Like the NFL, the NBA is struggling to find a way to preserve the health of its players while also squeezing every last dollar out of them. That’s not easy.
The problem is simple: The NBA simply plays too many games, which leads to more wear and tear on the players and more susceptibility to injury. Now you’re thinking, well, the solution is simple, too: Don’t play so many games.
But of course it’s not that simple; for one thing you’re not raking in truckloads of cash from all those games that would be cut from the schedule. It would cost owners, players and everyone else associated with the league.
It’s all about money of course. Otherwise, why 82 games, plus preseason games, plus playoffs? Why a ridiculously long, nine-month season? As Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki said a couple of years ago, the league doesn’t need 82 games to whittle the competition down to 16 playoff teams.
The grueling schedule is wearing out players. It has to be. For years they have been entering the league as teenagers, which means considerably more games and more wear and tear over the course of a career.
LeBron James, who was 19 when he entered the league, is only 31 and he’s already played 1,082 games (nearly 45,000 minutes) in 12½ years.
He has already surpassed Larry Bird (1,061 total games) and Elgin Baylor (980) and soon will pass Jerry West (1,085), David Robinson (1,110) and Bill Russell (1,128 games), and he is closing in on Charles Barkley (1,196) and Michael Jordan (1,251).
There is an entire generation of players who began their NBA careers as teenagers who will surpass the greats of previous generations by a longshot in total games if they retire in their mid-30s. Carmelo Anthony, at 31, has played 939 games. Chris Bosh, also 31, has 975 games. Dwight Howard, who is 30, has 930 games. Chris Paul, who was an elderly 20 when he entered the league a decade ago, has logged 804 games.
Then there is an older generation of players who began NBA careers as teenagers years before the aforementioned class. Kevin Garnett, who at 39 is playing his 23rd season in the league, has 1,605 games of wear and tear on his body; Kobe Bryant, a mere 18 when he entered the NBA, has played in 1,538 games in 19-plus seasons.
That’s a lot of mileage. The league opens camp in mid-September, begins a preseason schedule of six to eight games in early October, starts the regular season at the end of October and staggers into the NBA Finals in late June.
Think about it: A woman can conceive, carry and birth a child in one NBA season.
Baseball endures a little more than eight months and 162 games, but it’s certainly not as hard on the body. The NHL runs 8½ months and the NFL about five months, counting playoffs.
It’s a war of attrition. Last season saw a number of the NBA's top players sidelined by injuries for at least 10 games — Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kevin Garnett, Kawhi Leonard, Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin, Amar'e Stoudemire, LeBron James.
Some players — among them, Griffin — have suggested cutting the schedule to 66 games. That will never happen because it would cost everyone so much money, and money rules.
Mark Cuban, the Mavericks owner, recently stated the NBA should continue to play the same number of games but add 10 days to the season to give players more rest between games.
Others have suggested reducing games from 48 minutes to 44 minutes, but LeBron James, who has averaged a whopping 39 minutes per game for a dozen years, says it’s not the minutes, but the number of games that takes its toll on players (good luck trying to understand the difference).
The league already has taken steps of its own. It has cut the number of preseason games, most back-to-back games and four-games-in-five-nights stretches. The league also added two days between NBA Finals games when the series changes locations.
Some have taken matters into their own hands. Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach, has been resting his top players for years, either one at a time or together, hoping to extend careers and promote fresh legs for the playoffs. Other coaches have followed his lead, but the league feels it shortchanges fans and TV networks when marquee players skip games. Nonetheless, when the Spurs met the Warriors in a highly anticipated matchup between the NBA’s top two teams, he rested Tim Duncan, his 39-year-old center. Some thought it might be a knee injury and others thought Popovich was simply giving him a day off.
In 2012 Popovich was fined $250,000 for sending his four best players home early from a road trip to rest them. Then-commissioner David Stern said that Popovich’s action “did a disservice to the league and our fans,” but it was not a disservice to his players. (And what does Popovich know; he’s only won six NBA titles in 17 years.)
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org