The NBA and its dilemma of resting players
You know times are good in the NBA when the two lead topics at the league’s Board of Governors meetings is player rest and the site of the 2019 All-Star Game. The labor issues have been resolved, but it’s up to the league to please its broadcast partners and corporate sponsors by having its best players play in nationally televised games.
That has become a major concern over the past few weeks as marquee teams such as the Cavaliers, Spurs, and Warriors have sat their best players during ABC’s Saturday night package. That time slot is critical to the NBA because once upon a time — perhaps five years ago — the NBA didn’t believe it could garner competitive ratings on Saturday nights; it has, which makes it critical to the league and the network that these games maintain good ratings.
Commissioner Adam Silver has stated player rest is the league’s No. 1 issue. Next year’s schedule will be more spread out, beginning a week earlier, which is a major development considering the NBA never wanted the beginning of its season to coincide with the World Series. But that still may not deter contenders from resting top players to preserve their bodies for the long season and postseason.
There isn’t much Silver can do to deter this besides adjusting the schedule and strongly suggesting top players participate in nationally televised games.
“I think on one hand we have the type of resting midseason, marquee games, national TV games, teams that are clearly in the hunt and are resting for strategic purposes to advance in the season,” Silver said after the Board of Governors meeting. “And then you have a different kind of resting where frankly teams are focused on rebuilding.
“I think that is also a serious issue for the league. It’s not a new issue, and the league, sometimes there are other advantages to that end-of-season resting. Sometimes there are opportunities to give other players on the roster additional minutes. But there’s no question there’s also a certain amount of jockeying that’s going on there as teams look to go into the draft.
“I think that the larger subject of the lottery, the odds for the lottery, how so-called lottery picks are protected, in certain cases you have lottery picks 1 through 3 protected. That is something that we discussed at our board meeting and agreed that we need to revisit it in a holistic way.”
The tanking issue has been prevalent for several years now, and teams such as the Lakers have been shutting down healthy veterans with the purpose of losing games. For example, Los Angeles told Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, each of whom signed four-year deals last summer, they would sit for the final month of the season.
In December 2012, then-commissioner David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for resting several top players for a TNT network game against LeBron James and the Heat. It was an unprecedented decision and one the league hasn’t repeated. Will it require a penalty such as heavy fine or even the loss of draft picks to prevent teams from pulling star players from high-profile games?
“I was at the league office when that fining occurred of the Spurs, and it was a different set of circumstances and largely went to whether appropriate notification had been given to the league and to the media in terms of that plan, resting for that night,” Silver said. “It was not a fine based just on the fact that players were being rested.
“That is a different subject, and it’s one we discussed with the owners. 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 that right balance between resting on one hand and obligations to fans and partners on the other.”
Basically Silver has to work with the teams and owners on this issue and can’t be as stringent as he would perhaps like. He doesn’t have any more right to order coaches to play certain players than he would forcing coaches to allocate certain amounts of playing time. That’s the coach’s decision and Silver does not want to interfere.
Still, coaches who want to rest players are going to test the limits of their power, so Silver needs to take action. He suggested devising a set of “guidelines” that may help eradicate the issue. Again, it is truly at the discretion of the coach.
“One of the things we did discuss at the meeting is potentially issuing guidelines, but again, not necessarily at the point of enforceable rules,” Silver said. “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.”
The effect of the adjusted schedule is yet to be seen but then again, this season was supposed to aid in keeping players more rested because of the extended All-Star break and the reduction of back-to-back sets. But what is hardly being considered is the difficulty of scheduling, especially since a handful of NBA teams share arenas with NHL teams, and arenas try to keep their calendars filled.
“I’m hopeful we can accomplish much of our goals by better scheduling,” Silver said. “The additional week I mentioned will make a huge difference in avoiding the four games out of five nights and reducing back-to-backs significantly. In addition, as teams have pointed out to us, when we do have marquee network games, we the league office can do a better job at looking at obviously the prior night in terms of back-to-back, but also the several days leading up to that game so that players are at peak performance for those games.”
Long gone are the days when games in the NBA Finals were played on back-to-day days.
“There are a lot of moving factors. I have enormous respect for our coaches and our GMs who are doing everything they can to win,” Silver said. “And I’m particularly sympathetic to our players because my sense is our players take the brunt of it, but they’re not the ones who are choosing to rest. Just so it’s clear, I haven’t heard of instances in the league where players are raising their hands and saying, ‘Coach, please rest me.’ This is team-led decisions.
“And part of the discussion we had at the board meeting was that therefore it’s not a function necessarily of owners calling coaches and saying, ‘I’m now going to dictate to you or micromanage how you coach the team or how you choose minutes for a particular player.’ But these need to be organizational decisions where there’s a fair balance between the competitive issues on one hand and the very real business issues on the other hand.”
One thing that will not happen is a reduction of the regular-season schedule. There have been suggestions that fewer games would enhance game performance. That could be true, but the league’s owners are not going to pay players the same salary for playing in fewer games. Any reduction in schedule — and team revenue — would mean a dramatic adjustment to the league’s salary structure.
“It was not discussed, reducing the number of regular-season games. I’d say because there is no support right now, hard support, for a belief that simply reducing the number of games will reduce the number of injuries,” Silver said. “As best we understand the issue right now, it’s a function of spacing games. It’s not the totality of games.”
LONG ROAD BACK
Sanders chose other interests
Larry Sanders said repeatedly a few years ago that he had more interests than just playing basketball. But he made those statements in the middle of a four-year, $44 million deal with the Bucks. Sanders grew apathetic toward basketball, and was angry at the league about its marijuana policy. So he left the NBA after playing parts of five seasons, derailing a promising career.
Nearly two years later, Sanders returned to the NBA last month with the Cavaliers. He played four minutes in Wednesday’s win over the Celtics. Sanders, 28,may never regain the form he showed as a rebounder and shot blocker in Milwaukee, but he’s at peace with his decision to pursue art and other off-court interests.
“I think it was gradual,” Sanders said of his desire to play again. “Basketball has always been a love of mine. It never really went away.”
Sanders was suspended multiple times for violating the league’s drug policy and is an advocate of the importance of marijuana use to ease pain for professional athletes. It appears that some professional sports are more open to listening to the benefits of marijuana use than they were five years ago.
“It’s true that there are stereotypes that are slowly getting torn down and people are starting to see past those stereotypes,” Sanders said. “We’re maturing as a people.”
The process of working back into NBA form has been arduous. Sanders worked out for the Celtics but they did not view him as a short-term solution, so they passed. He eventually signed with Cleveland in March and the Cavaliers sent him to the NBADL for seasoning. He averaged 6 points and 8 rebounds in four games for Canton.
“Just working, grinding, and playing a lot and just enjoying the process,” Sanders said. “I want to work my way to being reliable. I know I have to do my work on my end and work really hard to get myself back to a place where they can trust me. It’s all a progression and I’m looking forward to it.”
Latin American outreach on mark
The NBA continues to reach out to Latin America, building a strong bond with Spanish-speaking countries. It’s a brilliant strategy considering many of the league’s players are bilingual, including Celtics forward Al Horford, who was born in the Dominican Republic. Horford became popular in the Spanish-speaking community while with the Hawks. According to the NBA, it has 16 players from Spanish-speaking countries, including Horford and former Northeastern standout J.J. Barea.
Horford conducts interviews in Spanish as well as English, and he said he has noticed that more players are speaking Spanish on the court.
“I was shocked because the other night we were playing the Knicks,” Horford said. “And [Willy] Hernangomez was speaking with [Kristaps] Porzingis in Spanish and I kind of jumped in the conversation and tried to mess it up, but it’s just funny because you have a lot of guys that are speaking Spanish. Like Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, they speak French but they also speak perfect Spanish.
“It’s been very impressive to see the amount of guys [speak Spanish], and when Kobe [Bryant] was [playing], we’d speak Spanish all the time.”
The NBA has established offices in Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. Horford is encouraged by the growth and expansion of the league to Spanish-speaking countries.
“The NBA and I think they do a good job of that, they need to be aware of [the influx of Spanish-speaking players],” he said. “There are definitely a lot more opportunities because people are interested in basketball and it’s a fun time to follow the NBA.”
Horford arrived in Atlanta as a 21-year-old rookie and embraced his Latin heritage.
“I wasn’t really involved with the Dominican community but more with the Hispanic community,” Horford said. “Because there was a lot of Central Americans and South Americans [there]. It was just the community in general.”
Becoming a role model in the Hispanic community wasn’t immediate for Horford, who moved to the United States when he was 14.
“At the beginning not really because in the Latin countries, soccer is the popular sport,” he said. “Once they started to see that I was around and became a good player, the biggest thing was I started to take the time to spend time with their community and make a difference.”
Dominicans are the largest Hispanic group in Boston, and Horford, as he was in Atlanta, could develop into a role model for the community.
“My biggest message to the kids is even if you’re not going to play basketball, is to be positive, to chase for what they want and they believe,” he said. “That was always my biggest thing, to encourage people for the better.”
The Lakers’ recent three-game winning streak, including victories over playoff-bound Memphis and San Antonio, have complicated their quest for a top-three pick in the lottery, which would be protected. The Lakers will finish with one of the league’s three worst records, but they also moved 1½ games ahead of the Suns with three to play, dropping their odds of landing a top-three pick to less than 50 percent. If LA’s pick lands outside the top three, it goes to the 76ers . . . If the Celtics do get the No. 1 pick in the lottery via their 2013 deal with the Nets, the question is whether they should take UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Ball, who has declared for the draft and hired an agent, has intimated [along with his outspoken father] that he wants to play for the Lakers. But according to NBA insiders, Ball’s desire to play in LA won’t dissuade other clubs from drafting him. Meanwhile, the Celtics are going to compile a list of prospective draftees to work out, and there should be several interested parties who want to audition . . . A rather overlooked restricted free agent this summer will be Atlanta’s Tim Hardaway Jr., who has resurrected his career after his trade from the Knicks. Hardaway is averaging a career-best 14.5 points, mostly off the bench. Hardaway could step in as a starting shooting guard and will make considerably more than the $2.2 million he is earning this season. Of course, the Hawks’ biggest offseason issue will be the future of All-Star Paul Millsap, who has a player option on the final year of his contract that he is expected to reject.
Making the leap
On April 1, it was announced that former guard Tracy McGrady will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The 15-year veteran, who was the seventh high schooler drafted into the NBA, has the fifth-highest scoring average among players who did not play college basketball. Here’s a look: