The major issue in negotiations between the NBA’s players and owners over a new collective bargaining agreement is load management.
Owners are unhappy over the number of games missed by star players with no significant injuries. The designation “DNP-rest” was popularized by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich more than a decade ago and has become widespread.
Two days after the Lakers lost an overtime game to the Celtics in Boston in January, LeBron James and Anthony Davis were held out of the next game against the Nets. A night later, the two were fresh and ready for a game against the Knicks.
Players logging 75-plus games has become a rarity because sports science shows that occasional rest is beneficial for those logging major minutes, especially players relied upon to help make deep playoff runs. But load management has gone too far for some observers.
Commissioner Adam Silver doesn’t believe a reduction in the schedule is an answer because when the schedule was sliced to 72 games in 2020-21, load management was still a major factor.
Silver spent All-Star Weekend downplaying the issue, but for a league approaching a new television contract with player salaries soaring, accountability for games played is becoming a bigger demand, especially for fans that sometimes are paying to watch their favorite stars rock sweat suits on the bench.
“It is an ongoing conversation with the Players Association,” Silver said. “This isn’t a new issue. There’s nothing particularly happening this season that we haven’t seen happening over the last several seasons. I understand it from a fan standpoint that if you are particularly buying tickets to a particular game and that player isn’t playing. I don’t have a good answer for that other than this is a deep league with incredible competition.
“But the mind-set of our teams and players these days, it’s not just a player issue, is that they should be optimizing performance for the playoffs. The difficulty is fans of that team, of those teams, want them to do that, as well. Just think about some of the injuries we have now going into All-Star. I think for fans, if you had said that if Steph Curry had missed these two games at this point earlier in the season, if it was that formulaic and people said, therefore, he would be healthy today and he would be here, maybe people would take that trade-off. It’s something that, I don’t think we’re approaching it necessarily in an adversarial way with the Players Association. We’re working collectively together with our doctors, our data scientists, and trying to see if there’s an optimal way for player performance.”
During Silver’s tenure, the league has considerably reduced teams’ back-to-back games and eliminated four games in five nights. Road trips have been extended to lessen travel and the league’s calendar also is more drawn out. Also, the All-Star break has been extended two days, to a full week.
“If it means at some point we conclude that we’re better off elongating the schedule to reduce back-to-backs, for example, that’s something that’s worth looking at,” Silver said. “If we thought it made sense to reduce the number of games, we would. But there’s no data right now that suggests, as I said, based on some prior experiments or even as we look at the data over the course of the season and when players get injured, it isn’t — you would think that it would be the case that injuries would increase as the season goes on, and that’s not necessarily it either. It may be that there’s a fair degree of randomness in terms of when players get injured. I’ll say one thing, I know that talking to players, I think part of the realization these days in playing in this league is that this is a year-round pursuit now.”
Players Association president C.J. McCollum had an interesting take on load management.
“An 82-game schedule is obviously difficult on the mind and the body,” he said. “But that is what we signed up for. That’s the way the game has always been, historically. The players that have come before us have obviously played under less-fortunate circumstances and situations and have been able to get through 82-game seasons. I’m not going to speak on behalf of the union in this sense, I enjoy playing 82 games because it’s a mental challenge, a physical challenge, when you get to the playoffs. You get to see the cream rise to the top and that’s the cool part of our journey. It’s about figuring out ways to take better care of your body, utilizing the resources that you have so that you can perform throughout the 82-game season.”
McCollum then referenced Celtics forward Grant Williams, who played nearly the entire game against the Bucks Feb. 14, a game that went to overtime.
“Sitting next to a Boston Celtics player and he plays every night,” McCollum said. “[Forty-eight] minutes [against Milwaukee] and then a back-to-back to end the All-Star break, whereas other guys might have sat out, he was playing. I think that shows you the mentality of a lot of our players, do what you can to help empower our game and our sport and provide entertainment for our fans.”
McCollum’s comments were an indication that changes could be ahead. It’s become apparent the league will have to find a better balance between games played and player health and rest that will satisfy the fans who are paying exorbitant prices for tickets. And the league also may have to provide better examples that missing several games will increase performance and extend careers.
KING HOLDING COURT
James focused on the playoffs
LeBron James was the leader in All-Star voting, and those votes weren’t sentimental. At 38, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer remains a top-10 player with no signs of slowing down, except for during the All-Star Game. James played in the first half and then pulled himself out because of a bruised right hand. He was able to recover in time to play the Lakers’ next game, Thursday against the Warriors.
James was honored at halftime of the All-Star Game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City, flanked by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now No. 2 on the scoring list, and Karl Malone, who is third. While the question, “Who was greater, James or Michael Jordan?” might have been a no-brainer a decade ago, James has turned it into a serious debate, even for those who vividly remember Jordan’s career.
“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in to what I was able to accomplish,” James said. “I know the history of the game. I know there are some records and there are some accomplishments. There are some things that happened that people questioned when it happened years before that if they would ever see it again or if it would ever be eclipsed or if it would ever be taken over. I know the history of sport and professional sports that I’m a part of. So I understand the significance and how special that is.
“But as far as me individually, I don’t know. It’s hit me a couple of times. I was able to see that video and see my daughter’s reaction, and that was pretty cool. Just the warm reception that I’ve gotten from family and friends and peers and things of that nature, I understand that it was something that’s pretty cool and could stand for quite a while.”
James then quickly shifted focus to leading the Lakers to the playoffs after their horrible start. The Lakers are four games below .500 but just four games behind the fifth-place Clippers in the Western Conference. General manager Rob Pelinka revamped the roster by adding D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Mo Bamba. They’ve won three of their last four games, including two victories over the Warriors.
James said this final stretch is one of the most critical of his career.
“I want to make a push to make the playoffs,” he said. “I don’t want to see myself not being part of the postseason for two years straight. It’s just not part of my DNA. We’re talking about the record and things of that nature, and that’s all cool, but I’m more passionate about trying to make the postseason and give ourselves a chance to compete for another Larry O’Brien Trophy. That’s just who I am. That’s what I’m cut from.
“So I hope I can figure out a way to just make sure that I’m available on the floor every single night for these  games to give us a chance, give our group a chance to be able to compete every night and give ourselves a chance to win every night so we can give ourselves a chance to get into the postseason.”
There is no guarantee that James will lead the Lakers to the playoffs, but he does appear to have a few seasons left. James is not the athletic marvel of a decade ago, but he has become a more reliable shooter over the past few years. He also is one of the better playmakers of all time.
“My secret [to longevity]?” he said. “Well, if I tell you my secret, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. But I would say just dedicating myself to the game. I’ve never cheated the game. There’s a saying in sports called the ‘game gods,’ and when you cheat the game gods or you shortcut the game gods, karma comes with that, and they will figure out a way to get you back. I learned that at a very young age. I’ve never cheated the process of how great I can be or how I can maximize my potential or how I can try to be the best teammate or how I can put myself in a position that I can help our team win. So, I think that’s part of it. The game has given back to me, and I always just try to give everything I can back to the game.”
Celtics’ Williams a union leader
At 24, Celtics forward Grant Williams is the first vice president of the Players Association, and he participated in negotiations with the league on the next CBA. It’s no surprise that Williams has made an impact in the union. He’s been an active member since his rookie season, and he’s by far the best negotiator on the Celtics, as evidenced by his interactions with game officials.
“It’s honestly kind of crazy to think about when you’re a 12-year-old kid and you don’t actually know what goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “You think that it’s all basketball and all fun. You realize that it’s a business as well and you have to be prepared to negotiate and to have difficult discussions, and you also have to be able to speak with different players and to be able to form an opinion for yourself, be able to communicate, not only for your interests but the interests of others, and what you move on together with.”
Gone are the days when the union was run by aging veterans. Williams, who is likely to succeed C.J. McCollum as president in the coming years, is joined on the board by Celtics teammates Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon, as well as Jaren Jackson Jr., Bismack Biyombo, Garrett Temple, and Harrison Barnes.
This young board has the opportunity to negotiate the most-lucrative financial package for players in league history. Williams is excited about the process.
“For me, it’s always been about helping the players,” he said. “The reason why I first ran my rookie season was I wanted to serve and be of assistance to every single person in the league. That’s even my sentiment today. I feel like I’m taking a step up and having more responsibility, having more opportunity. It’s my job to use that to help not only those who are in the best positions but [those who] may not be in the league next year. That’s my big passion and that’s something I’ve been focused on ever since the day I stepped into the league.”
On the floor, Williams has been dealing with a right elbow injury that has required him wearing a sleeve. He said the All-Star break helped, but the injury could be a factor because it’s his shooting arm.
“I don’t believe there’s surgery down the line,” he said. “I pray not. Just got to continue to take care of it. This point of the year, everybody’s going through something. For me, it’s always been if I can’t move, then that’s when you see me not playing. But if I can wear a brace, I’ll be out there running around.”
The Celtics and the city of Boston could have some competition for the 2026 All-Star Game. Word out of this year’s All-Star Weekend is that Los Angeles and Milwaukee are preparing bids to host, with Miami considering a bid. While the NBA would welcome a Boston bid, the league also would prefer to place All-Star Games in warm-weather cities. The 2024 game is headed for Indianapolis. One plan is for Los Angeles to host in 2025, with Milwaukee and Boston hosting the next two, with no decision on which year for which city. Momentum for a Boston All-Star Game has increased over the past few years with the redesign of TD Garden, added hotel spaces, and the additions to the Seaport … The Wizards waived swingman Will Barton this past week, and the Celtics do have an open roster spot, but don’t expect them to jump at the opportunity. Barton’s numbers have declined sharply this season after eight years in Denver, especially from 2-point land, where he made his living with the Nuggets as a midrange specialist. Barton has shot 39.5 percent on twos this season, compared with 48.7 percent in his years with the Nuggets. Such a dive could be attributed to Barton losing a step at age 32. He has, however, shot 38 percent from the 3-point line, the second-best mark of his career. The question is, how much was the Wizards’ system at fault for his decline … The firing of coach Nate McMillan is an indictment of the chaos in the Hawks organization, as it was never able to build on its stunning Eastern Conference finals run two years ago. McMillan, a highly respected coach, couldn’t improve the Hawks defensively, forcing the club into constant shootouts. The trade rumors that have hovered over John Collins for nearly three years, and Trae Young’s clashes with coaches turned the Hawks into a dysfunctional franchise. The hope is former Jazz coach Quin Snyder, coming from his own dysfunctional situation, will help the Hawks get back into contention. But Snyder was never able to get Utah to even the conference finals in his eight seasons, despite the presence of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell.