver.

Also. The Spurs almost beat the Miami Heat that game Pop sent his 4 guys home. Heh.

 
At Wednesday, March 15, 2017 8:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree 100% with all your points, but I should perhaps also add that my impression is that many of the younger fans of the game are OK with such practices.

I've had that discussion online numerous times, expressing very similar opinion to yours, often with exactly the same arguments, and the reaction is invariably overwhelmingly negative.

Which, if I am allowed to speculate, hints at a generational behavioral issue much larger than the NBA itself, i.e. what is happening in the NBA is the result of deeper societal trends filtering upwards even to the very top of competitive sports. Of course, branding and public image are playing a major role, but I doubt they can explain it all.

Also, you are bringing up Wilt's 48.5 MPG in 1961-62, but those seasons are even more remarkable than the MPG alone reveals. The season back then ran from around the 20th of October to the middle of March, i.e. it was 3 weeks shorter than it is now, and accordingly it was much more compressed.

As a result Wilt (and all his teammates) played on some occasions 5 games in 5 nights, such as between January 17th and January 21st 1962:

http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/c/chambwi01/gamelog/1962/

And while extremes such as 5 in 5 or 8 in 9 were rare, 4 in 4 was a very common feature of the schedule throughout those years, for all teams.

It often happened being on the road too, and of course, there is a massive difference between travelling on buses, trains and commercial flights as a 7' human being and travelling on chartered flight with all sorts of conveniences.

The pace was much higher too and the main thing that tires you is running up and down the court, which hey had to do 40-50% more than today's players.

But no, today's players are totally not spoiled brats, not all...

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 1:27:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Great post David.

I like your points anon, I do think there has been a generational culture shift surrounding things like "work life balance." Players and people in general not only want to be successful, but they want to enjoy their success. I remember Derrick Rose at a press conference saying he didn't want to be hobbling around at the age of 35 or something similar to that. Whether he is right or wrong I think a lot of players share that sentiment.

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 2:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

I noted that Durant, Aldridge and Leonard missed the game for legitimate reasons.

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 2:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with your additional points that further emphasize what a travesty this was, particularly compared to how the old school players handled their business.

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 2:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Andrew:

If the players truly feel that their health is being adversely affected, then they should collectively bargain for a shorter season. Of course, in that circumstance they will also be paid less. Or, if they want the privilege of sitting out while healthy, then they should forfeit their game check for that particular game.

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 11:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is bad and I don't like it, but it makes some sense. However, fines, etc. should happen then.

We definitely don't want a shorter season, let's not advocate for that, not that you are necessarily. Even if we had a 72-game season, coaches like Pop would still probably rest players. I don't think it's necessarily the # of games, but the 4 games in 5 nights scenarios.

Wilt is a special case, but just think how much longer/better he would've been in the later stages of his career if he averaged just 38-40mpg every season, which is already a lot? No matter what you do, the body can only take so much.


 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 12:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I am not advocating a shorter season but the point of doing that would be to reduce the number of back to backs and four games in five nights.

If players want to sit when they are healthy then they should give up a game check each time. That is an alternative to shortening the season and having fewer game checks by that method.

The bottom line is that their paid time off is during the summer. Sitting out games while healthy is unpaid time off.

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 2:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's mostly the coaches having them sit than the players' choice. If the players' profession allows them to sit when healthy, then they should be allowed to. This is similar to most teachers who have summers off; they are still allowed personal days throughout the school year. The CBA is what needs to be changed then. I don't think it's a good practice to continue sitting healthy players(though I highly suspect no player is completely 100%), so the commissioner needs to do something as you alluded to. However, I don't think it's that big of an issue. We don't see it very often, and it doesn't seem like many coaches are doing it. The goal is to win a title. The coaches should be able to do what they think is best, and if that's sitting healthy players, so be it. But, if the nba implements consequences with some decisions, then I have no problem with that, and probably even encourage that.

 
At Thursday, March 16, 2017 4:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with David that a reduction in games played during the season won't happen because it's not in the players' (or owners') interest, at least in the short term.

But I do think it would lead to a better, more consistently high-quality product. We all see what happens during the second game of back-to-backs, and the stats back up the deterioration in play. Playoff basketball is so exciting, of course, because more is at stake, but also because the players can give full effort in a way I believe they simply cannot over an 82-game regular season. So the quality of the games is much higher.

As a fan, as much as I like tuning in to my favorite team 3 times a week or more, I think I'd prefer, say, a 70- or even 60-game season. I doubt I'd go to fewer games in person--I might go to more. And if the quality's better, the ratings should rise too.

I'm not arguing that such a move would pay off in the long term financially--only that it might. But it's all theoretical--won't happen. I'd be in favor, though.

 
At Friday, March 17, 2017 1:18:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I think there should be no fines whatsoever, but single requirement. To announce it 2-3 days before the game and refund season ticket owners such a game if they wish so. Thus fans would (or wouldn't) be punishing owners, and I don't think the latter would like that.

 
At Saturday, March 18, 2017 1:57:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

David,
While you did mention the Spurs had to hold out Aldridge and Leonard, as well as Parker, for legitimate reasons in passing, the rest of your article does not account for that at all.

You demanded the Spurs to refund the fans, since the game was at San Antonio, pay $250K, and the players give up their paycheck. Eh?

As usual, your criticisms are directed against the players, but leave the coaches scot-free. The only power a coach has is to start or bench a player. They should receive your criticism - not the players.

 

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