Friday, March 31, 2017

Give It A Rest


  In 2014, the NBA (National Basketball Association) signed a 9 year television deal with Turner Sports and ABC/ESPN worth 24 BILLION DOLLARS, which represented nearly a tripling of the previous television deal. The ‘raise’ was well-deserved since the NBA is globally popular, televised sports is one of the few ways television networks can separate themselves from new internet competitors like Netflix and Amazon, and the NBA’s 82 game schedule plus playoffs provide plenty of content.

  Last season ABC introduced a Saturday night prime-time game of the week that featured the top teams in the league over the last two months of the season. The broadcast was well received and the games were generally top notch with the highlight being a Warriors-Thunder classic won on MVP Steph Curry’s buzzer beating shot in overtime. The game was the highest rated regular season NBA game not held on Christmas Day.

  This year the Saturday night prime telecasts kicked off in January with the games serving up a heavy dose of the top teams in the league (the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs who have won the last three championships). On February 11th, a highly publicized matchup between the Warriors and Spurs was on the prime time schedule. The Spurs top two players were ruled out when all-star Kawhi Leonard suffered a concussion during the week and former all-star Lamarcus Aldridge was ruled out with a heart arrhythmia. The Warriors were in the middle of a long road trip and had played an overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves the night before the game all in the middle of their worst stretch of basketball in three years after losing all-star Kevin Durant to a strained knee. The Warriors decided to rest their other three all-stars Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson for the Spurs game. The game was a prime time nightmare with both teams playing backups while the ABC cameras seemed to feature forlorn San Antonio children wearing Stephen Curry jerseys to a game that their hero was skipping.

  The Warriors were heavily criticized for the decision and rebutted the criticism by stating that if the NBA wanted to have their stars available for a big prime time game they should have arranged for it to not be in the middle of a long road trip and part of back to back games. That seemed to deflect much of the criticism from the team to the league.

  The very next Saturday the prime time game had the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Cavaliers were scheduled to play in Los Angeles on Sunday night against the Lakers and decided to rest their top three players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love for the prime time game and play them on Sunday against the hapless Lakers. The Cavalier backups were blown out by the Clippers and squeaked by the Lakers the next night. The two spoiled prime time games were a source of embarrassment for the league and ABC.

  Five years ago, the San Antonio Spurs were fined a quarter of a million dollars for resting four of their top players for a game against then champion Miami Heat in a nationally televised Thursday night game (the Spurs came within a few shots of winning the game anyway). Five years later Spurs coach Greg Popovich is viewed as a visionary by being willing to sacrifice a game or two to rest his players and develop his reserves. Today many NBA basketball teams monitor their players for signs of stress and will give a player a night off in the belief that it will prevent injuries. But the money is much greater now – I doubt ESPN/ABC was thrilled with having two marquee Saturday Night games relegated to ‘Must NOT See TV’. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver didn’t fine the teams but instead wrote a letter to the team owners to ask that they have more of a hand in the decisions to rest star players for nationally televised games.

  The Warriors and the Cavaliers had much the same reasons for resting their players: the players were on back to back games and being injury free and rested for the playoffs in April trumps any regular season game. The Warriors know this especially well as they set a league record of 73 wins last year but had that effort expended to set the record questioned when they failed to win the championship. The NBA allows teams to put patches of their uniforms to represent their teams championships and discussions of great players seem to always turn to how many championships a player won to somehow validate their greatness. The culture the NBA has built or allowed to be built clearly values championships over regular season wins and it seems hypocritical to try to override a team’s desire to rest some players anytime they see fit, nationally televised game or not.

  There were quite a few suggestions offered on how to prevent this situation of resting players for prime-time games or on a superstar’s single visit to a city. One suggestion was to ruin resting player’s statistical averages by counting a ‘rest’ game as a game played with no points, rebounds, or assists. Other suggestions ranged from fining the team the amount of the player’s salary to suspending the resting player for a number of games. None of these solutions will ever work because if they are enacted every team will stop using the term rest and simply sit their star players for a ‘tweaked knee’ or a ’24 hour flu’.

  I was disappointed at the ruination of the two prime time games because I wanted to see the games and I wanted to bet on the games. Once the possibility of resting players was raised the games came off the board at the Bovada betting site. The problem of resting players can be eased by making sure teams playing nationally televised games have no games the day before and after the games but teams will still rest players or hold them out of big games. Kevin Durant had one of the better takes on the subject when he told ESPN "The truth about it is, it's only for a couple of players in the league...They don't care if the 13th man on the bench rest. It's only for like LeBron [James], Steph [Curry], [James] Harden, Russell [Westbrook]. It's only for like five players, so you want a rule just for those five players?" Thar's very true - the top players are being targeted because that's who the fans want to see when they tune into a nationally televised game or pay for a ticket to a game. And there are already rules made just for these players to allow them to get higher salaries and longer contracts than the 13th man on the bench. There are benefits of being a star player and one of the drawbacks is that the fans and television executives expect them to be playing.

  Based on Durant's comments I do have sort of a solution to the problem. The NBA collective bargaining agreement with the players slots certain players as ‘max contract’ players meaning these players receive the maximum allowable salary under the current rules. Almost every team has 1 max contract player and most have more than 1. The next collective bargaining agreement should stipulate that ‘max contract’ players cannot play more home games than road games in a season. The ‘max contract’ players are the ones that the fans pay to see and if such a player misses a road game they should be held out of a home game also. This wouldn’t eliminate the problem but I believe it would make teams have to plan their rest for their star players more carefully and possible rest their stars for home games knowing that a road game missed for ‘rest’ will sit the player out for an additional game in front of the home town fans as well.