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Monday, April 11, 2022

The NBA is (Usually) Fantastic (Except When Teams Bench Their Starters for the Season's Last Game)

All 30 NBA teams played on Sunday, but several of them "competed" at less than full strength. For example, the Phoenix Suns, who had already clinched home court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs, rested all five of their starters, and lost 116-109 to the Sacramento Kings. The Miami Heat, who had already clinched home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, rested all of their starters except Duncan Robinson (who only played 20 minutes), and lost 125-111 to the Orlando Magic. 

Also, the Boston Celtics clinched the Eastern Conference's second seed after routing the Memphis Grizzlies, 139-110. The Grizzlies did not play any of their regular starters against Boston. Prior to Boston's win, the Milwaukee Bucks effectively conceded the second seed to Boston by not playing any of their regular starters in a 133-115 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers--actually, one Bucks starter played for eight seconds: Jrue Holiday spent that much time on the court to receive credit for a game played (clinching a bonus of $306,000 based on playing in at least 67 games this season) before he committed an intentional foul and went to the bench, receiving high fives along the way. 

Holiday made much more money in those eight seconds than most Americans will ever make in a calendar year, and I think that when there is fan resentment about athletes' contracts this is not just about the amount of money that athletes make but also about the reality that athletes can get away with things that regular folks cannot do. How many of us can show up for work for eight seconds and not only receive credit for a full day's work but also get a bonus that--in theory--is supposed to encourage being available for a full day's work the majority of the time? Most of us understand and accept that athletes are paid a lot of money because they have special skills that are in high demand and that generate billions of dollars in revenue for the teams, the leagues, and the media outlets that cover their exploits, but when athletes are paid enormous sums for not playing that is when the customers become upset. Not only did Holiday get paid a lot to not play, but there are fans who paid a lot of money to see Holiday and other stars in person--and the same can be said for players such as Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons who receive tens of millions of dollars despite spending much--or, in Simmons' case, all--of the season getting paid to not play (exactly how much Simmons receives for sitting out this season will be the subject of arbitration).

I criticized Tony Dungy for shutting down his Indianapolis Colts after helping Reggie Wayne set a receiving record and I feel the same way about what Milwaukee Coach Mike Budenholzer did with Holiday and the Bucks. I often say that if you mess with the game then the game will mess with you. Dungy was by most accounts an excellent coach, but the only time he ever won a Super Bowl was the one year that he did not shut his team down at the end of the season. The Bucks had a very good 2021-22 season as the defending NBA champions, and it is beneath them to have healthy players sit out, particularly if this was done to manipulate the playoff seeding and avoid playing Brooklyn in the first round; the Bucks should leave that kind of nonsense to non-champions who lack confidence and think that they need to do shady things to win a title.

The large number of teams resting some or all of their regular starters is a bad look for the NBA for several reasons: 

1) Fans who paid full price for tickets were ripped off. For some fans, this may have been their only opportunity to see certain star players in person. Yes, when you buy a ticket there is a risk that a player may be injured, but there should not be a risk that healthy players just sit out.

2) The NBA, like most sports leagues, has become deeply intertwined with sports betting. Healthy players sitting out not only affect the outcome (and point spread) of one particular game, but can have implications for over/under propositions for season win totals, not to mention changing playoff matchups, and changing who has home court advantage in the playoffs.

3) When starting players sit, the quality of the overall product is diminished, and the meaningfulness of statistics is diluted: players who otherwise play very little or who don't even play at all get to rack up big scoring games or triple doubles or other numbers that prove little about those players' value but become part of the permanent statistical history of the league.

4) The perception is created that certain teams lost intentionally to alter playoff positioning. This is particularly notable regarding Milwaukee; last season, I praised the Bucks for not tanking or doing load management to avoid a playoff matchup with the Miami Heat, and karma proved to be on the Bucks' side as they not only beat the Heat but went on to win the NBA title. On Sunday, it sure looked like the Bucks did everything that they could do to avoid a first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, who seem on track to get the seventh seed. By losing, the Bucks dropped to third place and a much easier matchup with the sixth seeded Chicago Bulls. I have great respect for Giannis Antetokounmpo, but I do not respect what the Bucks did on Sunday, and I wonder if he supported what the Bucks did (I doubt that he would criticize Budenholzer publicly, but I wonder if deep down this sat well with Antetokounmpo). Charles Barkley made an interesting point: even if the Bucks are happy about getting their desired first round matchup, being the third seed means that they will not have home court advantage in the second round if things go according to form; resting their starters in game 82 may not look so smart if/when Milwaukee plays game seven of the second round in Boston.

It used to be a badge of honor to play all 82 games, or at least to play as many games as possible. I don't know if teams sat out players on Sunday to manipulate the standings, to try to avoid injuries, or for other reasons, but it is a shame that playing every game as hard as you can is no longer considered a worthy goal. Whether you look at big guys banging in the paint, "midsize" high flyers, or even tiny point guards, the legendary players of the past only missed games if they had legitimate injuries. Here are some examples: Wilt Chamberlain not only rarely missed a game--other than the 1969-70 season, when he tore up his knee but still returned in time to lead the L.A. Lakers to the NBA Finals--but he averaged a record 45.8 mpg during his career, meaning that he played nearly every minute in each game that he played. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played all 82 games in five of his 20 seasons, and he played at least 80 games in 11 seasons. Julius Erving played all 84 games in four of his five ABA seasons, he played all 82 games in two NBA seasons, and he played at least 78 games in 10 of his 16 professional seasons. Michael Jordan played all 82 games in nine of his 14 full seasons (not counting his 17 game 1994-95 comeback), including 2002-03 when he was 39 years old. Karl Malone played all 82 games in 10 of his 19 seasons. John Stockton played all 82 games in 16 of his 19 seasons. Kobe Bryant battled many injuries during his career, yet he still played all 82 games in four of his 20 seasons, he played all 50 games in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, and he played at least 78 games in eight of his seasons. The NBA regular season MVP played in at least 81 games in 15 of the 16 seasons from 1967-82. Other than the anomaly of Bill Walton playing just 58 games in his 1978 MVP season, no MVP played fewer than 77 games from 1967-1992. 

The creation of the Play-In Tournament was supposed to disincentivize tanking games and resting players, but we are seeing that when organizations are determined to do such things they find ways to do so. The last day of the regular season was supposed to be dramatic and exciting with all 30 teams in action, but instead it had the feel and flavor of preseason even though playoff seeding was at stake: when teams just concede playoff seeding, why would fans be excited about such games?

The NBA's third Play-In Tournament begins on Tuesday night with the eighth seeded teams in each conference visiting the seventh seeded teams in each conference. The winners of those game will enter the playoffs as the seventh seeded teams, while the losers of those games will play the losers of the Wednesday games pitting the ninth seeded teams versus the tenth seeded teams; the losers of the Wednesday games are eliminated, while the winners of the second Play-In Tournament games will receive the eighth seeds.

Here are my Play-In Tournament predictions:

1) The Brooklyn Nets defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday to claim the Eastern Conference's seventh seed.

2) The L.A. Clippers defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday to claim the Western Conference's seventh seed.

3) The Atlanta Hawks defeat the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, and the New Orleans Pelicans defeat the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.

4) The Atlanta Hawks defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday to claim the Eastern Conference's eighth seed, and the Minnesota Timberwolves defeat the New Orleans Pelicans to claim the Western Conference's eighth seed.

Barring injuries, suspensions, or some other unexpected development, Brooklyn is the only Play-In Tournament team that has a realistic chance of winning a playoff series.

I have already explained why I am not a fan of the Play-In Tournament. I will watch the games because I am a dedicated NBA fan/analyst, but I am much more interested in the playoffs than in games that the NBA does not take seriously as anything other than a way to generate more TV revenue, more ticketing revenue, and (presumably) more marketing revenue. NBA Play-In Tournament statistics do not count as either regular season statistics or playoff statistics, so Jayson Tatum's 50 point game and LeBron James' triple double during the 2021 Play-In Tournament never happened officially (if LeBron James' body gives out when he is just a few points away from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular season scoring record, maybe the NBA will retroactively count James' Play-In Tournament points as regular season points).

The NBA seems to consider the Play-In Tournament to be a big success, but I wonder how the league will feel if the Nets lose on buzzer beaters on both Tuesday and Friday, resulting in the playoffs featuring a limited and/or injury-riddled team with no chance of advancing as opposed to featuring a team led by former NBA champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Such a scenario may not happen this year, but if the NBA makes the Play-In Tournament a permanent fixture (which seems to already be the case) then it will happen someday, and the playoffs will be less compelling as a result. Other than fans of the Cavaliers and any other team that may face the Nets this week, NBA fans are hoping to see the Nets face off against the Celtics in the first round.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 AM



At Monday, April 11, 2022 1:52:00 PM, Anonymous Cyber said...

For an era that many people mistakenly call the most talented because of the high points total and per possession scoring I find it interesting how scoring goes up on a day like Sunday where the scores were mostly in the 120s despite several teams barely playing starters and most everyone playing for little incentive

I remember during that one month earlier this season when several players were unable to play and g-leaguers were getting playing time seeing the scores go up (unfortunately the league also basically gave up on that rule change). Most talented offensive era or easiest offensive era / worst defense era? I lean more towards the latter. More impressed with what I saw in earlier periods when defense was better emphasized and guys were playing more games/minutes than they are now

At Monday, April 11, 2022 10:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree (1) that this is not the most talented era in basketball history and (2) rules changes over at least the past 15 years or so have made the game easier for offensive players/more challenging for defensive players. The greatest players in any era would be great in every era, but I don't think that a one to one comparison of numbers across eras is always meaningful.

At Tuesday, April 12, 2022 1:33:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Usually, I would wait until you posted your picks for the 2022 Playoffs, but here goes:

The play-in tournaments will not be much of a factor cuz none of them will impact the first round... other than a close hard fought 7 game deathmatch between the Nets and the Celtics.

The rest will be easy pickings:

Suns fry the Clippers/T-woofs in four. They won't lose again until the Eastern conference. They have the "look." Nobody will slow them down.

Grizzlies steamroll the T-woofs/Clippers in 6. I like them to advance to the Conference finals. Their only weakness is a general lack of playoff experience.

Heat sizzle the Hawks in 5.

Sixers will fall flat on their faces, thanks to a swarming Raptors defense - great shades of the Sonics-Rockets battles in the 90s!

Nuggets upset the brittle Warriors in 6. Jokic is nigh unstoppable these days.

Bucks sweep the crumbling Bulls, and head back to the Eastern conference finals. They will have to get by either the Celtics or the Nets in the semis.

Mavericks dust the Jazz in 6. Doncic advances for the first time in his career. But he won't solve the Suns in the semis.

So it's looking like the Suns will finish what they failed in 2021.

At Tuesday, April 12, 2022 6:16:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...


I wanted to say I agree with you that the Bucks apparently choosing to avoid a first-round matchup with the Nets is disappointing and seemingly out of character for the team. I have never understood the fixation among fans, analysts, and even NBA players and coaches with avoiding certain playoff teams they deem a "bad matchup". If you think a certain team poses that much of a threat to you from some vague personnel mitch-match, they are a) probably actually just a better team than yours and b) you will also probably have to inevitably face them in a series down the line anyway, so why not get it over with sooner rather than later?

The best overall team generally wins in the NBA. You can't mask that by trying to get some agreeable matchup situation at every stage in the playoffs.

At Tuesday, April 12, 2022 10:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The NBA does not count the Play-In Tournament games as regular season games or as playoff games, so I write about the Play-In Tournament but don't consider it to be part of the regular season or the playoffs; I will post my playoff predictions after the Play-In Tournament concludes.

At Tuesday, April 12, 2022 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, what the Bucks did is both disappointing and out of character. I hate tanking and I hate manipulating playoff seedings. Players and teams should play their best at all times and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe that is not considered a realistic take in today's world, but I'll stand by that regardless of what anyone else says or does.

At Thursday, April 14, 2022 3:28:00 AM, Anonymous Kenny said...

Play-in points should be added to those scored in preseason games to be able to realize, after computing reg. season and playoffs, the TOTAL points scored by a basketball player in NBA games. All of those games are official ones, officiated, under NBA rules and with paying customers in the stands. By adding those numbers, a fan could know the total points scored by any player during his stint as a pro. In a time of gurus, advanced stats, and plenty of numbers, that could be interesting to know. What do you think?

At Thursday, April 14, 2022 4:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Preseason games are exhibition games that do not count in the regular season or playoff standings, and often include players who never play in a regular season or playoff game. I strongly oppose mixing preseason statistics with regular season, playoff, or Play-In statistics.

The play-in games matter because they determine four of the 16 playoff slots. The NBA should decide whether these count as "extra" regular season games, "extra" playoff games, or as their own separate category, but the numbers from the Play-In games should not just disappear. The simplest solution may be to just create another category; the NBA Record Book has separate categories for regular season, playoffs, Finals, and All-Star Games, so Play-In Tournament could be a new category.


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